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Graša Machel calls for an end to impunity for war crimes against children and women

Wednesday, 13 September: Graša Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique and South Africa, today called on the international community to develop a new sense of urgency in protecting children affected by armed conflict.

Releasing the first major review of global progress since her ground-breaking 1996 study, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, Ms. Machel said that despite laudable efforts by various governments, national and international groups and UN agencies, no one has done enough or moved quickly enough to safeguard the millions of children suffering through wars.

"Power and greed can never be an excuse for sacrificing children," Ms. Machel said as she released her report today in Winnipeg, Canada. "In tolerating this scourge of war against children, every one of us becomes complicit in the violence and harm inflicted upon them," she said.

The review highlights significant achievements of the last four years, including new measures to protect children from military recruitment and to prosecute and punish war crimes against children and women. It also describes the increased importance and emphasis on education as the fourth pillar of humanitarian relief, joining food, health care and shelter.

Yet the report finds that serious violations against children continue. An estimated 300,000 children under 18 are participating in conflicts -- fighting on the front lines, abused as sex slaves or used for portering. At least 20 million children have been uprooted from their homes due to conflict. More than 2 million children have been killed in the wars of the 1990s, and millions more have died from war-induced malnutrition and disease. In fact, of the 10 countries with the highest death rates of children under five, seven are affected by armed conflict.

More than a dozen critical issues are outlined in Ms. Machel's report. It calls HIV/AIDS the most powerful new threat facing children in conflict-affected countries and appeals for urgent measures to address the compound impact of AIDS and war on children.

"The chaotic and brutal circumstances of war aggravate all the factors that fuel the HIV/AIDS crisis," Ms. Machel said. "War breaks up families and communities, creating millions of refugees and placing women and children in peril of sexual attack. It destroys health services that might have been able to identify diseases associated with HIV/AIDS or screen blood transfusions that transmit it. War destroys the education systems that might have been able to teach prevention and slow the spread of the disease. AIDS contributes to political instability by leaving millions of children orphaned and by killing teachers, health workers and other public servants," she said.

Overall, Ms. Machel's review conveys a growing sense of impatience at the continued harm inflicted on children through armed conflict, saying that "humankind has yet to declare childhood inviolate or spare children the pernicious effects of war." She maintains however, that "children present us with a uniquely compelling motivation for mobilization. Our collective failure to protect children must be transformed into an opportunity to confront the problems that cause their suffering."

The review, an independent study financed by the Canadian and Norwegian governments, is a key resource document for the International Conference on War-Affected Children underway this week in Winnipeg. Its preparation was supported by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and UNICEF.

It contains specific recommendations for the international community on a wide range of issues affecting children in war -- including child soldiers, HIV/AIDS, landmines and small arms, sexual violence, and humanitarian assistance. It calls for a halt to the imposition of comprehensive sanctions, pointing to the overwhelming evidence of their damage to children. The review also identifies several overearching themes, such as ending impunity for those who commit crimes against children, ensuring that children are central to peace-making, and strengthening mechanisms for monitoring and reporting violations of children's rights.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy hailed the report as a milestone in the battle to protect and fulfill the rights of children caught up in war. She applauded its focus on HIV/AIDS, the gender dimensions of conflict, and the importance of education.

"Education is the key to a child's development and future prospects," Ms. Bellamy said, "and must not be overlooked in times of conflict. It is essential as an alternative to recruitment by armed forces; it can play a vital role in helping children heal from the traumas of war and in promoting peace and tolerance; and it is also the key to HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and care during crises," she said.

UNIFEM Executive Director Dr. Noeleen Heyzer also praised the review, saying: "Graša Machel highlights what we already know but continue to neglect -- that women and children suffer disproportionately during armed conflict. In the case of women and girls especially, humanitarian responses are inadequate and sometimes inappropriate."

Dr. Heyzer welcomed the attention to the important role of women in peace-building. "This groundbreaking review shows how the international community can ensure that this crucial resource -- women -- are at the foundation of all efforts to build peace and resolve conflicts."

The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children: A critical review of progress made (also available in PDF format, 254 KB (This document reviews the wide-ranging series of actions taken in response to the recommendations of the 1996 Machel Report.)

Please email media@unicef.org with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/2000/64