|Thursday, 31 October 2002|
Towards national unity with children and youth
Extracts from the Deshamanya Al Haj Bakeer Markar memorial lecture, delivered by Dr. Gamini Abeysekera, Representative, UNICEF Office for Thailand, at the Bakeer Markar Centre for national Unity, Colombo on September 10.
This link between two generations is vital to Sri Lanka at this moment, as we are going through a transitional stage. Re-establishing, re-dedicating and re-energising the different segments of society towards national unity and harmony is obviously the challenge of the day. It is therefore, quite timely and extremely useful for both the young and the old to learn from the role played by the late Al Haj Bakeer Markar who showed the way for unity in diversity.
He not only enlightened the adults but also the children and young people of his days.
I am pleased that the Board of Governers of the Bakeer Markar Centre for National Unity agreed with me to focus this memorial lecture on, the intergenerational linkages. These should be developed for promoting unity and harmony at all levels - starting from the family and community upwards. We must inculcate the values of peace and harmony and establish a sense of pride in the minds of our children and youth to be of service to society.
As the recently concluded United Nations Conference was addressing global issues of sustainable Development in Johannesburg, I was thinking of the word 'sustainability'.
For me, first and foremost it refers to the future and I believe that the future is mainly for our children and young people. Children are the ones who will either enjoy or suffer tomorrow due to our decisions and actions today.
Therefore, we must be extra careful and extremely responsible in what we do from family level to the societal and national levels.
I am also happy that the choice of my theme for today's address is very much in line with the mandate, principles and operations of the Untied Nations in general. More specifically the agency I represent - United Nations Children's Fund, popularly known as UNICEF is exclusively dedicated to the wellbeing of children.
Each and every child in the world has rights for their survival, protection, development and participation according to the UN Convention on the rights of the child. Building national unity at a time when wars and conflicts tend to violate the rights of the child is even more difficult than during the normal times. It is not the Untied Nations which invented the idea of stopping wars, preventing conflicts and building peace or enhancing national unity.
Yet, the establishment of the UN as you are aware, was primarily due to the needs arising from the Second World War. In fact, UNICEF which came into being in 1946, was originally named as United Nations Children's Emergency Fund due to the same reason - to assist the children affected by the Second World War.
Having seen the effectiveness of its operations in post-war period, the global community realised the need to have not only curative or remedial response but more than that - also preventive and supportive strategies.
Such strategies are needed to be directed towards minimising and avoiding conflicts as well maximising and utilising every opportunity toward peace and harmony within and between countries. In this context promoting the rights and needs of children without any discrimination and in the best interests of children must be ensured.
It is unfortunate that millions, not thousands of children, are innocent victims of war and conflict in several countries. It is the infants, children and young people who, for no fault of their own, suffer most from wars and conflicts. Continuous monitoring and adequately assisting them is a challenge. Children who should be enjoying and growing up in a peaceful and a harmonious environment are deprived of their rights for survival, development, protection and participation during conflicts. They have every right to demand from us the benefits of peace and stability. Our efforts towards national unity should go beyond the aim of giving them better facilities. They should be involved as active participants in the process of evolving peace and reconciliation as well.
In this context, I wish to recall my own memories as a UNICEF staff member in duty stations affected by conflicts such as Nigeria, Sudan and Jerusalem, I have personally seen and experienced how innocent boys and girls become disabled or orphans, are physically and mentally tortured, psychologically distorted as well as turned to militants, combatants or suicide bombers. Similarly, I have had the privilege of witnessing and even facilitating efforts towards promoting reconciliation, harmony and unity and involving children and young people to continue to do the same among their groups as well as to influence the parents and communities.
Therefore, I am convinced that children and youth can be used in either way - for negative or positive actions. They can become hardliners who will not give up animosities, hatred and revenge, just as much as peace lovers and unity promoters. They can organise as a powerful force to insist on the need to end hostilities and rivalries and ensure national unity for peaceful existence and sustainable development.
As one philosopher said, our planet has been given to us on a lease by our future generation; so we owe it to them to return it in good shape or even in a better shape; we have no right to damage or destroy it.Unfortunately, the world has not kept up to their expectations. The past two decades have witnessed a growing threat of armed conflicts not only harming children but even making them child soldiers in many countries in the world. An increasing number of 'internal wars' or local conflicts have emerged as characteristics of the post-cold war era.
Today's wars are not to be understood according to old-world order; as many conflicts are a series of protracted disorder with both short and long-term consequences. Increasingly and alarmingly conflicts tend to exploit civilian populations with the most vulnerable - the children and women being brutally abandoned or abused. And conflicts are proving more and more costly to pre-emptying resources from development.
According to a report of the Carnegie Commission on 'Preventing Deadly Conflict', major conflicts of the world in the 1990's excluding Kosovo, cost, the international community around $200 billion, while the use of NATO's military campaign in Kosovo and the amount spent in the first year towards rebuilding war-torn areas was an estimated of $40 billion.
