Italy Hosts Child Soldiers Symposium

The obscene issue of child soldiers is being discussed this week at an international symposium in Rome.

The Italian government is hosting this important symposium, "Children and Young People Affected by Armed Conflict: Learn, Understand, Act."

This meeting is in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) - and the 18th anniversary of Italy's ratification of the Convention.

The planners of the conference state: War violates virtually every right of the child and its impact on children perpetuates poverty, illiteracy and early mortality, robbing children of their families, security, education, health and opportunities for development.

Whether as a cause or consequence, conflict is a significant obstacle to achievement of the United Nations' Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

2009-06-26-Italy10.jpg Former Child Soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I was privileged this week to interview H.E. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary General of the U.N. on Children and Armed Conflicts.

She told the Huffington Post that helping coordinate a unified approach to ending the plight of child soldiers was one of her top priorities.

"This week's event is to raise awareness about issues related to children and armed conflict," she explained.

"We are hearing here in Rome the voices of young people who have been in the midst of armed conflict and who have had to bear the brunt of the worst aspects of war's brutality," Radhika told me.

"Their courage and resilience will be an inspiration to us all. Their stories only highlight the terrible things that happen to children during armed conflict," she said.

Radhika was appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as Under Secretary General, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in April 2006.

In this capacity, she serves as a moral voice and independent advocate to build awareness and give prominence to the rights and protection of boys and girls affected by armed conflict.

A video of her report on the Seventh Annual Secretary-General's Report on Children and Armed Conflict may be viewed here.

With the changing nature of armed conflict, the impact of war on children and young people has become more brutal than ever.

"Children are often direct victims of war, killed and maimed, often caught in the crossfire. Some perpetrators directly target children to strike fear in the heart of the population," Radhika explained.

"This intentional targeting is a serious breach of international law that calls for strict separation between civilians and combatants as well for the protection of the most vulnerable in times of war, especially children.

"Children can also be subject to indirect violence. The indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force often results in children becoming victims under the euphemism 'collateral damage.'

"This has posed special problems in modern wars, which often make use of long-range bombardment.

"Children are also recruited into fighting forces, in contravention to international law. Children are sometimes abducted from their homes and made into fighters and sex slaves," the Special Representative of the Secretary General stated.

2009-06-26-Italy11.jpg H.E. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflicts.

One woman from Uganda spoke. Her name is Grace. Grace's experience there is a grim reminder of this reality. In other parts of the world, children join armed groups for ideological reasons - or are forced to due to dire poverty.

"Today we are also witnessing the specter of child suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are alarming developments which must be challenged and stopped through global advocacy," Radhika told this publication.

"Advocacy must be reinforced by real action," she stressed.

2009-06-26-Italy12.jpg H.E. Radhika Coomaraswamy at the United Nations in New York.

"Perpetrators of grave violations against children have to be held accountable and impunity must end. Recently, the Special Court for Sierra Leone condemned warlords for the recruitment and use of child soldiers."

"Parties that recruit and use child soldiers are listed by name and can be subject to sanctions, under the ground-breaking Resolution 1612 - adopted the 2005 by the U.N. Security Council."

"Sexual violence against children is yet another brutal reality that children endure in the midst of conflict. Rape is often a tool of war to terrorize and intimidate communities," she added. I will write more on this vile problem in a future story.

Radhika is a lawyer by training and formerly the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. She is an internationally known human rights advocate who has worked as the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (1994-2003).

Appointed Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission in 2003, Radhika has also served as a member of the Global Faculty of the N.Y.U. School of Law.

Radhika knows the U.S. well. She graduated from the U.N. International School in New York City, then went on to receive her B.A. from Yale, her J.D. from Columbia, and her L.L.M. from Harvard.

I was in her native Sri Lanka last month and am presently working on a story related to child soldier recruited by the Tamil Tigers.

These children have been liberated and are now in a special institution north of Colombo to be re-socialized back into the mainstream. My story "Explaining the Tamil Tigers" introduces their sad plight.

Since 1996, the issue of children affected by armed conflict has gained increasing international attention. Specifically, the establishment of the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on grave violations against children and the adoption of the Paris Principles.

Many gaps and challenges in the implementation of these norms, standards, and programmatic guidelines remain.

The recently published Eighth Secretary General's Report on Children and Armed Conflict shows that children continue to bear the brunt of war. The impact of conflict on children is more brutal than ever, it states.

The Rome Symposium on Children and Armed Conflict is an opportunity to review with key actors the progress and remaining challenges to the protection of children in and from armed conflict.

Raising awareness and action through "learning, understanding and acting" is the best means to increase protection of children from exposure to armed conflict. Every stakeholder has a role to play to better protect children from war, the symposium planners believe.

I spoke recently to the Ambassador to the United Nations from Italy, H.E. Giulio Terzi, who is moderating a panel at the symposium. The panel will highlight the commitment of the Government of Italy to support the work of the U.N. in this field. See my interview.

The Ambassador told me a joint initiative might possibly be launched by the organizing stakeholders at the symposium.

Italy was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2007. When assuming its position, the Government of Italy chose the protection of children's rights as a top

The Office of the Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict was established in 1996 by the General Assembly, following the recommendations of the report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

The Special Representative serves as a moral voice and independent advocate for the protection and well-being of boys and girls affected by armed conflict.

UNICEF is the world's leading child rights organization, operating in more than 150 countries and territories around the world, including in Italy through the Italian National Committee for UNICEF and the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (IRC) which works for strengthening the organization's research capability and to support its advocacy for children worldwide.

The involvement of UNICEF in the development and adoption of e.g. the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups has been key in advancing the overall agenda for children affected by armed conflict.

The International Save the Children Alliance is the world's largest independent international organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of children's rights worldwide.

It is made up of 27 national organizations, among them Save the Children Italy, In various countries it participates actively in the U.N. monitoring and reporting mechanism on children and armed conflicts, established by the Security Council in Resolution 1612 of 2005. Save the Children has been active in Italy since 1999.

Last week I wrote a piece in this publication about another of the U.N. Under-Secretary-General, H.E. Francis Deng. Francis is the Special Adviser to H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon for the Prevention of Genocide.