7 July 2008


7 July 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict today expressed concern at the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, as well as the recruitment and detention of children and sexual violence against boys in that country.

Briefing correspondents on her five-day trip to Afghanistan, Radhika Coomaraswamy said representatives of non-governmental organizations, religious leaders and children had expressed concerns about the deteriorating security situation.  She had met many child victims of attacks by the Taliban and other anti-Government forces, as well as victims of operations by international forces.  Even the religious leaders sympathetic to the Government had complained bitterly about “collateral damage”.  The international forces must take those complaints seriously and put in place measure to prevent excesses, execute prompt investigations and, where necessary, pay compensation.

She said that Afghan sources had reported that children were being recruited into the Taliban and other anti-Government forces, especially from Pakistan, particularly in the past six months.  Even the Taliban itself had recognized that that activity was against the law, including international law.  According to their rule 19, Muhjadeen were not allowed to take “young boys with no facial hair onto the battlefield or into their private quarters”.  Yet, children were even used as suicide bombers, and there were reports that children were recruited by the Afghan Police Force.

Children’s detention was another concern, she said, adding that no one seemed clear about the guidelines for the detention of children, nor was exact data available on the numbers of children detained by Afghan or United States authorities.  Keeping young people in detention often turned them into hardened individuals and fed the cycle of violence.

She highlighted attacks on schools -- 228 in 2007, and 83 so far this year, as another area of concern, noting that schools were supposed to be “zones of peace”.  She urged community and tribal leaders to unite to protect their schools, and asked for the formulation of a security plan that would prevent schools from being “militarized”.  She appealed to those who were attacking schools to reconsider their strategy, stressing that their actions violated all norms of civilized behaviour, as defined in international law and the teachings of all the great religions.

Sexual violence was also troubling, she said.  She had received allegations about sexual violence against boys as a result of the so-called “bachaa bazi” practice, whereby young boys were associated with military commanders.

As for the denial of humanitarian access, she reiterated that there was a serious humanitarian problem in many of the conflict areas of Afghanistan, and urged parties to give access to humanitarian actors.  Military activity should not be combined with humanitarian activities, as that blurred the lines with accepted humanitarian practice.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had proposed the idea of “Days of Tranquillity”, which would be set aside for the vaccination of children, whereby all parties would refrain from violence.  She hoped the children could be a bridge for peace in Afghanistan.

She said she had visited Afghanistan, at the invitation of the Government, in order to establish the monitoring and reporting mechanism required by the Security Council.  Together with the Director of the Office of Emergency Programmes of UNICEF, Louis-Georges Arsenault, she had visited Kabul, Jalalabad and Gardez and had met with President Hamid Karzai, Government ministers, United Nations agencies, representatives of non-governmental organizations, religious leaders and children affected by the conflict.

Asked how many children were currently detained by the Governments of Afghanistan and the United States, she said that the United States State Department had reported that 10 were being detained as juveniles.  United States authorities on the ground only talked about one case, but other sources referred to more.  She hoped the upcoming country report to the Security Council on grave violations against children in armed conflict would contain actual figures.  The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent visits the detained children, she added.

Answering questions about “bachaa bazi”, endemic to Afghanistan and the war lords, Ms. Coomaraswamy said the subject was “very taboo” in Afghanistan.  She had brought the subject up during a press conference there because of reports she had received that military commanders and war lords were exploiting those boys in terrible ways.  An awareness-raising campaign was necessary in order to stop the practice.  To prevail on the war lords, awareness-raising should be followed by some prosecutions, which should promote deterrence.  The problem was that nobody talked about the practice, which had been around for some 10,000 years, so why should the question be raised now?

In response to another question, she said that, during her conversations with members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and United States forces in Afghanistan, she had not raised the trials of Omar Kadr and Mohammed Jawad.  She had raised the issues, however, of collateral damage and of juvenile detentions.  Her Office, as well as that of UNICEF, was following up on the issues.

She replied to another question that, according to the Security Council, 90 per cent of the parties recruiting children in Afghanistan were non-State actors.  That was a special problem, as the Council had urged her Office to negotiate “action plans” with those non-State actors, in order to get the children released.  Governments around the world, however, did not want to engage with those non-State actors, as they were considered to be “terrorists”, or otherwise not acceptable.  Nevertheless, she had met with a non-State actor, as a result of which children had been released.  States should understand that, in carrying out humanitarian work, meeting with non-State actors sometime resulted in children being released.

It was difficult to estimate what percentage of children had been recruited by Governments, she said in response to a question.  The Governments of Myanmar and the Sudan, for example, recruited children.  Uganda had also done so, but had now managed to demobilize most of its child soldiers.   In the Sudan, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) had always been one of the listed parties regarding recruitment of children.  UNICEF, child protection advisers of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and other actors had tried to get the movement to release some of the children, both in Chad and in the Sudan.

As for reports that, after the attack on Khartoum, 91 child soldiers had been detained by Government authorities, she said that both UNICEF and the child protection advisers were following the case closely.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.