|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE BY SECRETARY-GENERAL’S SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE
FOR CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT ON HER VISIT TO IRAQ
There were a total of 1,500 Iraqi children in detention, the youngest of whom were as young as 10 years old, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said at a Headquarters press conference today.
Speaking after a five-day mission to Iraq, Ms. Coomaraswamy said 500 children were under administrative detention by United States forces. They were not allowed outside legal counsel, but were handled by military advisers instead. United Nations human rights monitors and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had brought up the issue and, since the end of last year, there had been some steps forward with regard to family visits, education and recreation for the detained.
She said there were also 1,088 children in Iraqi detention, except that, in their case, there was no education or recreation. Poor sanitation and overcrowding had been reported by United Nations human rights monitors and lawyers dealing with the child detainees.
The Special Representative called on the Government of Iraq to devote a large portion of its budget, which was now in surplus, to provide basic services to the population, particularly children. Government efforts were focused on reconstruction and large-scale infrastructure projects, while paying no attention to basic services and, where attention was paid, there was a sectarian emphasis. It was crucial that donors and others emphasize the need to provide the basic services needed by children.
The situation was particularly alarming in light of the Government’s unspent budgetary surplus, she said. Figures provided by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) showed only 53 per cent of Iraq’s children were attending school, compared to 83 per cent in 2005. In essence, therefore, only half the country’s children were in school. Also, 60 per cent of the children had no access to safe drinking water, and cholera was now a serious concern in areas of conflict.
She added that the exodus of skilled personnel and the kidnapping of service providers had exacerbated the situation, and the absence of psycho-social services was extremely problematic. The overall situation was compounded by the lack of humanitarian access owing to the security situation. Major humanitarian actors were unable to be in Baghdad or in the field, but ICRC had returned to some extent. However, most other humanitarian actors were not in position in many conflict areas. Political and diplomatic initiatives were needed to secure humanitarian access, as military security was just not enough.
Ms. Coomaraswamy said the mission had taken her to Baghdad and Erbil, and met with Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the Human Rights Minister and the Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, and members of the Kurdistan regional government. The mission had also met with officials of the Multinational Forces and American officials, including a General Stone, who was in charge of detentions. While in Baghdad, the mission had been confined to the Green Zone for security reasons, but members had been able to speak with many internally displaced persons and refugees, both in Jordan and in Erbil, as well as many from Diyala Province, including Shias, Sunnis and Christians. In those cases, meetings had been held with many children and their parents.
There was a belief that, since 2005, large numbers of children were being recruited into militias and insurgent groups, leading, in one or two cases, to the use of child suicide bombers, she said. The mission had also looked into the large number of children detained by the Multinational and Iraqi Forces. While the mission’s general finding with regard to children was that their situation was quite intolerable in central and southern Iraq, there was some hope in Kurdistan, where the regional government had accepted the need to protect children. What was needed was a consolidation and implementation of the many child-protection frameworks that had been developed.
She said eyewitness and anecdotal evidence indicated that payments were being made to induce children into joining militias, but there was a general belief among various groups that children should be mobilized to protect their particular community. Some people encountered in Oman, who were close to the Sunni insurgents, felt there was a need to mobilize the whole community, including children.
Another important issue was the culture of impunity owing to the security vacuum, especially the increasing violence against girls, she said. Children were also being kidnapped. Many refugees and internally displaced persons reported having left their homes, because their children had been kidnapped or were under threat of kidnapping.
In response to a question, Ms. Coomaraswamy said she would issue a report on her mission in about three weeks with concrete recommendations to all parties concerned.
In response to another question, she said she was unaware of parents selling their children for recruitment into militias and armed groups participating in the conflict, but within the context of sectarian strife, there was a lack of awareness that children under 18 should not be involved in violence. The mission had received anecdotal information that children were being paid to undertake specific acts. While there had been suicide bombings by children, they seemed to be more the exception. The children seemed to be used more in the planting of bombs, the firing of mortars and digging up holes for the planting of explosive devices.
She said American officials had explained in detail all their programmes for the detained children, but it was felt that military detention was not the place for children. Although there might be a requirement even for interrogation, they could be kept in a non-military environment.
Responding to a question about the illegal detention of some 20,000 people, including children, by the Multinational Forces in Iraq, Ms. Coomaraswamy said a process had been set up over the course of last year with regard to children. It involved an administrative panel dealing with cases in which child detainees, accompanied by military advisers, represented themselves. Cases were reviewed every three months in the first instance and then every six months. ICRC was currently allowed access to the children, but it was not a monitoring body. United States resistance to outside legal representation and non-confidential conversation with the children was being challenged at the moment. The United Nations felt that it was important that the children have connections with the outside world.
* *** *