International Conference on War-Affected Children
Winnipeg, 13 September 2000
Minister Axworthy, Minister Minna, Distinguished Delegates:
I am very pleased to be here as we begin what I have every reason to hope will be a ground-breaking conference -- one that will set a new agenda for addressing the horrific plight of children in armed conflict.
I want to thank the Government of Canada for making UNICEF the co-host of the Experts’ Meeting of the Conference, which has brought together so diverse and knowledgeable a group.
And I also want to say how excited I am that the Conference is being joined by 50 young people from Canada and from war-affected countries. Their presence is an affirmation of the right of all children and young people to participate and to express themselves freely in matters that affect them, as proclaimed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I think I can speak for all of us in saying how delighted we are that they are a part of this Conference -- and that we look forward to hearing their ideas and proposals.
Distinguished Delegates, this Conference is convening at a pivotal moment. As you know, the Security Council recently approved its second Resolution on children and conflict in less than a year -- and in so doing, the Council has emphatically elevated the issue to a central position on the UN’s peace and security agenda.
Moreover, I am pleased to note that our deliberations here in Winnipeg will be informed and immeasurably enriched by a new report by Graça Machel on The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.
It is a document that reviews the progress made and obstacles encountered since 1996, when the first, definitive Machel Report was submitted to the General Assembly -- a landmark document that not only raised global awareness, but helped pave the way for steps to halt the appalling suffering that is still endured by so many children in so many countries.
Graça Machel deserves enormous credit for her original study and recommendations and her tireless advocacy since then to promote their implementation. And it will come as no surprise to any of you to know that this latest Report is also a superb document, full of wise and insightful analysis. I commend it to you and urge you to ensure that, in your own deliberations, you include as many of its recommendations as possible.
So what does UNICEF want to see out of this Experts’ meeting? What are our hopes and expectations?
Madame Minister, on the ground, UNICEF is at work in over 25 war-affected countries, collaborating closely with partners like OCHA, WFP, UNHCR and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights -- as well as with numerous NGOs, many of which are represented here today. Our work is aimed at restarting schools, providing educational materials, reuniting children and families, supplying drugs and vaccines, supporting the traumatized, operating clinics and hospitals, digging wells, campaigning against recruitment, and promoting demobilization and disarmament.
Through these and other activities, UNICEF and its partners strive to promote the values and principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments. This involves advocating the cause of child rights on a day-by-day basis -- with government officials, with insurgents, with commanders, civil society representatives, religious leaders, teachers, health workers, women’s leaders -- and with children and youth themselves.
But as our staff in the field regularly note, many of the aspirations proclaimed in the CRC and in other international standards remain unfulfilled. Day after day, we receive reports from the field of sickness and malnutrition; of exploitation and rape; of killings and indiscriminate bombings; of recruitment and abductions.
In my own visits this year to East and West Timor, to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to Burundi, I have seen for myself the devastating physical and psychological effects that war has on children of all ages.
What we hope from this meeting is that its participants -- distinguished experts in the field of children and armed conflict -- will address the crisis in strong and inspiring ways -- and that you find ways to ensure that your words become deeds, deeds that make a real difference to the lives of children.
Over the years, conferences the world over have made promises to children. Promises, made in good faith, to ease suffering and end exploitation -- and to protect children from the loss of the childhood, from rape and mutilation and recruitment as child soldiers.
Yet time and time again -- in such places as Rwanda, in Sierra Leone, in Sudan, in Afghanistan, in Kosovo and East Timor -- cruelty and indifference has prevailed.
Distinguished Delegates, we need to produce recommendations on small arms and landmines and child soldiers. We must address gender concerns and IDPs and the peace and security agenda. We need to talk of accountability and impunity and training. And we must find effective ways to promote peace-building and conflict prevention.
There must be a recognition that, when it comes to the suffering of children in conflict areas, there are no innocent bystanders. All of us are responsible -- and the commitments and recommendations that you will produce here in Winnipeg must be addressed to all sectors of society: to governments, to rebel groups, to the private sector, civil society, and to UN and regional organizations.
Let me quickly highlight three key ideas that UNICEF hopes to see reflected in the outcome of this Experts’ meeting -- and in the outcome of this Winnipeg Conference as a whole:
First, we all recognize and accept that too many of the promises made to children have been broken and have not been fulfilled and respected. It is time to fix those promises. It is time to usher in the "era of application" that the Secretary-General Kofi Annan referred to in his recent Report to the Security Council on children. And we can only do this by focusing relentlessly on all those who violate children’s rights or collude in such violations.
