Children around the world have a tireless advocate in Olara Otunnu. Officially, he is the Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations for Children and Armed Conflict. To children in need, he is "Hope," as he uncovers the suffering caused by war and ignorance and then works for remedies. He acts as a moral conscience for all of us who will listen and act to stop the atrocities against children which are taking place around the world.
There is a large and growing number of children (in the millions) who are still victims of war, as "its targets or instruments." Every day, 800 children are killed or maimed by land mines. Mr. Otunnu and his staff fear that there is a real danger that the international community, once exposed to so much violence and intolerance, may come to regard these atrocities as a NORMAL phenomena. THIS MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO HAPPEN!
Mr. Otunnu pushes for action. "WORDS ON PAPER CANNOT SAVE CHILDREN AT RISK." The UN must ensure the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Mr. Otunnu believes that this can be done, "if the international community is willing to use its considerable COLLECTIVE influence to that end."
Over the last two years, Otunnu has visited Rwanda, Burundi, the Sudan, Kosovo, refugees in Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Mozambique, Columbia and Sierra Leone.
In Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, 300,000 were children. Forty-five thousand households are headed by children, 90 percent of whom are girls. Local law did not allow girls to own agricultural land, essential for the livelihood of their families. Mr. Otunnu urged the Rwandan leaders to change the laws. Legislation was finally passed and is soon to be enacted that will allow girls to inherit farms and other properties. Mr. Otunnu will be watching to make sure it happens.
For Mr. Otunnu, this is just the beginning..."visiting Rwanda was particularly difficult as the people need to cope with the events of genocide and its aftermath...the people here need much support from the international community."
In a meeting with the leaders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC), Otunnu and his staff were able to negotiate a temporary cease fire in order to immunize children against polio and to feed malnourished children. The first round of polio immunizations were conducted by UNICEF and WHO from Aug. 13-15, 1999.
Mr. Otunnu also asked the RDC to stop its practice of recruiting children for combat and asked them to help with the investigations of civilian massacres. He asked the RDC to refrain from the practice of using the radio and TV and public rallies to incite ethnic and racial hatred.
In Burundi, where the Tutsi and Hutu communities had been at war there is now an "imperfect peace." Mr. Otunnu is focusing on the needs of the large number of displaced people, and is trying to help the country restore health and educational facilities.
In the Sudan, Otunnu visited the areas under control of the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). In his meetings he secured commitments from the SPLM and the Government of the Sudan not to use land mines. He told both parties that bombing hospitals, burning villages and abductions were entirely unacceptable. Everywhere in the Sudan that the Special Representative visited, the message from the people was loud and clear, "Go tell our leaders and the outside world that we just want peace. And we want education for our children." Otunnu is getting their words heard.
Mr. Otunnu has visited Kosovo where children constituted over 65% of those who were expelled from their homes. At the end of his visit he put forward an agenda for action for the children of Kosovo which included:
a. Ensure basic survival needs including food shelter, access to clean water, and basic health services, especially immunizations.
b. Renunciation of separated families. This requires support from international agencies to help locate and connect displaced family members.
c. Trauma counseling In dealing with signs of severe trauma among refugee children, toys, games and balls were among the most essential contributions to help restore a measure of normalcy to the children's lives.
d. Schooling for refugees The capabilities of local schools in host communities need to be expanded.
THE ACTION PLAN FOR CHILDREN OF KOSOVO is evolving as the people return, resettle and rebuild. There are many issues to respond to:
1. Create a UN mission in Kosovo, with special attention to education and the development of curricula suitable for the different ethnic groups and the organization of mixed classes.
2. Reconciliation between enemies - the intensity of hate engendered by the recent conflicts has left deep scars in the minds of children, requiring trauma counseling.
3. LAND MINES and UNEXPLODED ORDINANCE present a significant problem for children and farmers.
4. VOICES OF CHILDREN TV and Radio projects devoted to children.
5. NEIGHBORHOOD INITIATIVE, focusing on cross-border issues of education, reconciliation, movement of children across borders, sexual exploitation of children and adolescents across borders and small arms proliferation.
The children of the world can feel secure that their champion, Mr. Otunnu, will fight for them. He hopes we will all join him, in whatever large or small way we can.