Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York
PRESS CONFERENCE BY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, briefed correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon on her two-week mission to Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, where she assessed the effects of the region’s ongoing conflict on its children. The Office of the Special Representative is responsible for reporting to the Security Council on the issue of children and armed conflict, which had figured prominently in the Council’s discussions on the Middle East in the last two years.
During that visit, Ms. Coomaraswamy said she was struck by the show of anger and a desire for vengeance among Palestinian youth, who, at 12 years old, could be sent to prison for stone-throwing in Israel. She was equally concerned that nearly one-third of children living in northern Israel had been shown to suffer from post-traumatic stress, even as young as 2 years old. In discussions with leading officials — including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Baynish — she had focused on ways that communities could preserve the psychological well-being of children, as the region struggled to manage the ongoing violence.
While in Israel, for example, she had pushed for the use of restorative justice when treating young offenders guilty of minor offences such as stone-throwing, rather than imprisoning them with would-be suicide bombers, such as at Hashrom prison in Israel, which she visited. Among Palestinians, many young people had spent time in jail or knew of someone that did.
“It is our belief that this system of punitive approach is not succeeding, and is actually making them very hard and bitter,” she said, comparing the personalities of two children she had met. One boy was just under the age of 12, the age at which children are old enough to be detained in Israel, while the other had been just above that age and had spent some time in prison. The difference in their attitude was “remarkable”, Ms. Coomaraswamy said, with the younger child being more trusting, though she hastened to add it was her own observation and not that of a behavioural expert.
Furthermore, in a meeting with Foreign Minister Livni, she raised the issue of the barrier, alternately called the “fence” or “wall” by different members of the international community, which was erected by Israel to separate it from Palestinian territory after its citizens were subjected to more than a hundred attacks by Palestinians between 2000 and 2002. While Israel’s security concerns were valid, she stressed the need for Israel to maintain a balance in its worries over security with that of humanitarian concerns.
She had put forward a suggestion for a comprehensive review of the pass and permit system created because of the barrier –- a system which required one Palestinian she met to have as many as six permits to reach the hospital, Ms. Coomaraswamy said. She acknowledged that the Israeli Supreme Court had been active in reviewing complaints on a case-by-case basis, but suggested that much more could be done to improve the freedom of movement of Palestinians overall. Even if no comprehensive review of the pass and permit system took place, she had urged that the route of the wall be re-examined. “This barrier, we found, has enormous humanitarian and psycho-social consequences for Palestinian children.”
One correspondent noted that some Israeli children might have felt that they owed their lives to the barrier, and asked if the Special Representative had spoken to any. Ms. Coomaraswamy replied that many members of the international community had not warmed to the idea of the barrier, and that a comprehensive review by a civilian panel might be an opportunity for Israel to take stock of its benefits and to communicate those benefits clearly to the world.
In addition, she also re-visited a plan to create a tripartite commission to review school books in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories that might have a hand in inciting hatred and violence. The United States, which introduced the idea, might be a possible third party in that review. Other issues raised by the Special Representative included that of settler violence against Palestinians and more accountability on the part of the Israeli Defence Force in cases where children had been killed in battles.
In Lebanon, Ms. Coomaraswamy met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and spent considerable time on the issue of cluster munitions and mines while in the country’s south. The United Nations Mine Action Service had asked the Special Representative to help obtain computer data on cluster munitions in southern Lebanon to enable all mines to be cleared by December, a request she had conveyed to the rightful authorities. She also obtained the agreement of the Lebanese authorities to take the lead on establishing an international protocol on cluster munitions.
She had spoken with Parliamentary Deputy Mohamed Raad, on behalf of Hezbollah, on the use of children in armed conflict, and had sought his agreement on the importance of Lebanon ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Prior to her visit, Hezbollah had been heard not to support that Convention.
Ms. Coomaraswamy said most of her time had been spent talking to children in schools and community centres in Beirut, southern Lebanon, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Sderot. She also visited a prison in the Israeli town of Hashrom, and communicated with children in Gaza via video link because of security considerations. She spoke to the children while accompanied by one or two assistants, she said, taking care to follow special procedures for dealing with witnesses. She said the children were open and engaging, some of whom demonstrated a “healthy dose of skepticism” for the United Nations, and nearly all expressing a yearning for peace.
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For information media • not an official record