Whether they be governments or rebel groups, manufacturers of, or dealers in, weapons of war, unscrupulous businessmen -- all of them must be made to feel the repugnance of civilized people everywhere. They must be shamed, disgraced and held accountable for their actions.
Moreover, we must ensure that our recommendations here are specific, concrete, action-oriented -- and rooted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international standards.
Let me give you an example. We all know that we must eliminate the appalling practice of recruiting children. But it is not enough to call on parties to conflict not to recruit children. We must also identify concrete actions.
These include ensuring that all States ratify the Optional Protocol specifying 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment; that Governments forego from selling arms to any combatants who recruit children; that the Security Council impose arms embargoes on those who recruit children; that NGOs monitor the behaviour of parties to conflict and report on incidents of recruitment; that donors and humanitarian agencies support education and vocational training to youth in conflict zones to provide an alternative to recruitment; and that companies develop voluntary codes of conduct concerning trade, including in armaments and natural resources, with parties to conflicts who are responsible for gross violations of child rights.
These are just examples but provide an idea of what we need to do to set a concrete agenda out of this Experts’ meeting.
Second point: For a long time, education received little attention from the humanitarian community. It was not seen as a life-saving initiative like health and nutritional rehabilitation. But we now recognize the crucial importance of education to child survival and development -- even in the midst of conflict.
Education provides an environment of relative stability and normalcy for children amid the instability and unpredictability of war.
It provides them with an opportunity to learn so that they have a chance to gain at least some of the most basic skills that will allow them to work, to contribute to society and in time to support their own families. And education offers an alternative to recruitment.
So I very much hope that the Conference will strongly endorse the pivotal role of education -- and that Governments will respond to this with more support.
And in this connection, let me say how grateful we are to the Government of Canada for its assistance, which has included Canadian $700,000 for UNICEF child-protection programmes in Sierra Leone.
I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Minister Axworthy for his many contributions to the cause of human security, which he has championed on behalf of Canada in the Security Council and elsewhere through sheer drive and conviction.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, Graça Machel’s Report makes some vitally important recommendations, recommendations that I urge you to endorse and support. Among the issues that she raises is that of HIV/AIDS.
As the Report says, and I quote: "Over the past five years, HIV/AIDS has become the single most powerful new factor compounding the dangers for children in a conflict. The chaotic and brutal circumstances of war aggravate all of the factors that fuel the HIV/AIDS pandemic."
All of the Report’s recommendations on this issue are important. But I do want to highlight one since it also links to my previous point on education -- "Schools and educational systems should be the centrepiece for HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and care during emergencies, including expanded life skills curricula that offer nutritional support, hygiene and other domestic survival skills."
Madame Minister, on Friday the Olympic Games will open in Sydney, Australia. For the next few weeks we will admire great sporting feats -- and in that sense the modern Games are reminiscent of ancient Games in Greece. But the ancient Games had a feature we need to be reminded of -- and that is that, for the duration of the Games, a state of truce was declared. Wars came to a halt.
The Olympics therefore not only represented the celebration of great sporting achievement -- but also the recognition of the incompatibility of war and suffering with a great celebration of human achievement.
Lo these many centuries later, the world seems to have gone backwards. For on every day of the 2000 Olympics, with every gold medal won, we will know that more children will be killed, maimed, abducted, raped, recruited and hurt.
I am not for a minute suggesting that we should be satisfied if children’s rights in conflict zones were respected for only a few weeks every four years. Child rights must be respected -- and by that I mean all rights, for all children everywhere, all the time.
But the Olympic ideal and traditions remind us is that we must find ways to protect children from the pernicious effects of conflict. And if it is possible, as we know from ancient history, to end war for the sake of a sporting event, then surely our humanity obliges us to find better ways to protect our children.
Minister Minna, Distinguished Delegates: The final declaration from this meeting will be a major document. It will inform and motivate the Ministerial meeting that is to follow this meeting. It will also provide a substantive agenda for the General Assembly’s Special Session for Children in September 2001. But more important, it will provide a strategy and direction for what we do for -- and with -- war-affected children on the ground, which is where we can truly make a difference.
And so I urge all of you to be innovative. To reject the status quo. To be determined and fearless and unafraid to dream. To show leadership by creating a new consensus. And in this way, I assure you that we will shape and implement a new agenda, one that will create a better future for children the world over.