We’re building a new UNICEF.org.
As we swap out old for new, pages will be in transition. Thanks for your patience – please keep coming back to see the improvements.

Press centre


International Conference on War-Affected Chidren


Winnipeg, 16 September 2000

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Over the last five days, we have witnessed some extraordinary and heartening developments.

First we had two days of meetings involving Canadian and war-affected youth, who debated the problems of children and armed conflict with insight and passion.

And then there were 350 experts from virtually every region -- NGOs, UN agencies, researchers and academics, young people and government officials -- who discussed and argued and analysed and dared to imagine what it will take to make the world a better and more peaceful place for children.

What has come out of these five days is truly impressive. A whole series of recommendations and plans and commitments set out, in language that is clear, concise, specific, innovative, imaginative.

Indeed, the outcome of this Conference builds on the stirring agenda that emerged from the Millennium Summit last week -- an agenda to secure freedom from fear by protecting the vulnerable, especially children; by ensuring that international and human rights laws are enforced and violators called to account; by strengthening peace operations, targeting sanctions and pursuing arms reductions -- and by encouraging the healthy and balanced development that promotes just and lasting peace.

UNICEF is proud to have co-hosted the Experts Meeting with the Government of Canada. And we are proud to commit ourselves to the agenda that has been proposed.

The agenda is not an easy or comfortable one. It challenges all of us -- governments, insurgent movements, the UN System, regional organizations, civil society and private enterprise -- to do more, and do better, for children in conflict.

It implies -- correctly -- that we have not done nearly enough. It reminds us that we have made commitments before that have not been fulfilled -- and that if words could protect children, we would need to be here at all.

But words do not protect children, as UNICEF staff all over the world -- together with colleagues from the UN System and NGO partners, witness day in day out, in places like Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, East and West Timor and Colombia.

There are those who will not be comfortable with this agenda. Many will be daunted by its challenges. But the youth and experts at this Conference have demonstrated true leadership. For as the late Martin Luther King Jr., once observed, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.

As too often happens in international gatherings, consensus represents the lowest common denominator rather than the highest attainable standards. But Winnipeg has been different. Those who participated in this meeting have shaped a new agenda that will, I am confident, become the new consensus for this new century.

The Declaration of the Experts’ Meeting recognizes that when it comes to the suffering of war-affected children, there are no innocent bystanders. All of us have a role to play -- whoever we are and wherever we work.

The Declaration recognizes, too, that political leadership is required, not just by war-affected countries but by other Governments that, wittingly or otherwise, can exacerbate the suffering of children in countries gripped by conflict.

But the kind of brave and innovative thinking that has emerged from the Experts’ Meeting will not succeed without leadership and without a commitment to accountability that only you -- Ministers and senior Government officials -- can provide.

Those who have shaped this bold new agenda -- who have sought to mold a new consensus -- need to know that Member States are actively working to uphold the standards and principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions.

What UNICEF asks today -- on behalf of the war-affected children whom we serve throughout the world -- is that you provide the political leadership necessary to ensure that the commitments that were agreed upon here yesterday become deeds -- and that these deeds make a difference to the lives of children.

Distinguished Ministers, over the past 10 years we have witnessed enormous advances in the commitments made to address the impact of children in armed conflict. From the adoption of the original Graça Machel Report in 1996, to the Security Council’s two Resolutions on children and armed conflict.

From the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the Ottawa Convention on landmines. From the Accra Declaration to the Maputo Declaration to the Montevideo Declaration to ILO Convention 182, which seeks to eliminate the most severe forms of child labour. From the ICC Statute to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children, which entered into force last year.

Endless treaties and conventions and conferences the world over have made promises to children -- promises that were made in good faith to ease suffering and end exploitation, to protect children from the loss of the childhood, from rape and mutilation and recruitment as child soldiers.

Yet all too often, these promises have gone unfulfilled. We in UNICEF are determined that this Conference be different. Let it go down in history as a watershed -- the Winnipeg Watershed, if you will -- in our efforts to end cruelty and indifference. Let it be remembered as the start of the era of application that Secretary-General Kofi Annan has envisioned.

