Winnipeg's Conference On War-Affected Children

By Kathy Vandergrift

Ikiiriza Mutesi Annet and Ndahimanan Jean Baptiste, two Rwandan youth delegates, wrote in a think-you letter: "I learned a lot from this conference that will benefit the youth of Rwanda in two ways:

As we promote peace in our communities we know that we have colleagues all over the world doing the same.

We must not only make recommendations for others to do but pledge our own contribution and fulfill it."

The First International Conference on War-Affected Children was hosted by the Government of Canada and UNICEF. It focused on what can be done to stop the involvement of children in armed conflicts around the world.

Full participation by youth delegates, including 25 from war-affected countries, set the tone for the event. Their stories grounded the discussion in reality; their hope and enthusiasm inspired strong recommendations.

A tone of impatience characterized the delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). With good reason. Five years ago Graça Machel released a ground-breaking report, " The Impact of War on Children." Now she was back to confirm what NGOs know from experience: some progress has been made on her recommendations, but the situation of children in conflict prone countries is as bad or worse than five years ago. The number of child-soldiers, for example, has increased from 250,000 to 300,000 and the growing risk of HIV/AIDS has implications long after the conflict ends. On the first day the NGOs endorsed a plan of action, entitled "Peace is Every Child's Right." Many of their proposals were included in the Experts Report from the conference itself . Realism about the difficulty of achieving change comes through in the theme of the NGO Day, "Winnipeg and Beyond." An international network formed to monitor implementation and ensure that children and youth actually benefit from commitments made at this conference.

The need to move from words to action permeated every presentation. The Sudan-Uganda agreement was announced on the last day. It may result in the release of up to 6,000 children who have been violently abducted from Northern Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army and taken to southern Sudan, where they are tortured and forced to commit brutalities and fight with the Sudan army against the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. The international community has turned a blind eye to what happens to children in Sudan for over ten years; how well this agreement is implemented will be a test of whether the strong language about turning words to action will have real results.

Governments came to Winnipeg with a draft agenda as well. Unfortunately, it was weakened during negotiations at the conference. Some governments still put their narrow political interests ahead of the need to protect the security and rights of children. Youth, NGOs, U.N.agencies, and friendly governments noted that much work must be done to make the security and rights of children a top priority.

The conference raised the profile of security for children on the international agenda. It provided tools to help maintain the momentum, including agreement by 138 countries to a general Agenda for Action, an Experts Report with more detail, and an international network of NGOs committed to see results. It energized young people who will take the message back home.

Priorities for action include:

The impact of Canada's initiative will be seen at the U.N. Special Session for Children in September, 2001, where an official report will be paralleled by NGO and Youth action to make peace every child's right.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2001

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2001, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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