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Statement by Poul Nielson

Member of the European Commission

at the European Conference on the use of children as soldiers

Berlin, 18 October 1999

We're here today as part of a campaign to stop the use of child soldiers. On behalf of the European Commission, I would like to say that we wholeheartedly endorse that aim. The campaign is gathering momentum, thanks in part to the Coalition which has organised this European conference, the third in a series of conferences to mobilise support worldwide.

As the new European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, I welcome the opportunity to introduce myself and to inform you of the European Commission's intentions as far as this issue is concerned.

I am responsible for the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), and as you may know, our activities and funding are channelled through our partners in the field. Among partners represented on this platform today are World Vision Deutschland, the conference organisers, and the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, which will be crucial in anything we do in this field in the medium to long-term.

Let's get to specifics. ECHO has always supported projects to protect and ensure the well-being of children in conflict zones, usually via programmes supporting health and nutrition. This has been happening ever since it was set up in 1992.

In Sierra Leone, the country which has perhaps one of the most grisly histories of use of child soldiers, we are trying to help give peace a chance with a new type of programme directly involved with those children.

Right now, in both Sierra Leone and in neighbouring Guinea, we are supporting actions intended to take care of children that are ex-combatants, or who were otherwise involved directly with the fighting forces there.

Some examples:

  • The NGO COOPI is organising trauma counselling, general health care, reintegration or placement of children in host families.

  • The International Rescue Committee is working on the psychosocial needs of displaced children and war-affected adolescents and ex-combatants.

  • Save the Children is also working on tracing, demobilisation and rehabilitation of children involved with the fighting forces.

That is what I would call a close-up view of the problem. But I would also like to take a wide-angle view on children affected by conflict let's not lose sight of the context in which children are mobilised to fight. As well as being responsible for ECHO, I am also the Commissioner for Development, and this empowers me to look at the situation in vulnerable countries before they face conflicts, as well as examining ways in which we can reinforce peace after a conflict.

So of course we shall mobilise resources to re-integrate child fighters, in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, but we will also be looking at ways in which we can intervene both before and after situations that give rise to this dangerous phenomenon.

This is not a matter of sophisticated geo-politics many of the measures we may be able to facilitate are matters of common sense at local level -- for instance, making sure children have safe access to humanitarian aid, as well as safe schools, safe hospitals and safe playspace and community activities at their disposal in vulnerable regions. Let us look at micro-projects which can make a difference and be seeds of stability in situations of conflict and uncertainty.

As you know, just now I shared a platform with Olara Otunnu, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Conflict. I look forward to discussing with him future cooperation between the European Commission and all the other parties he has been mobilising as able and willing to develop coherent strategies to protect children affected by war, to give them a safe zone in which to develop. ECHO partners such as the UN special agencies, particularly Unicef, and non-governmental organisations will be crucial in this process.

I expect to be going on field missions in the near future during which I will be paying particular attention to the protection of children, and to the problems of child soldiers and ex-combatants. I'll be exchanging information with all other parties focusing on these issues regularly and hope to involve the European Commission's resources on focused projects and programmes to keep up the momentum generated by events such as this.

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