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August 8, 1999

Fighting to Save Children From Battle

By JUDITH MILLER and PAUL LEWIS

UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. official charged with saving children from the scourge of war had plowed through the swampy, mosquito-infested wilderness of the northern Sri Lanka jungle for four hours to ask rebel leaders a delicate question.

Was it true that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, locked for more than 15 years in a vicious civil war with the government, were using young girls as suicide bombers?

The Tamils "neither confirmed nor denied" the reports from relief groups and U.N. officials, said the official, Olara Otunnu, recalling the meeting a year ago. "But they said they couldn't defend the practice."

The encounter may not have been an all-out victory, but it represented progress in what many diplomats once considered the United Nations' hopelessly ambitious struggle to protect the world's children from war.

Statistics attest to the daunting nature of Otunnu's quest. According to the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, 300,000 children under 18 are serving as regular soldiers, guerrilla fighters, spies, porters, cooks and sexual slaves -- even suicide commandos -- in conflicts under way in about 50 nations. The lightness, simplicity and low cost of modern weapons make them ideal for use by children.

Over the last decade, Otunnu's office adds, these wars have claimed the lives of more than 2 million children, left 6 million maimed or permanently disabled, created 1 million orphans, left 10 million with serious psychological trauma and resulted in children's accounting for half the world's 24 million refugees.

Yet after a year of almost nonstop travel to what he calls the world's "places of death and bloodshed," and months spent begging, cajoling and even embarrassing government and rebel leaders, his efforts have led the United Nations to begin to establish a critical legal and moral framework for giving children special status and their protection new priority.

So far, 183 U.N. member states and eight nonmembers, including many where children have fought in civil conflicts, have ratified a 1989 convention that established international rights for children.

Three new categories of war crimes affecting children would be prosecutable before a new international criminal court. And finally, several governments and the rebel groups seeking to overthrow them have agreed to stop recruiting or using children under 18 as soldiers.

The United States has not supported what Otunnu considers his major achievements, however.

Specifically, it has not ratified the convention, and may not do so. Fearing it will be used for political purposes, the United States opposes the creation of the international criminal court. The United States also opposes the ban on recruiting soldiers under 18, wanting to preserve its policy of recruiting high school graduates.

Although the agency she heads adamantly supports raising the recruitment age, Carol Bellamy, the American who is executive director of UNICEF, concedes that the battle is still uphill. "There is not yet a worldwide consensus that the minimum age should be raised," she said.

But the opposition of the United States, Britain and several other states to the child recruitment ban has not stopped Ms. Bellamy and Otunnu from making progress with several states that have witnessed vicious internal strife and bloodshed. In Sri Lanka, for example, Otunnu may not have ended the use of child suicide bombers, but he wrested pledges from the rebels and the government not to recruit soldiers under 17.

In the past year, he has also obtained pledges for a minimum age of 18 from governments and rebel factions in Sudan, Burundi, Congo and Angola, where ethnic strife, UNICEF says, has claimed the lives of more than 2 million children in the past decade. The Colombian government, too, has accepted 18 as the minimum, but the principal guerrilla movement has said only that it will not recruit soldiers under 15.

Most recently, Otunnu persuaded Sierra Leone and the rebels there to accept a higher minimum age for their fighters and to include in their peace agreement provisions that guarantee "special care and protection" of children and their "inherent right to life, survival and development" in accordance with the international convention.

Otunnu considers such commitments vital. "Children suffer disproportionately in war but they are never mentioned in peace agreements," he said. "The welfare and protection of children should always be part of the peace."

He acknowledges, however, that such pledges are difficult to monitor or enforce. Ruth Wedgwood, a law professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also says that reliable recruitment statistics are hard to come by, and that existing ones might not reflect a decline in child recruitment so soon.

Children, of course, have served as soldiers for centuries. But most experts agree that the changing nature of modern warfare, with its small and lightweight weapons, has led to a vast expansion in the involvement of children as victims and perpetrators. Moreover, because modern conflicts tend to be civil wars that drag on, children are recruited as soldiers after manpower grows scarce. And children, in fact, make good killers, experts say.

Some children volunteer to be soldiers just to survive or to "prove their manhood," says the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a private group seeking to persuade governments and political groups to exempt children from warfare.

The United Nations' concern about children and warfare began in earnest with the 1990 Children's Summit here, which more than 150 heads of state attended and which drew attention to the plight of children affected by armed conflict.

Then in 1993, the General Assembly asked Graca Machel, a former education minister in Mozambique who is now the wife of former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, to prepare a report and recommendations. After three years of travel and study, Ms. Machel produced a horrific portrait of the fate of children caught up in conflict, which was infused with a deeply personal sense of outrage.

Her plea for action so galvanized the General Assembly that it immediately endorsed her principal recommendation -- the creation of a special post reporting directly to the secretary-general and charged formally with "the protection of children affected by armed conflict."

Many expected Ms. Machel to be named as the secretary-general's special representative, but for personal reasons she turned the post down. Instead, it went to Otunnu, who is legal guardian of the six children of his dead sister and brother. He helped Ms. Machel prepare her report.

Educated on scholarships that took him to Oxford and Harvard to study law, Otunnu served as Uganda's permanent representative to the United Nations from 1980 to 1985 and as foreign minister from 1985 to 1986. But he was forced to leave his country because of a dispute with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's president, who stripped him of his citizenship -- a loss that President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast corrected by giving him a new nationality.

His new job has a broad agenda but no guaranteed budget, and is instead dependent on contributions from member countries. Last year, Otunnu's first full-time year on the job, his budget was a paltry $500,000, which barely covered air fare, never mind money for staff. This year, he has raised $4 million so far, and now has a staff of four.

Mary Diaz, executive director of the Women's Commission for Refugees, Women and Children, which is part of the International Rescue Committee, said that despite limited resources and a high turnover in his staff because of the world body's employment practices, "Olara has really raised the profile of this issue and shaken up the status-quo folks at the United Nations and elsewhere."

In his campaign to raise the age of military recruitment to 18, Otunnu is effectively trying to change the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, which at American and British insistence sets 15 as the minimum age for soldiers to be recruited.

Even so, the United States and Somalia, which has no government, are the only two countries that have not ratified the convention.

Although President Clinton agreed to sign it in 1995, the Senate is traditionally very slow to approve international treaties, said Ms. Bellamy. In addition, however, many senators and other U.S. officials doubt the wisdom of conferring special rights on children, particularly, argue conservatives, if they are at the expense of parental authority or they weaken the family.

In another effort to shield children from the effects of war, Otunnu has helped persuade advocates of the planned international criminal court to expand the list of recognized war crimes to include several affecting children. Since the court would have authority to seek the arrest of accused war criminals, children's advocates consider it an essential tool to enforce the child rights convention and other treaties.

With a growing number of conflicts in countries in which half or more of the population is under 18, Otunnu acknowledges that he is racing against a demographic clock to win broad acceptance of the notion that special international legal and cultural norms are needed to protect children, victims and child soldiers alike.

One of his most haunting memories is a trip last year to Connaught Hospital in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, where he met child fighters and child victims. "Suddenly, as if from nowhere," he said, he encountered "a community" of limbless children. One child, under 10 years old, told him that after rebel fighters had cut off both of his hands, they had told him, "Go tell President Kabbah that we are still here."



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