So how can this Ministerial Conference convince the rest of the world that it will make history, rather than repeat it?

First, this Conference has the capacity to develop a clear and concrete timetable for implementing, at a national level, the long-established humanitarian and human rights laws and conventions that now exist. What you must create is the political will to make it happen.

This should include universal ratification and implementation of the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, the Ottawa Convention outlawing anti-personnel landmines, and the new Optional Protocol to the CRC on the recruitment and deployment of young combatants.

Mr. Chairman, there is nothing -- save political will -- that is stopping any country present today from ensuring that the full range of norms and standards are adopted nationally -- and soon.

But in a sense, this is the easy part -- to ratify, legislate, inform, commit. How can we ensure that these norms and standards are actually applied? And what to do when norms and standards are not applied? Here we come to the twin issues of accountability and impunity.

Mr. Chairman, ending impunity is a critical element of accountability without which vicious cycles of human rights violations against children will not be brought to an end. UNICEF supports the swift ratification of the ICC Statute and the ongoing work of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the formerYugoslavia.

We also fully endorse last month’s Security Council Resolution on children, which called for violators of children’s rights to be exempt from amnesties that may be part of peace agreements. Those who violate children’s rights must be called to account. They must answer for what they have done.

However, let us understand that accountability is not simply the spectacle of war criminals standing in the dock. It must be more than that. It must involve the creation of a political and social climate in which all those who violate children’s rights or collude in such violation -- whether governments or rebel groups, manufacturers of, or dealers in, weapons of war, unscrupulous businessmen -- must be made to feel the repugnance of civilized people everywhere. They must be shamed, disgraced and made to answer for their actions.

This requires brave political leadership from governments and civil society. And in this regard, times are changing. There is an accelerating trend internationally to place human security, the rights and well-being of citizens, ordinary people, on the international peace and security agenda. This must be strengthened and further developed.

Mr. Chairman, I want to touch briefly on preventive and pre-emptive action, which is one of the areas featured in the Experts’ Declaration. There are many roads to the implementation of equitable development policies that can help foster national cohesion. All of them require not only national commitments, but sustained international support as well. And here I particularly want to stress quality basic education as one of the best investments in a nation’s future and in peace.

The case for quality basic education for all, education that encourages children to think for themselves, to solve problems, to work and cooperate with others -- this case has been made and proven again and again. Even at the height of conflict, the case for education has also been made, most recently by the Security Council in Resolution 1314.

It would be a shining example of leadership if this Conference could endorse plans for educational recovery that encompass sustained, long-term commitments. UNICEF would certainly like to be your partner in such an endeavour.

UNICEF is not a political organization. Our mission is to protect the rights of all children everywhere, irrespective of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender or whatever political affiliation they or their families may have.

But we recognize the intensely political dimensions in which conflict affects children. We know that decisions made by Governments unilaterally, bilaterally or through multi-lateral fora are critical to creating the framework in which we operate.

One specific area that requires your leadership is that of mediating for children, for ensuring that -- regardless of the political, military, economic or other interests at stake -- the rights of children are recognized to be above and beyond any other consideration in a conflict zone.

There are many ways of fulfilling this ideal: children as Zones of Peace; Days of Tranquility; protected humanitarian corridors, plus the institution of the practice that recognizes schools, child centres, health facilities as inviolate zones of peace; and the recognition of the needs of children taken in peace accords and demobilization plans, as in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Chairman, none of these are new ideas, but they are ones that need to be re-affirmed and implemented. And again, when warring parties fail to respect children in this way, let the actions to counter impunity, to demand accountability, which we have previously mentioned, come into force.

Twelve months from now, the UN General Assembly will hold its Special Session on Children -- a follow-up to the 1990 World Summit for Children.

I very much hope that many of the conclusions, recommendations and commitments that have come out and will yet come out of Winnipeg will be taken up by Governments at that Special Session.

But more important than that: we must be able to report to the Special Session that progress has been made since Winnipeg. We must be able to report on commitments made and fulfilled; on the application of standards; on words that have become actions; on concrete improvements in the lives of war-affected children that grew out of the leadership displayed here.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen: UNICEF looks to your leadership.

Thank you.



New enhanced search