August 8, 1999
Fighting to Save Children From Battle
By JUDITH MILLER and PAUL LEWIS
NITED 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."