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Conference on Children and Armed Conflict: Risk, Resilience and Mental Health Opening Remarks

Deputy Assistant Secretary David Robinson, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine
Washington, DC
December 7, 2009


I want to thank the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine for hosting today’s event and for inviting me to participate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the challenges faced by children caught in conflict and to share what the U.S. Government, and in particular the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), is doing to protect and assist populations that are affected by conflict around the world.

In the coming days, this conference will review global trends and the latest thinking about the mental health of children who have been affected by armed conflict, including sessions focusing on trauma, resilience, child soldiers, and rehabilitative and psychosocial support. During my time in the State Department and at PRM, I have seen how war deeply affects children. The topics on your agenda are all critical areas of discussion that will further our common understanding of how the international community can work together to more effectively respond to the mental health and psychosocial needs of conflict affected children.

In doing so, we face many troubling challenges. Though children share many of the same protection problems as adults , they also have special protection needs, including against sexual and physical abuse and exploitation, separation from families, deprivation of education, forcible recruitment by armed groups, as well as protection against discrimination in the delivery of goods and services. Children are targeted by combatants and armed elements in conflict situations. They also face great risk of physical and sexual violence during displacement, and for each child killed or injured by physical violence, gunfire, or landmines, many more children are deprived of their basic needs. Gender-based violence, including the exploitation of women and children (and to a lesser extent men), continues to be a feature of virtually all recent armed conflicts. Sadly, sexual exploitation and abuse of children by the very peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers responsible for protecting them, continues to take place during humanitarian emergencies despite recent political commitments by governments and international organizations to tackle this problem.

Thanks to the work of academics, researchers, and humanitarians, we now know more about the lives and needs of children who have lived through conflict than ever before. For example, we are now much more aware that children are extremely vulnerable to forcible recruitment as combatants in conflict situations. The gravest cases, such as in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, involve national armies or guerilla groups deliberately pursuing a program of enlisting children to commit atrocities. After overrunning a village, for instance, a military or paramilitary group may abduct a child from his family. The group then instructs the child to kill, rape or maim someone in the community in order to sever that child’s natural ties to family and neighbors and replace this with a bond to the military force or armed group. The tragic abduction and coercion to servitude and violence of Ishmael Beah from Sierra Leone, is now well known around the world because of his incredible bravery and resilience. His story provides us with a case study of the effective brutalization of a child into a state of numbness, in which that child is capable of committing horrible crimes, in this case on behalf of the Revolutionary United Front. The Khmer Rouge used equally harsh techniques to create merciless young soldiers.

Slightly less severe, but also reprehensible, is the practice of exploiting children as unpaid laborers. In Burma, for instance, children are taken away from their families and forced to be porters for the Burmese military. These children are often from minority ethnic groups that are deemed inferior by the majority Burmese military. As porters, they are required to walk in areas littered with landmines, and are often killed or severely injured as a result.

You may have noticed that so far today I have only used masculine pronouns, but girls are also enlisted in conflict as combatants and porters, by both government and rebel groups. It’s widely known that in Uganda and parts of Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army drafts girls as sex slaves, cooks and servants – heinous practices that have persisted in that area for almost two decades. This trend is not limited to rebel groups, of course, and government forces are regularly responsible for such recruitment and exploitation as well.

Working to put an end to the abuse of the world’s most vulnerable is difficult enough, but perhaps even more challenging is the topic of your conference - the rehabilitation and reintegration of children affected by armed conflict. Given the wide scale of conflict throughout the world and the various ways that children can be implicated and abused, the international community often struggles to meet the needs of children after conflict has ended. Ideally, once peace has been attained, children and adolescents should be able to return home to be productive members of their communities and countries; after all, children represent the future of every nation. In addition to political reconciliation and economic development, promoting the mental health and well-being of the next generation is critical to reconciliation, consolidation of peace, and the transition of war torn societies from recipients of relief assistance to partners in the sustainable development of their countries. Failure to address the mental health needs of all children, particularly ex-child soldiers, could in many cases lead to either a return to war down the road, or result in other social ills, such as increased levels of violence and insecurity through the prevalence of gang activity and crime, as we have seen in Liberia.

The United States has been and continues to be a leader in protecting and assisting children affected by conflict, both by promoting humanitarian principles with partner governments and through our engagement with and financial contributions to international and non-governmental humanitarian organizations. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made statements prioritizing children’s issues in U.S. foreign policy, and there are many government actors, including Congress, the Department of State, USAID, and others that are engaged in preventing and responding to these challenges.

Within the Department of State, PRM works to protect, assist, and seek sustainable solutions for the most vulnerable populations around the world – including refugees, conflict victims, stateless persons, and vulnerable migrants. In 2009, this was over 42 million people – the majority of whom are women and children. PRM promotes its goals through the inclusion of humanitarian priorities in diplomatic exchanges , through advocacy, and by providing financial support to international and non-governmental humanitarian responders. PRM also has the primary responsibility within the U.S. government for international population policy, including advocating for international child and maternal health initiatives. In FY 2009, PRM provided over $1.7 billion to international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) toward this end. In fact, the United States, through PRM, is the largest bilateral donor to international partners.

