20 November 2008


20 November 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Three former child soldiers turned youth advocates -- Ismael Beah, Grace Akallo and Kon Kelei –- launched a global advocacy network to aid young people, whose lives had been derailed by conflict, at an afternoon press conference held at Headquarters today, Universal Children’s Day.

“We want to send a message out to the rest of the world, wherever children are being used, to stop recruiting and using children in war,” Mr. Beah said.  The advocate from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and former child soldier -- he was forcibly drafted into Sierra Leone’s army at age 13 -– said this message was intended, not only for rebel groups, but for national armies that sent children to the front lines. 

The Network of Children Formerly Affected by War aims to amplify the voice of children scarred by war’s physical, psychological and social costs.  According to a press packet available to correspondents, the Network is designed to serve as a knowledge base for advocacy in support of children in conflict zones.  Its co-founders, who also include Emmanuel Jal, Shena A. Gacu and Zlata Filpovic, hope to schedule speaking engagements with armed groups around the world, as well as with the international community.

Ms. Akallo, who had been captured into the forces of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda at age 14 and fought for seven months, said the initiative’s over-arching vision was to create a world in which children were not used in war.  The new network would also demand accountability in pursuit of a world that was “just, inclusive and supports the participation of young people in bringing about change”.

“We believe that change is possible, not because we are idealists but because we have made it,” said Mr. Kelei.  He was abducted into the People’s Liberation Movement of Sudan before he was 6 years old and, like the other two, credits rehabilitation programmes for making him who he is today.

“When we are disarmed, we are not able to function like kids,” he said.  “When you have effective rehabilitation that is more holistic, then you have a place that you can make and continue with your life.”

Underlining that the rehabilitation programmes run by UNICEF in Sierra Leone had given him something to do with his life, Mr. Beah said their Network would show that if rehabilitation was done well, it could produce authors, university students and musicians.

Joining the former child soldiers, to celebrate the network’s launch, were Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, Permanent Representative of Italy; and Saad Houry, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF.

Stressing that too many children were suffering the consequences of war, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Gaza and Afghanistan, and violations of their rights, Ms. Coomaraswamy said everyone had a role to play to stop those violations.  “We cannot let war continue to destroy childhood,” she said, adding that her office was fighting impunity for those who continued to recruit child soldiers.  It was also advocating for programmes developed by UNICEF and other partners on the ground for reintegration.

Those programmes included the new Network, which would demonstrate the power of children’s resilience, as its members spoke for and acted as catalysts in the processes of rehabilitation and reconciliation.

Underlining the Italian Government’s commitment to championing the protection of civilians during wartime, Mr. Terzi said the condition of children in war zones was a primary focus in its contributions to the establishment and renewal of United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Advocacy and other initiatives that harnessed civil society at large to address the real dimensions of how war affected children were paramount, he said.  The key word in this effort was “education”, both in improving access to education and encouraging children to come back to school, and in providing information to the societies where children were affected by war and recruited as soldiers.

Echoing those remarks, Mr. Houry stressed the sanctity of schools, as zones of peace.  If education could be maintained during conflict, a number of children would be prevented from becoming child soldiers.  The value of monitoring mechanisms, to highlight the persistent violations and to measure the weight of the perpetrators’ crimes, also could not be ignored.

He said the youth behind the new Network had transformed their moral outrage into concrete action and were moving to improve the future of the world’s children.  At its heart, the initiative was a testament, not just to their resilience, but to how young people could effect change.

To a question about holding the LRA’s leaders accountable, Ms. Akallo said her community had suffered for more than 20 years, and could not heal without justice for the children who had been maimed by LRA forces and the families that had been forced, by their attacks, to live in camps for years.

Noting the complexity of the problem and the number of war criminals around the world, Mr. Beah added that difficult choices had to be made as peace and justice were balanced in post-conflict communities.  Given the situation, the Network intended to build “sub-networks” to maintain knowledge about the current situations on the ground in conflict zones.  They would be set up even in the countries where the co-founders had hailed, although many no longer lived there.

As for what more the United Nations could do, both Mr. Beah and Ms. Akallo underscored the need for negotiations to extract children from armed forces before, or as part of, peace negotiations.

Mr. Beah also underlined the need for rapid response mechanisms to prevent conflict.  During the outbreak of conflict, rapid response teams were needed to set up rehabilitation centres at the outset, so that children had somewhere to go.  The small arms trade should also be stopped.

Mr. Kelei said standards for rehabilitation should be created, and he appealed to the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to develop regulations in that regard.

To a question about how the Network planned to educate the communities to which child combatants were returning, Ms. Akallo underlined education as a key element.  The Network planned to advise teachers and community members who needed more accurate information on how to deal with the affected children.  The message that those children had not fought because they wanted to, but because they were forced to, would be disseminated by, among other media, radio.  The strength of that message, Mr. Kelei pointed out, was that those children were the community’s future.

Asked how rehabilitation should address the different experience of girls in war, Ms. Akallo said that girls often did “double work”, because they were both trained as soldiers and given to other fighters as child wives.  That meant that they typically needed special attention as part of rehabilitation efforts. 

Responding to a question about current United Nations efforts to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as warfare threatened its Eastern provinces, Ms. Coomaraswamy said that the United Nations was rushing child protection experts to the area to assist the Mission there.  It was also working to strengthen the Mission’s means of protecting civilians, maintaining the ceasefire and ensuring that humanitarian aid was provided.  She also hoped that the roughly 3,000 troops and police officers that the Security Council had agreed today to add to the United Nations presence would help prevent further child recruitment, as part of their mandate.

Regarding impunity in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she pointed out that the accountability track was parallel but separate from the peace track in post-conflict countries and stressed that the immediate concern in the that country was to stop child recruitment now.

Mr. Houry added that the best way to protect children in conflict zones was to work across the whole continuum of preventing conflict, protecting children when that proved impossible, and filtering those efforts down to the communities.

Asked what message she would bring to the incoming Administration of United States President-elect Barack Obama in arguing for the release of 15-year-old Omar Khdar, a Canadian who was being held in Guantanamo Bay and was scheduled to face trial on 26 January 2009, Ms. Coomaraswamy said it would be the same argument that had been made to the current Administration:  release him into a framework of rehabilitation that would assist him, when he returned to Canada, by providing support and livelihood training.  Noting that her office was in touch with Mr. Khdar’s defence team, she said she was hopeful that that might happen before January.

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