Children bear brunt of conflict in Middle East, top UN official says

Radhika Coomaraswamy

23 April 2007 – Returning from a two-week mission to Lebanon, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, the top United Nations envoy on children and armed conflict today said that children bear the brunt of the conflict.

Although the children from all areas she visited were “very playful and resilient… they all shared, regardless of whichever community I spoke to, a great deal of anxiety, insecurity and despair,” the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy said at a press briefing in New York.

Especially among Palestinian youth, she sensed a “great deal of anger and a desire for vengeance.”

She gave an anecdote of meeting a group of young boys in the occupied Palestinian territory who told her of how they threw stones. When she quoted human rights activist Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind,” the boys responded: “In this region, it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, until justice is done.”

Ms. Coomaraswamy also outlined the various issues she brought up with Government officials and others in the three countries she visited.

With Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and other officials in Lebanon, she discussed the plight of Palestinian refugees living in the country and how their living conditions in camps could be improved, as well as how they could be given increased access to social services and employment opportunities.

She also asked him to have Lebanon take the lead in pushing for an international agreement on cluster munitions.

The Special Representative conferred with a Hizbollah deputy regarding the use of minors for political and armed violence, and he stated that his party would support the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict when it comes before the Lebanese Parliament.

Ms. Coomaraswamy also said she was heartened by the positive response of Lebanese civil society and others for rehabilitation and humanitarian needs.

In Israel, she met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and one of the topics discussed was the barrier erected by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory, which “we found has enormous humanitarian and psychosocial consequences for Palestinian children” and impedes health, education and freedom of movement.

“There is a belief that the barrier as it stands today is unconscionable,” she told reporters, calling for a comprehensive civilian review of the humanitarian consequences of the barrier.

While she said she understood the country’s security concerns, “in certain contexts, the balance towards security over humanitarian affairs has shifted too far and is having enormous consequences on Palestinian children and also on Israeli children.”

Ms. Coomaraswamy also urged the Israeli Government to replace the current “military” system of child detention with a “judicial” one. Many children have been incarcerated for what she believes as more minor offences, such as stone throwing, and a punitive approach is not successful as it has made children “hard and bitter.”

She also brought up the issues of settler violence as it affects children, greater accountability for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and assistance on locating cluster munitions in southern Lebanon.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, she met with President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief of staff, with whom she also discussed the mobilization of children for violence. Mr. Abbas noted there is talk of resuscitating a 2003 code of conduct by which militias agreed not to use children in armed violence.

She also encouraged the President to curb the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel, “especially since those rockets do not separate civilians from combatants.”

One positive development she found during her visit to the region was that both Palestinian and Israeli authorities have agreed to explore methods to establish a tripartite commission, with an as-of-yet unknown third party, to examine education materials used by children in the two areas.

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