Under-Secretary-General, UN

Published Date: 10th September 2010

Open Windows | In Conversation

Under-Secretary-General, UN

September 10th, 2010

Where we distance ourselves from conflicts in regions farther away from us, we remain horrified at the violence perpetrated by child soldiers. And due to our complicated sense of compassion and justice, we judge child soldiers harshly. In doing so, we fail to recognize the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society, to give children a fair chance at life. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nation’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, offers insight on children in conflict zones and talks about the unique challenges that modern warfare poses for those seeking to protect the most vulnerable citizens.

This is your fourth year as the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. What are the significant developments in the rehabilitation of children in conflict regions?

During the last ten years as a whole, especially the last four to five, there has been what I call a real international awareness of this issue, the creation of international norms and standards, and also mechanisms for accountability of those who recruit children. Plus, we now have a greater understanding of what it takes to reintegrate children, rehabilitate them once they have gone through this process. A great understanding, a shared knowledge among child protection partners, and therefore, an ability to deal with it more effectively than we did with it earlier. So I think there have been significant changes in the last 10 years.


What obstacles do you face while delivering assistance to individuals in conflict areas? And do you face situations where a shortage of funds results in having to abort programs for children?

We rely primarily on UNICEF and the department of peacekeeping. We act as facilitators to bring the UN system together to provide that assistance. And the major obstacle they face is to get parties to give you access. The governments or parties controlling the territory will not give you access to provide the delivery of services that you need, and that is a major problem. We have systems in place. Our humanitarians are excellent, they have worldwide experience, and once they get access, they will deliver, whether it is the World Food Program or UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). But the biggest problem in many parts of the world is that we are not given access.

With funds, what often happens is they make appeals, and it is only 40 or 50 percent funded, so then they have to make priorities within that, from which they give mainly to nutrition, water and health, and then education. But whenever they have to go into a country, they do what is called a flash appeal, and this appeal is to donors, we need this amount to cover this amount, and then sometimes it is 100 percent funded, at times it is 40–50 percent funded and they have to prioritize.


Do the size and geographic location of war zones dictate the allocation of resources—what goes towards children, their education, welfare, and rehabilitation?

It is not so much the area but the number of people that are affected. Usually, humanitarians make appeals to raise funds based on the number of individuals affected. It can be a small area with 10 million people; it can be a large area with one million people. So it all depends on the number of individuals that are affected, and usually, the appeals are around the number of affected population.


Do countries face repercussions when they refuse to follow international laws regarding the use of children as soldiers?

It is not only countries but also non-state actors. One way the pressure is brought is by criminal prosecution. The International Criminal Court tried the Lubanga case, which is the first case that was tried on a child soldier. That is being tried at the moment. We hope that there is an appeal going on for his release. There is the possibility of being brought up before the court now, which is important. It might be one or two cases, but it has a deterrent effect on others, I think that is important.

Second, [United Nations] Security Council Resolution 1612 now puts forward the possibility of targeting measures against parties that recruit and use children. They have not enforced that with any particular party—there is still a process needed to do that—but it is there and the threat of sanctions. And I must say that in some war negotiations with armed groups, the threat of sanctions have worked, and they have come forward and released children.


How can a country or a state dominated by a single political family, dictatorship, or military rule rooted in corruption ever become truly democratic?

Well, I think to some extent, you have terrible dictatorships around the world, and, in the end, one can only successfully overthrow or work with those dictatorships if the people come forward, usually in a nonviolent way. If you come forward violently, you often replace one dictatorship with another. We find around the world, it is the nonviolent movements, like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela that replace oppressive governments with democratic and free societies. That is my belief.


Often children from impoverished families are kidnapped, drugged, manipulated, raped and forced to become child soldiers. If they are released, they are shamed once again by society. Not only are they born into poverty and hardship, but their lifetime ends up being a series of brutalities. How do these events damage children?


Well, in the sense that first they are physically damaged, because many of them are killed as soldiers or raped as women. So there is a physical damage that needs healing. Then there is material damage, many of them are taken out of school and not allowed to follow education, and therefore, all the lifetime of opportunities are affected. And third, they are psychologically damaged, having to perpetrate acts of violence, and be victims of sexual violence, and just being separated from their families.


Getting back to any sense of normality must be difficult.

Yes, it will be difficult for them, and it requires concerted efforts on the part of aid givers and the community.


You state that children are willing followers in wars that are ethnic or ideological. For those who fail to comprehend this, would it be accurate to say that children with their impressionable minds follow their role models, their parents or religious leaders who end up exploiting them?