Together, we are particularly engaged in:

· the legal, physical, and social protection of children, including unaccompanied or separated children;

· expanding the prevention of and response to gender-based violence in all its forms, and promoting psychosocial programming that directly targets children as well as adults;

· working to prevent children from becoming soldiers and providing rehabilitation for those who have been recruited or detained.

PRM works through international partners such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other international agencies and non-governmental organizations to provide protection for children who are vulnerable to forcible recruitment into armed conflict, as well as to rehabilitate children who have been, literally and figuratively, through the war. PRM contributions to UNHCR and UNICEF makes programs possible in places like Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan for displaced children that focus on physical protection, education, health, and gender-based violence. PRM insists on the broadest possible implementation of UNHCR’s Guidelines on the Protection and Care of Refugee Children in international organizations working with refugees, their implementing partners, and USG-funded organizations. PRM also worked with UNHCR to develop and roll out its best-interest determination process for unaccompanied minors, and supports UNHCR’s five priorities for refugee children: education, prevention and response to sexual exploitation and abuse, separation from families and caregivers, military recruitment, and special needs of adolescents.

PRM’s contributions to the International Committee of the Red Cross allow it to play an important, even unique role in organizing training courses for the armed forces, police and weapon bearers to promote knowledge of international humanitarian law and other fundamental standards. ICRC regularly reminds armed groups and government authorities and forces of the ban on the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as other obligations. ICRC has been able to secure the demobilization of many children, especially in Asia and Africa. For these demobilized children, ICRC does its utmost to trace family and facilitate family reunification -IF the security situation allows and IF it is in the child's best interest.

In addition, PRM’s funding also supports the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which resettled over 74,000 refugees to the United States in FY 2009, including many families and hundreds of unaccompanied refugee minors. Though resettlement is not a perfect solution, and is not available in all situations, it significantly improves the physical and legal protections of children affected by conflict who have access to the program.

PRM also partners with NGOs and international organizations to provide specialized programming for children and adolescents. In recent years this programming has included school rehabilitation, education, psychosocial care, youth groups, livelihoods training, health programming, and other activities. PRM is also working with NGO partners to implement an action plan on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiary populations in order to increase the accountability of our partners and support their commitment to this important issue. PRM expects its partners to comply with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. This handbook is a very useful tool for ensuring a minimum set of multi-sectoral responses to protect and improve the mental health and psychosocial well being of children and other conflict affected populations.

More broadly, the U.S. continues to view the use of child soldiers as intolerable, and the Department addresses the issue frequently, in its annual human rights reports and in various multilateral fora. Our goal is to see the use of children in armed conflict become the exception in all situations, and never the rule. At our embassies in Sri Lanka, throughout Central Africa and in other regions where children are often pulled into war, we monitor the situation and urge governments to prevent the conscription of children. It is easier, of course, to shame other governments into doing the right thing than to convince rebel groups, who usually have far less to lose. But increasing the social sanction worldwide against the use of children in armed conflict is an important step toward reducing the problem. Recently we began referring to child soldiers as another type of child laborer - indeed one of the very worst forms. As countries worldwide realize the need for investing, protecting and caring for their youth, we hope that this will reduce the frequency with which children are drafted into battle.

We know child soldiers can be rehabilitated successfully and the US government has funded many initiatives to reintegrate former child soldiers. Societies emerging from violent conflict need stability, and diminishing the threat of armed, disenfranchised youth is essential. Last year the Department of Labor funded programs in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that successfully reintegrated child soldiers through educational and vocational programs. And in Liberia, USAID conducted an assessment of the needs of child soldiers and women combatants. They have begun a labor-intensive public works program to provide education, skills and employment to ex-combatants and other war affected groups.

Landmines and unexploded munitions can also continue to pose a serious humanitarian risk to communities long after conflicts end. Since 1993, the United States has been the world’s single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action, providing more than $1.5 billion in aid to 47 countries toward efforts by partner nations and more than 60 NGOs working on the ground from Iraq and Afghanistan to Angola, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and beyond. My colleagues in State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs work closely with the Department of Defense, USAID, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in this effort to support land surveys and clearance operations, educate children and families about mine risks in their communities, and fund medical assistance, rehabilitation and other services for victims of landmine injuries and their families, among other services.

While acknowledging the progress that has been made, we still have much more to do, which is why conferences like this gathering are so critical to advancing our understanding of both the challenges we face and how, working together, we can improve our programs, policies, and engagement. While our ultimate goal will continue to be the prevention of conflict and protection of children, one of our most daunting current challenges continues to be the rehabilitation and reintegration of children affected by conflict so that countries can successfully transition to development without relapsing into violence. PRM is keenly interested in hearing about any outcomes or recommendations from your meetings. I thank you for your efforts, and wish you a very productive conference.

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