Announcing the UNICEF Airlift of Child Soldiers from Sudan Combat Zones
Geneva, Tuesday 27 February 2001
Good Morning ladies and gentlemen.
Last October I visited Sudan for the launch of an important polio immunization campaign. At that time, I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, who were observing a cease-fire to allow the polio immunizations to go forward.
I met with Commander Salva Kiir Mayardit, who handed me a letter pledging to UNICEF that all children under the age of 18 would be demobilized from the ranks of the SPLA.
Today I have the tremendous pleasure of announcing a major step toward the fulfillment of that pledge.
Beginning this past Friday and continuing over the past four days, UNICEF has been engaged in the largest airlift of its kind ever attempted in southern Sudan. As of this morning, more than 2,600 demobilized child soldiers had been evacuated from the combat zone of Bahr el Gazal to a safe area behind the lines of conflict.
This airlift, carried out with the invaluable support of the World Food Programme, involved ferrying 100 children at a time on a pair of Buffalo aircraft operated by WFP as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan. As we speak, the evacuation is just winding down.
The children range in age from 8 to 18. They are being cared for in reception centers organized by UNICEF and a host of local and international NGOs. Upon arrival each child is being given a full health check and other basic care. These reception centres will be a temporary home for these children.
Over the next four to eight months, UNICEF and its partners - including local authorities in southern Sudan - will be engaged in a thorough family tracing process with each child. This process is aimed at returning all the children to their families and their communities of origin.
This process will take time. For some children, the rehabilitation period will be quick and locating family and community will be straight-forward. For others, especially those who have lived through combat and other traumatic experiences, it will be a longer process. We know some of these children may be orphans. In their cases we will make every attempt to reunite them with extended family or their larger communities of origin.
As you can imagine, the last four days represent but the first steps in a deliberate process of recovery for these children. For now we are focused on their immediate safety, health and general well-being. In time we will be able to assess each child's readiness to return home.
While the tracing process unfolds, the children will be given schooling, life skills training, and psychosocial care. A majority will also be trained in a vocation that they can take back to their communities with them.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a true milestone, a marker of the growing global recognition that children should never be made instruments of adult conflicts and violence. Taken together with the 163 child recruits released into UNICEF's care in Uganda last week, and the ongoing success of demobilization efforts in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, we are seeing some real progress.
I would like to commend the SPLA for honoring its pledge to release these children. I have confidence that they will complete that pledge by releasing all other children within their ranks and by continuing to refrain from fresh recruitment of children.
I would also like to thank WFP for their tremendous support in making this airlift possible, and the NGOs who are caring for the children and making such a difference in their lives. These are real heroes, real champions for children.
But I would be remiss if I did not note today that the work of all of us seeking to protect children is far from done. Around the world we believe that there are still more than 300,000 children engaged in conflict.
Just yesterday there were news reports that seven children were abducted from Uganda by the LRA. In the DRC and across Africa, in Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia, in Colombia and elsewhere, including in Sudan, the use of children as soldiers, porters, sex slaves and serfs continues.
It must stop.
And I believe that nothing short of a global movement for children will make it stop. Ladies and gentlemen I was in London yesterday for a global gathering of economic leaders who have embraced the idea that poverty reduction starts with children. Later this week I will be in Sweden to meet with humanitarian leaders who believe that peace-building starts with recognizing children as zones of peace. Next month I'll be back in Africa joining others who believe that the best way to halt the transmission of HIV is by educating, engaging and supporting young people.
To me all these ideas and events and gatherings and milestones combine to a simple message: Children are the nucleus of all sustainable human development. When we fail to focus on children, we usually fail in our goals. When we focus on children, we have the best chance of succeeding.
I would note that it was a polio immunization campaign that led to a temporary cease-fire in southern Sudan, and it was that same campaign that took me to Sudan and put me in a room with the SPLA commander.
I think it's worth remembering that when we put children at the center of our thoughts and action, good things happen.