Yes, children are very impressionable. They can be easily emotionally manipulated, especially this notion of romantic death and romantic hero. Children are very easily impressed by those models and certain ideologies, and certain people appeal to that and get children to “voluntarily” join. Whether they have the knowledge to make good judgment is another question, but they are often attracted by ideological movements.


To hear about or see images of children engage in violence is difficult to digest. But if we dare to look around us, in peaceful areas, children are engaging in terrible acts, maybe not so horrific.

Yes, in a sense a lot of children are just abducted and made to follow orders. We shouldn’t get away by that, but the fact is a large percentage of child soldiers are abducted. But the ones that go on their own, their families push them because the parents are very convinced of the ideology and think that sacrificing a child is all right. So that does take place.


Your field trips take you from Afghanistan to Gaza and from Japan to Rwanda. What are the common threads of violence against women?

Well interestingly, one of the threads you see with regards to sexual violence, is it is more prevalent in some wars than others. And this is something that struck me.

I was recently reading this research by a professor at Yale who has done an extensive study on sexual violence, and what she shows very clearly is that all wars do not produce the same level of sexual violence. And the clue to that she says is the leadership. If the leadership of the parties warring makes a very strict sense that it will not be tolerated in any way, then it means that the parties fall in line; it does not happen. If the leadership engages in sexual violence, then it becomes prevalent. This gives you more material to know that leaders who allow this should be prosecuted, tried and put away.

And women face other things besides sexual violence in conflict. As you know, women and children are the larger percentage of the refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Women are often trafficked, especially from armed conflict regions. They want to survive, and they are easily exploited. Also, women and to some extent girls are made into combatants. Then you have the phenomenon where war widows or even girls head households in a lot of African countries. The parents have been killed, or they have been deserted, and the eldest girl child takes care of the family. Orphan-led families are another significant issue in some African conflicts.


I quote you from your 1999 address delivered at the Third Minority Rights Lecture in Geneva: “This dismissive attitude to sexual violence along with a hidden belief that ‘boys will be boys’ has prevented sexual violence from being dealt with as a terrible tragedy of war.” Women who are not in war zones exhibit the same dismissive attitude. How can this offensive and damaging conduct of men ever get addressed when we fail to ask for accountability?

Well, the reason I used that is when the UN peacekeepers were first becoming a phenomenon in Cambodia, there were a lot of stories of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers. Some of the women’s groups within the UN— I was a Special Rapporteur of violence— raised this issue. And the Special Representative of the Secretary-General at that time in a lecture said, “Boys will be boys, I do not know why people are making such a thing of this.” So we all wrote to him, slammed him. He felt very bad, and now he has recanted. Now the UN has a lot of systems in place to prevent this. At the beginning stages, we did not have this. So that was the quote I was taking.

But also, to some extent, I find in a lot of crimes relating to women, you blame the victim for the crime. Why? Why was she raped, because she was wearing provocative clothing? Somehow always blaming the victim, and I think that happens in society at large. So many justifications are put forward for terrible crimes of violence. And I think at one point we say we will not tolerate these justifications. People who abuse people have the freedom to abuse people, but people cannot be justifying their abuse.


Children in conflict zones use profound words—like kindness, love, and respect—to describe their loved ones. From where does their emotionally rich vocabulary stem?

I really do believe that if you have gone through suffering, you understand all those emotions much more than if you do not. I remember talking to Ishmael Beah (a former child soldier), he was very young, about 24, just come out of college, and he kept uttering the most profound things. And I think when you have suffered a lot, and you have seen life at its harshest, you have a certain wisdom. All these emotions (kindness, love, and respect) are much stronger.

And they have aspirations to help others, become doctors. What can we learn from the wisdom of these children?

For instance, when I met this girl in Afganistan, who had been attacked by both sides—her school had just been bombed by the Taliban and her family had been air-lifted—she said she wanted to become a teacher; she wanted to do something in her society.

Practically all these children wish to be in the service industry, which is fascinating, as they see role models in humanitarian aid workers and the teachers. It is interesting. They do not say that they want to be a hedge fund manager. I have never heard them want to go to the financial sector or anything else. They want to be teachers and doctors.


A child’s life should be alive with laughter, music, and mischief. But for children in conflict zones, they are hammered down with deathly sounds of violence and torture. This destruction must make children imitate war in play.

That is true. Although it is interesting that children, even in the context of war, will find play, some way to play. Recently we were in Gulu, and it is very clear that once they are let loose, they want to play. So even in war, giggles come, and that is what is important to note, that children are like that. When horrendous things are happening it is horrible, a terrible tragedy but children will always find play. One must never forget that resilient spirit in children.


