NY Times (02/18/00) Advocates for Children Joining U.N. Peacekeeping Missions
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 17 -- For the first time in the history of its international peacekeeping missions, the United Nations has begun assigning full-time advocates of children to operations centers abroad, the secretary general's special representative on children and conflict said today.
The move follows horrific reports from a range of United Nations agencies and private relief organizations detailing the plight of children in an era of civil wars. The secretary general's representative, Olara A. Otunnu, former president of the International Peace Academy in New York, has been lobbying the Security Council on the issue for two years.
Late last month, the first advocate was assigned to Sierra Leone, where children have not escaped the mutilations visited upon adults by a vicious rebel army that has also dragooned young people into service as soldiers or slaves. Two other advocates will take part in a peacekeeping operation in Congo.
All three are from Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund. Future appointments are to be drawn from a pool inside and outside the United Nations, including candidates from private relief organizations, Mr. Otunnu said. All peacekeeping operations will have one or more advisers on children.
Mr. Otunnu, whose title is special representative of the secretary general for children and armed conflict, has insisted that his advocates be part of a regular peacekeeping staff with a seat at the table of the leader, civilian or military, of the mission in any country.
"For the protection and welfare of children to be taken seriously, and not be marginalized," said Mr. Otunnu, a former Ugandan foreign minister, "we must have within the central political structure a representative, an advocate, whose charge is making sure that the head of mission will have to coordinate these issues."
He described the roles of the child protection officer as adviser to the head of a mission, coordinator of all child assistance groups and strong advocate for whatever programs are necessary to aid children, including education and relief projects to deal with both physical problems and mental trauma.
Advocates have the power to report violations against children by United Nations troops and other officials.
In Sierra Leone, the first child advocate, Bituin Gonzales of the Philippines, has begun to look at ways to help traumatized and toughened former child soldiers get special educational attention. She has also explored the use of local radio to announce and promote her work, she said in messages to Mr. Otunnu.
In New York, Mr. Otunnu is also using electronic media to spread the word. He has arranged videoconferencing with schools in the metropolitan area to tell American children about the hardships and suffering of children abroad. He said he hoped to set up a network of children, parents and teachers here and abroad to keep the issue alive.
He said that in a world of satellite television, public opinion matters to even the roughest rebel armies, which hesitate to admit what they do to children when he meets their leaders on his frequent trips to war zones.
"There is a changing normative mood worldwide," he said, adding: "Some things are beyond the pale. None of these actors, whether they are insurgencies or the state, are outside the orbit of international influence. They are all touched in a major way by international public opinion; they feel it. Tomorrow they know that if they want to be Mr. President or Mr. Prime Minister at some level international acceptance and legitimacy matter."
Mr. Otunnu, who has met government officials and rebel leaders involved in wars in Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Sierra Leone and Colombia, is struck by the dissonance between their lofty statements of their aims and the brutality around them.
"They all have a vision of a better society," he said. "I tell them, 'I take you at your word. But if this is your vision of your society, how could you achieve this by what you're doing now, by destroying the children?' "
Mr. Otunnu, who grew up in Uganda but is now a citizen of Ivory Coast, says it doesn't go very far to wave international conventions at combatants in a civil war, however important treaties are. Those, he said, are only one of two "pillars of protection."
"The other pillar, which we must never, ever forget, speaks directly with a resonance to most people around the world, and that is what is grown on the local soil," he said. "We must reach out and recognize and strengthen the traditional norms that provided for the protection of children and women -- the taboos, the injunctions. For many of these people that grabs them, that calls them to order."