These are just financial costs.
The social costs, economic costs and opportunity costs of war have not been properly estimated and we can imagine how much would they add up to and what such magnitudes could mean if invested in social and economic development to benefit the children and young people.
Another United Nations sponsored study was done under the guidance of Ms. Graca Machel (the present spouse of the former South African president, Nelson Mandella) on "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children". It assessed war affected children using the framework of human rights and child rights for the first time. It also reviewed the relevance and adequacy of international standards to protection of children situations. Following this, an Angenda for Peace and Security was presented by UNICEF to the UN Security Council in 1999 - focusing on seven key elements which can be used by any country.
These are essential in the process of providing humanitarian assistance during conflict as well as during the process of establishing peace and national unity. These elements aim to; (i) end the use of children as soldiers, (ii)protect humanitarian personnel, (iii) support land-mine action, (iv) protect children from the effects of sanctions, (v) ensure that peace-building process specifically includes children, (vi) challenge the impunity of war crimes especially against children and, (vii) promote early warning and preventive action for children.
UNICEF together with the sister UN agencies has also been promoting concepts and approaches such as "Children as a bridge for peace", "Children as a Zone of Peace", "Days of Tranquillity", "Corridors of Peace", and "Child Friendly Space".
These have been useful for reaching the children to provide basic health and nutrition services even during war and conflicts. Such examples can be quoted from several parts of the world including El Salvador, Sudan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, West Bank and Gaza, Chechnya, Afghanistan and East Timor as well as Sri Lanka. These measure are admirably limited and temporary in scope.
Therefore, they cannot in any way replace or compensate for the much broader and deeper efforts needed for lasting peace and stability. Nevertheless, such measures offer relief and protection to vulnerable children. They also serve as tokens of appreciation and as examples of how the parties in conflict could come to terms to suspend hostilities for the sake of children.
The arguments and principles that "Children should not suffer, no matter which side of the conflict they are in", or that the "Children should be put first, in good times as well as bad" can be and have been increasingly gaining acceptance worldwide.
Despite this, large numbers of children are deprived of their survival, development and protection due to the direct as well as indirect effects of war.
Their access to health and nutrition, education and skill acquisition, recreation and entertainment often becomes difficult and sometimes even impossible. During rivalries and conflicts children are not protected from harm, violence, abuse and exploitations.
Therefore, sovereign governments, non-state actors, parties in conflicts as well as agencies in humanitarian support services are bound to uphold the principles of non-discrimination, and the best interest of the child to ensure their survival and protection as fundamental human rights or child rights.
Accordingly, food, clothing, medicine, books, teaching aids, toys and play material cannot be denied for children under any circumstance, including when sanctions are applied. Therefore, before imposing sanctions and assessment with analysis should be undertaken to gauge the effects on vulnerable groups such as children and women. The United Nations system has been pursuing these principles in places like Iraq, Liberia and Afghanistan.
Relief and rehabilitation service should be seen as part of a process leading to redevelopment and reconciliation. Humanitarian assistance should eventually lead up to a more stable and conducive environment for building peace and national unity.
A key element is making education opportunities available to children and young people. Given the complexities and risks in war affected areas and considering the need for more medium to long-term commitments, there is not quick or easy solution to provide education in emergency situations.
Every effort and innovative strategies have to be launched to bring some form of a normal routine and a relatively conducive environment for children and young people.
This would enable them to believe in themselves, to think positively and constructively, to pursue knowledge and skill acquisition, to cultivate a culture of peace and unity, to engage in learning and recreational activities as well as to create some hope for a better future. UNICEF has supported such efforts in some countries such as Colombia, Indonesia, Sudan and Tajkistan.
In some cases, due to the sensitivities of the terminology instead of 'peace education' terms such as 'conflict resolution' or 'global education' have been used.
It is equally important to concentrate on the regions and areas not directly affected by war or conflict as well.
It is wrong to expect that just because children are not trapped in the war zone and living in a relatively calm and stable environment, their minds are at peace and their views are conducive to unity. On the contrary they may be cultivating just as much as the others, feelings of distrust, hatred and intolerance.
They may also be suffering as resources are diverted from basic social services and development to military expenditure. Therefore, the efforts must be made for maintaining such services and especially in promoting education.
The content, methods and opportunities of eduction must be conducive to conflict resolution and peace promotion.
Studies show that in countries affected by conflict, the school curriculum often mirrors or even reinforces the roots and dynamics that give rise to hostilities.
It is therefore extremely important that schools, especially during reconciliation process and the post conflict era, develop peace education strategies.
I am very happy that we have the Minister of Education chairing this event today.
It is quite appropriate that he is with us when we are focusing on the importance of education for children and youth who need to acquire both livelihood skills and life skills essential for promoting peace and development.
