On the Catastrophe in Kosovo
Geneva, Switzerland, 6 April 1999
Madame Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Representatives: We are gathered at a time of staggering hardship in Europe. Indeed, the continuing humanitarian catastrophe in the Balkans is unmatched in scale by anything there since the aftermath of World War II – the conflagration whose horrors led directly to the United Nations, and to a UN organisation dedicated to children.
Then – as now – the suffering of children and women is disproportionate and immense. It is even more so in our time, given the targeting and slaughter of civilian populations that increasingly characterizes the pattern of armed conflict – including the appalling situation that we now face in Kosovo.
In a region already convulsed by ferocious ethnic conflict since 1991, children and women account for 8 out of 10 civilians caught up in the current crisis. In the four countries of the Balkans, as many as a quarter of a million children are affected.
I was watching television the other night, and suddenly there on the screen was the anguished face of a child – a girl, no more than 6 or 7 – tearfully describing how her father had been left behind in the merciless evacuation.
And as she spoke, the grandmother beside her was motioning hopelessly to the interviewer something that the child had yet to know: that her father had not merely been left behind, but was dead.
It was a moment that seemed to me a perfect distillation of the overwhelming misery of the situation in Kosovo. What will it take for a child to recover from such a trauma? How many lifetimes before her psyche is made whole again? And how many scenes of equivalent horror are being played out elsewhere in the Balkans?
Madame Chairman, if ever a conflict had a human face – scarred, tortured, but still human – it is this one. These human beings, transformed overnight into refugees and the internally displaced, defy the anonymity of numbers. They are why the whole world is engaged, why the UN is engaged, why UNICEF is engaged. And they are why we are here today.
We have all seen the reports from Kosovo: Hundreds of thousands of people wrenched from their homes; communities pillaged and burned; untold numbers of civilians shelled, assaulted and summarily killed.
For many of the displaced, it is a horrendously familiar story.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is growing worse by the day. The latest reports suggest that increasing numbers of children are being separated from their families as they make the desperate crossing from Kosovo.
The physical and psychological effects of this forced flight on children are in themselves potentially devastating.
There is also the rapidly escalating need for sanctuary and sustenance for close to a half a million people who are still on the move.
And there is an urgent need for neighboring governments to allow full access for humanitarian efforts – this at a time when the refugee crisis is making these governments fear for the welfare of their own children, not to mention political stability.
Madame Chairman, it is worth repeating that in all our efforts to protect children in armed conflict, we are guided by the standards and norms embodied in international human rights instruments and humanitarian law. And indeed, the world has a consolidated framework for that objective in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document that stands not only as history’s most universally embraced human rights treaty, but the only one that explicitly incorporates humanitarian law.
In its humanitarian efforts in the Balkans, UNICEF is working hand in hand with the lead UN agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to ensure the most comprehensive and humane response possible.
This effort includes UNICEF’s initial appeal for $13.8 million for the next three months, a sum that may seem modest, but will go far to address the critical needs of women and children while helping to bolster the local capacities of the receiving countries. This figure differs from that in the Donor Alert which does not include the education and psychosocial components. Pledges for about $5 million have been received from Governments and UNICEF National Committees, for which we are extremely grateful.
For now and in the short term, UNICEF is focusing on the following principal objectives in the Kosovo crisis:
Providing immediate relief for children and women in form of clothing, blankets and shelter materials;
Protecting health through essential drugs, particularly against acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea, and through food supplements for young children;
Ensuring the safety of drinking water supplies;
Immunising children on arrival, an urgent objective given the fact that more that half of Kosovar children under the age of 5 have not been fully immunised in the recent year because of the ongoing conflict – and unimmunised children could present an unwitting health threat to countries of refuge.
As of today, UNICEF has delivered, or will deliver during this week, in the region of 100 MT of relief items, essential drugs and vaccines with a value of more than $1.7 million.
There is also a need to support local services for refugees and internally displaced people in the four countries of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, where the influx is exerting a short- and medium-term burden on already impoverished social services.
At the same time, we must also see to it that the right of children to intellectual growth be quickly assured through education and play as well as their need for stabilisation and normalisation.
Indeed, UNICEF will support the enrolment of children in schools in their places of refuge, even if only for days or weeks, in an effort to create some normalcy for traumatised children whose world has been turned upside down.
Madame Chairman, flagrant violations of human rights and humanitarian law – whether by direct attack, silent starvation or forcible displacement – are not experiences that children easily grow out of.
We know from long experience that the trauma of war causes wounds in children that fester for generations.
That is why, Madam Chairman, it is folly to think that any sustained, long-term effort to promote peace and resolve conflict can possibly succeed unless children are recognised as a distinct and priority concern.
This includes the situation of children in Central Serbia and Vojvodina Province, which have also been affected in the short term because of the ongoing military operations, and because of the medium-term disruption of social services.
Madam Chairman, the 191 States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child include the four countries of the former Yugoslavia, and UNICEF calls on those Governments to ensure that children are not discriminated against because of ethnicity, in line with the Convention’s requirement that States Parties “shall respect and ensure the rights of each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind.” At the same time, Madame Chairman, international lawlessness must not be tolerated. In this connection, UNICEF vigorously supports the strict enforcement of justice and punishment for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity wherever they occur – and stresses the need for full access to protect children in all locations and on all sides of this conflict.
Finally, UNICEF stresses the urgency for humanitarian support to prevent the needless and continued suffering of children and women in this unfolding situation. This support – and that of all of the humanitarian agencies – must be carried out while assuring the security of humanitarian workers in the field.
In all this, UNICEF’s interventions are aimed at addressing urgent new needs in a flexible way, and at re-directing support to places of origin, as soon as conditions for voluntary return prevail. UNICEF’s mission, humanitarian in nature, is to reduce the suffering –and to move as quickly as possible to reconstruction and development.
Our hope is for a process that leads to an early, comprehensive peace – and to a better future for all the children of the region, regardless of ethnicity or religion. And that task, Distinguished Representatives, lies heavily on the shoulders of your Governments.