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Vol. 24, No. 14 Feb. 10, 1999

Columbia and Canada Lead Effort to Protect Children in Armed Conflict Worldwide


The Canadian government and Columbia University are spearheading a joint effort to help promote the protection of children in armed conflicts worldwide. On Friday, Feb. 12, on the Columbia campus, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Stephen Lewis, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, will join representatives of child health, human rights and international relief organizations, and academic experts in these areas at a day-long conference that will develop strategies for helping children who are victims of war.

The conference participants also will hear from a young man who became a victim of the war between the Ethiopian army and liberation forces in his native Eritrea. Abraham Gebreyesus, now 28, lost his sight and his right forearm in a land mine explosion outside his village when he was 11 years old. Gebreyesus, who is studying to become a disability rights lawyer, is a respected advocate for the rights of land mine survivors worldwide.

Recommendations will be prepared at the end of the conference in two key areas: ending the use of child soldiers and rehabilitating children who emerge from deadly conflict. Working groups will be formed among the participants, including Colonel Tor Lovest of the Norwegian Army; Felton Earls, a child psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School; Jo Becker, an activist for Human Rights Watch, and Richard Garfield of the Columbia School of Public Health, an expert on the special needs of children in armed conflict, for future work on these issues.

According to the Swedish Save the Children organization, children under 18 participate as combatants in conflicts in more than 30 countries worldwide. A report to the UN General Assembly in 1996, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (, reported that in the previous decade about 2 million children had been killed in armed conflict.

The Columbia conference, "The Protection of Children in Armed Conflict: Strategies for the Professionals in the Field," will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Dag Hammarskjold Lounge (6th floor) at the School of International and Public Affairs. According to the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, there is a clear and alarming trend in armed conflict around the globe: children are increasingly recruited as combatants and targeted as victims, including those in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan, Uganda and Burundi. According to Otunnu, in today's conflicts 90 percent of the casualties are women and children, a new development in the history of warfare. In World War I, only about five percent of the casualties were civilian; by World War II, they had risen to 48 percent.

"In almost one-third of the world's countries, children are both targets and instruments of armed conflicts as combatants," said J. Paul Martin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the School of International and Public Affairs, which has organized the conference. "It is our goal, with the Canadian government, to make these deliberations among activists, academics and field workers produce new energy and ideas to save not only children but all civilians from the horrors of war."

Canada is working to develop international standards to apply to war-affected children, including child soldiers. Canada is part of a core coalition of countries that advise Otunnu and supports projects aimed at demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers in Uganda, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Human Rights, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia's School of Public Health, the UN Studies Program at Columbia and the Canadian Consulate General. Space is limited and reservations are recommended. Please call Wendy Rhein at (212) 854-4862.