The schools and academic institutions are not the only places or ways of learning and gathering information.
The religions institutions, the mass media, and activities such as sports, art, drama, theatre, music, songs and festivals, are natural and powerful areas to which children and young people are often attracted.
Therefore, these avenues must be directed towards and harnessed for nurturing and promoting a culture of peace and harmony. For example, summer camps or holiday season events for children and youth, attended by different ethnic groups may be organized. These can include interesting and entertaining activities and creative and innovative methods to provide space and facilities to children and young people.
They have proven to be useful in promoting attributes and attitudes conducive to peace and harmony as well as to enhance skills such as team building, group dynamics, joint efforts tolerance, mutual respect, co-existence, and cooperation. Similar efforts for children in the war affected areas may not always be possible; but opportunities for sports, recreation, music and creative arts are essential even more for them to cope with and overcome psycho-social stress and trauma resulting from tension, violence and torturous acts.
These activities can also help in resumption of cultural and religious traditions which contribute to development of pleasant and positive mind-sets needed for national unity. An array of examples can be cited from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Eritrea, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Tajikistan, as well as in Sri Lanka.
It is pertinent to recount some of the ways in which the focus on children and youth can be useful in a process of building peace and national unity as follows:
(a) children and young people as neutral groups and innocent victims can be the common interest for peace by all parties concerned;
(b) they often serve as entry points for humanitarian assistance;
(c) it is easier to negotiate for days or corridors of tranquillity in the name of children for their survival and protection;
(d) the Articles in the Convention of the Rights of the Child can provide the basis for setting minimum standards:
(e) space and opportunities for making children happy and providing them with basic education can be the beginning to create conditions for normalcy;
(f) recreation and entertainment activities for children of different groups as well as for those affected by conflict can begin to introduce a conducive climate for friendly interactions;
(g) child to child and youth to youth approaches can be launched to bring them together, which in turn, can be a vehicle for bringing their brothers and sisters, parents, families as well as communities together;
(h) the innovative and unspoilt thinking of children and youth can be harnessed to evolve lighter and friendlier ways of promoting norms of tolerance and co-existence;
(i) non-political, but substantive issues such as religious beliefs, cultural relations, environmental concerns, technological changes, media, music drama, theatre, art and poetry, etc. can be subjects of interactive dialogues among children and youth;
(j) children and youth, as volunteers and envoys for peace and reconciliation can play the role of pressure groups or change agents;
(k) children and youth, with adequate guidance, even be included as members of the formal delegations (for example the United Nations General Assembly Special Session for Children held in New York in May 2002);
(l) their voices, as spokespersons for unity should be heard through the media by providing opportunities in the newspapers, radio and television.
(m) finally, children and youth can argue their case and enhance awareness on the long term costs and consequences of war and conflicts and also claim for the benefits and dividends of peace and unity.
In operationalizing the above approaches, it is essential to have the understanding, cooperation and coordination of governments, civil society organizations, religious institutions, international community and donors, private sector establishments as well as media. This may not be an easy task; but the United Nations agencies including UNICEF can play a catalytic role in this regard, especially in view of the international experience they bring from different parts of the world.
Today's children who will become tomorrow's adolescents are the ones to make or break peace and to hinder or promote development in the future. With this belief, the programming of the UN system is now increasingly focusing on children and young people. Meanwhile it is heartening to note that most adolescents, even in the midst of war and conflicts, have demonstrated enormous resilience and capacity to survive and protect themselves. They have also proved to be useful and active participants in peace promotion initiatives.
If they are given the necessary guidance, support and opportunities, they have a tremendous built-in potential to rebuild their own lives and also contribute to their communities.
The importance and possibility of using such adolescents as change agents for a more just, stable and peaceful society, to consolidate a process of national unity and harmony must not be overlooked. Failure to do so, on the other hand could become a threat for sustainable peace and development, as their frustrations and loss of hope can turn into violence and irresponsible behaviour. The understanding, commitment and participation of children and young people are essential elements for national unity, not only in post conflict situations but also under normal circumstance in any country. Let us strive to make our Country and the World Fit for Children. This is the promise that the world leaders gave children at the recently concluded United Nations Special Session for Children. Children must also get ready to make themselves fit for the country and the world.
I am sure had the late leader whom we are commemorating today been with us to lead the way, he would have taken on himself the challenge of making our country fit for children of all communities. Therefore, in conclusion, let me dedicate this lecture to the memory of a great son of Sri Lanka, Deshamanya Al Haj Bakeer Markar, who always hoped - for and worked hard for a peaceful, joyful and a beautiful island. The Center established to honour him and to remember him is not merely a symbolic structure; it is truly an active mechanism to promote the vision of the late leader. I was extremely pleased to learn that in 2002-2003 the Centre has already decided to promote peace education as the main theme.
Produced by Lake House