Destruction is immediate, but rebuilding is difficult, it demands considerable effort and time. How are children from war and conflict zones prepared for reintroduction into society? And how does the UN work with local governments and communities to place these children back into society?

There is something called the Paris Principles. All the child protection actors got together recently in Cape Town and in other locations and formulated what is called principles that should guide those who are taking children back into the community or reintegrating them. And the first thing is that they should be reintegrated and sent back to their families as soon as possible. They should not be institutionalized for long periods. So either family or a foster family or an alternate family gets them into a family setting as soon as possible.

Second, that you have to work with the community as well. So you take a child back to the community, and you do not just leave him there, you work with him in the community for a year or two and build up the community along with him. If you give him special services, the other children who did not become child soldiers will feel discriminated against, and you stigmatize a child. So you provide the services to all the children in the community, whether it is a health service or an education service.


Do you think war and its brutalities will continue as a result of children, now adults, repeating the cycle?

Well, that is why we have said very clearly, and we have tried to argue with the donors and others, that reintegration is important. If we do not do that correctly, children will become brutalized. And the gun is what they know. They can become sources of instability in the country as well, either in criminal acts or political acts. So what is important is that child soldiers are released, and there is an investment to get them educational or vocational skills and weed them away from this kind of lifestyle.


Children from conflict areas continue to experience hardships their entire lives that most of us cannot comprehend. In the safe world, people are distraught over traffic or their latte not being the right temperature. What makes people indifferent?

Well, I think basically people are survivors. They will often allow information that enables them to live day to day. And there is a natural tendency to block information that makes one dysfunctional. If you sit about and listen to a lot of this stuff, you will become dysfunctional. What is going on in some parts of the world is so horrendous. So I think some people take it to an extreme, where they turn everything off.


Do women possess particular qualities that make them invaluable to the United Nations, both in leadership roles within the UN and with peacekeeping forces in conflict zones?

I do not know if women inherently have different qualities from men. Some women in leadership positions act just like men. But what I think is that diversity is a goal and experience of people all over the world, of which one chunk is women, and should be reflected in the United Nations as well as conflict zones. And they bring diversity to the leadership in the UN, and diversity to its peacekeepers and the wealth of experience that comes with its diversity.


Why are the highest percentages of women in peacekeeping forces from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan?

I do not know if there is a specific reason, but basically, the UN has found that the police forces, especially the women’s police forces from India, have done an extremely good job in Liberia. So it is based on that, that they have more women in the peacekeeping operations.


The focus is on rebuilding war-torn communities, but what about the rebuilding of the human conscience in society. How can communities that wake and sleep in peaceful parts of the world do more to bring greater peace and balance to our world?

What happens in one part of the world should be something that matters to everybody, everywhere. Such that people in peaceful regions of the world bring attention to violations, condemn them, and mobilize public opinions against violations, especially against children and women, to highlight those and to make them evident and fight against them in whatever forums necessary. And also to give money, especially to programs and projects that will help children, that you know will end up helping children. I think that is very important.


How can society participate in implementation?

Well, the one very specific thing, if you are financially well off, is to choose a cause and a person and follow through with it. Either you adopt a child and take that child through, or you give to something like Save the Children or CARE or UNICEF that produce programs, and follow up. It’s important if you are financially well off that you use the excess of your money in that way.

And second, often there are these terrible violations against children, and you have a lot of human rights groups around the world that are raising awareness on that, and they sometimes want you to write letters to presidents and prime ministers, I think that is also important to engage in. I remember by 16 or 17 writing my first letter to the President of Korea to ask for the release of a Korean prisoner. And later on, I realized, when one minister of the Sri Lankan Government said, “Oh my God, the faxes have begun,” so that meant all these letters were being faxed into the ministry from all over the world. That does make an impression.


How do you disengage?

When you meet the children, some of them are so resilient and lively that there is also a positive feeling. I know it is terrible, even the women I met when I was Special Rapporteur on violence against women, it is terrible to see what has happened to them, and it is very depressing, and that gets you. So what is the life I am leading? Just look at what she has gone through and how she is smiling and moving forward, capture their spirit, resilience and triumph over that. And that picks you up to see it in someone else.

Also, I come into New York City over the weekend, and I see a good play or a good film. I do see a lot of films that are reflective and philosophical, and they help me understand what I am seeing, what I am experiencing. I like meaningful films. I do have the luxury of coming away from a war zone, to reflect on what happens there.


How do you nurture yourself?

I remember when I became Special Rapporteur on violence against women, and it was a personally complex time in my life, I actually became stronger. Seeing these women and children deal with these issues and helping them deal with it made me much stronger as a person. And really, it’s not that they are taking from me, it’s also they are giving back. There is really something in working with these people that energizes you.