Interview with Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy

Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, addresses a Security Council meeting on children and armed conflict

1 May 2009 – Radhika Coomaraswamy was appointed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in April 2006, and reappointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in February 2007. In this capacity, she serves as a moral voice and independent advocate to build awareness and give prominence to the rights and protection of boys and girls affected by armed conflict. A lawyer by training and formerly the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Ms. Coomaraswamy is a leading international human rights advocate. She spoke with the UN News Centre following this week’s Security Council debate on children and armed conflict, and discussed a range of issues including the inner workings of her mission.

UN News Centre: When did you first become aware of the UN?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: I’m actually a child of the UN. My father worked for the UN. He was assistant administrator in charge of Asia and the Pacific for the UNDP [UN Development Programme]. So I was in UN schools since I was seven. Before I was learning any national anthem I was learning the UN anthem. I don’t know if you are aware, but there is a song they teach at the UN school which is an anthem about nations on the rise, uniting.

UN News Centre: What led you to decide to become a lawyer?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: I was growingWhen you talk about children there is a universal chord that you strike and people seem to respond. up in the US during the 60’s and 70’s when law was being used as an instrument for social change and social justice. It was used in the civil rights movements at that time, and I was inspired by that notion. India too at that time was beginning to have public interest law movements so that is why I decided to look at law more as an instrument for change and justice.

UN News Centre: Why did you decide to work on women rights? Was there an event or a person that influenced you to focus on this issue?
Radhika Coomaraswamy: I was involved in women’s rights since the 80’s. It was the situation of women around the world and not exactly one person. All of us of that generation were women who had been highly educated and we found many obstacles and attitudes which were prejudicial to women in the 70’s and 80’s as we were trying to break through the glass ceiling. And in my part of the world there are terrible things that are done to women, as there are in other parts of the world and that filled us with a lot of outrage.

UN News Centre: How difficult is it to raise awareness about the rights of children? Do you think it is easier now than it was 20 or 30 years ago?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: The rights of children have always been easier than any other rights. Because when you talk about children there is a universal chord that you strike and people seem to respond. You will find that only two countries have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child [the US and Somalia].

Also, the Security Council is moving on this issue with resolution 1612 (2005) which is a monitoring mechanism to compile objective, accurate and reliable information on recruitment and use of child soldiers. So I think it’s always been easier than any other issue and I think it will continue to be so because all those diplomats, whether here or at home in their countries, have children. It’s their Achilles’ heel. Everybody’s Achilles’ heel is their child. So when they think of their children, they move forward.

UN News Centre: What do you consider your biggest achievement as Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict?

SRSG Radhika Coomaraswamy, on visit to DR of Congo meets with former child soldiers at a CTO in Masisi (April '09)

Radhika Coomaraswamy: When I began I inherited resolution 1612 (2005) from my predecessor and it was just something on paper. To some extent, thanks to my office and other UN agencies, we have made it a living document. The Working Group meets, reports are filed, and action is taken. When I go out into the field, there are armed groups who want to get off the list of shame that 1612 sets up for those who recruit and use child soldiers. So I think giving life to 1612 has been the achievement of my office.

UN News Centre: How does one begin a discussion with a warlord?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: I’ll give you an example from the Central African Republic, where I met Commandant Laurent Djim Wei of the APRD [Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy]. First, UN agencies have made contact for humanitarian work so they facilitate the meeting. In this case, we had to drive about two hours into the bush to meet him. They are always initially a bit aggressive and defensive but when you explain that there is a way out and that they can get off the list and that there is an action plan you can usually convince them to do that. He kept saying that children kept coming to him because they are orphans and that he was willing to consider it if there was a viable plan to take care of the children. It was left at that and of course UNICEF and OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] follow up on that commitment.

UN News Centre: How do you convince an armed group to release child soldiers? How do you convince people with whom you cannot “strike a chord” concerning children?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: I think there are different kinds of leaders. There are those who are very principled and won’t use children. Then there are those who are just ruthless and will use anybody. They are very difficult to change. Then there are others cases that are more complex. Because of the nature of the poverty in the country, the nature of the situation there, the fact that children come to them because they may be on the verge of starvation or there is no one to take care of them, such as orphans, or parents might send them because it’s an ethnic fight.

So there are other reasons why children might actually volunteer. And these people might not have the moral strength to say no. They represent a more ambiguous group whom you can convince that this is a horrendous crime and that they will be tried for war crimes and that they should release the children. The group that we target and have success with consists of those to whom children have come because of the conditions and who at the beginning did not have the moral strength, but who because of the sanctions of the Security Council entered into action plans.

UN News Centre: Are those groups actually aware of the work of the Security Council and what it means for them?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: Some of them are not aware but they don’t want to be on the Security Council’s anything because many of them have dreams of being leaders of their countries. Some are not aware; some are. And if they’re not aware you would inform them and give them the list.

UN News Centre: What has been the most difficult mission you have had to accomplish for the UN? And is there any hope to convince a group such as the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to stop their atrocities?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: All missions are difficult. Going to Gaza was difficult. The Central African Republic, the Sudan – they are all difficult in different ways. I was recently in Dungu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The LRA are absolutely ruthless and determined to have children and I don’t think there is much hope for negotiation and that is why we support the ICC [International Criminal Court] indictment.

UN News Centre: What do you think the 29 April meeting of the Security Council on children and armed conflict accomplished?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: I thought this open debate was a very important landmark. The Security Council in its Presidential Statement agreed to move forward and try to make sexual violence and killing and maiming triggers to be on the list of shame.

It was also an important landmark because a young woman who was a victim of sexual violence spoke to the Council and received sustained applause from the Council.

UN News Centre: You were appointed Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission in May 2003. What is your opinion on the current situation in the country’s north?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: I try not to talk about Sri Lanka too much because I am an international civil servant. But as I said to the Security Council, my sense is that the situation there is deplorable. On the one hand, the Tigers are using and recruiting children, stopping people from leaving and that is a horrible reality. The Government should exercise military forbearance and is not moving forward in allowing aid workers to enter the area and negotiate the release of children as well as civilians. So I think we have to call on both sides to save these civilians.

UN News Centre: How does it feel to be one of the few Asian women serving at a senior level in Ban Ki-moon’s administration?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: Mr. Ban has really moved forward in hiring a lot of women. When I came, there was only myself and Alicia Barcena in the Secretariat. Now we have quite a few women. In fact, someone was joking that with regard to the executive boards of the agencies, there is only one man, [Achim] Steiner (of the UN Environment Programme). Everybody else is a woman now with Helen Clark coming in as head of UNDP. He’s moved very much ahead in hiring a lot of senior women. So it’s nice to have women colleagues. We get together once in a while and discuss issues.

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