UN envoy completes Lebanon leg of tour aimed at protecting region’s children

April 15th, 2007 | Posted in Other

    ‘I was quite horrified to see the destruction’ caused by last summer’s war


    By Nichole Sobecki, The Daily Star. Friday, April 13th, 2007

BEIRUT: Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN special representative for children and armed conflict, wrapped up her visit to Lebanon on Thursday after three days of meeting with officials and private groups to address the current situation of children in the country and the continuing effects of last summer’s war with Israel on their lives.

During her three days in Lebanon, Coomaraswamy met with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, Justice Minister Charles Rizk and MP Mohammad Raad of Hizbullah.

Part of a regional tour that also took in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, Coomaraswamy’s visit aims to ascertain first-hand the situation of children with a view to collaborate with all stakeholders to ensure greater protection for children in this region. At the culmination of the tour, Coomaraswamy will report her findings to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and various UN bodies involved in this issue.

On Thursday, Coomaraswamy visited South Lebanon, spending several hours in Bint Jbeil speaking with children about their experiences during the war and meeting with the UN Mine Action Center (UNMACC), civil society and NGOs.

“I was quite horrified to see the destruction that was caused by the recent conflict and the effect that this has had on children,” Coomaraswamy told a press conference at the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel in Beirut. “But I will say that despite this I was encouraged by the response of the Lebanese authorities, civil society, NGOs and the international community in meeting this crisis.”

“The most important result of my trip was the commitment I received from … Siniora on behalf of the government and also by … Raad on behalf of Hizbullah, that they will push to ratify the optional protocol on the recruitment and use of children in conflict in Parliament.”

Coomaraswamy also paid a visit Tuesday to the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs with the director of UNRWA in Lebanon, Richard Cook.

“We were surprised by the living conditions of the camps in respect to the number of years that have been spent here,” she said.

“I think that we need to deal with the issue of education and the very high dropout rates in the camps and also access to better employment so that children feel that it is worth studying for something.”

The issue of cluster munitions was also a primary focus of the news conference as Coomaraswamy said she hoped that Lebanon will take a leading role amid the NGOs, UN agencies, and academics all pushing for an international protocol on the weapons.

Lebanese children continue to fall victim to unexploded cluster bombs spread by Israeli forces during the war last summer. So far UNMACC has concentrated on clearing the hospitals, schools and roads, but many cluster bombs remain in fields and near houses.

Although acknowledging that the “danger is not over yet,” (a fact cemented by the injury of a woman in the South three days ago by a unexploded cluster bomb) Coomaraswamy said “the mine awareness programs and the mine systems being put into place have had a positive impact and I congratulate them for that.”

The plight of children disabled by unexploded ordnance presents a longer-term issue. Mouawad told Coomaraswamy that her ministry is working to ensure that schools in the areas affected by the conflict will be disability-friendly, ensuring that children who have lost limbs can still attend classes.

While addressing the wide range of issues that arose from her trip, Coomaraswamy frequently returned to the need for countries in the Middle East to respect international humanitarian law and the important distinction between civilian and combatants. These issues will form the platform upon which Coomaraswamy’s next few days in Israel and the West Bank will be based.

“I will press the point with Israeli authorities that many of the actions taken during the war this summer seem to violate international humanitarian law,” she said.

In addition to convincing Israel to reveal the location of cluster bombs dropped in this summer’s war, Coomaraswamy said she also hopes to address the civilian/combatant distinction and the proportional use of force, two basic principles of international humanitarian law she feels were abused this past summer.

Coomaraswamy’s visit to Lebanon is especially interesting in the context of the wide criticism the UN drew for its inability to take timely action in Lebanon this past summer, stemming in large part from the fact that the UN has no inherent power of its own but draws its strength from international consensus and the backing of the Security Council members.

“My job description is to be an independent moral voice,” she said, citing the role of the UN “to raise awareness to lobby against violations of international humanitarian law and to be prepared in case of a humanitarian tragedy.”

“These international laws, in the Lebanese situation, especially the recent conflict, were observed in the breach,” she says. “I think that it is absolutely important that all of us – government, UN agencies, international civil society and local groups – push again to ensure that international humanitarian law prevails in conflict situations.”

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