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LectureHop: The UN and Human Rights

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Last night at 6 PM, Concerned Global Citizen Alison Herman made her way over to Room 501 in the IAB to listen to the SIPA sponsored UN Studies Panel, “The Security Council and its Human Rights Agenda: Children and Armed Conflict; New Tools to Fight Impunity.” 

Tuesday night’s panel began on a somber note with a screening of “Ana’s Playground,” a 2009 short film by Eric D. Howell. Howell shows a group of children playing soccer amid the shrapnel and burnt-out cars of what is clearly a war zone. When the children’s ball is kicked over a fence, the girl sent to retrieve it is immediately targeted by a sniper—revealed in the movie’s final moments to be a boy no more than twelve years old. In the film’s jarring conclusion, the sniper is in turn shot by the soccer players, who then receive a piece of candy from a stone-faced UN worker who does nothing to address the horrifying violence that surrounds him.

Whether or not such harsh criticism of the UN is warranted proved to be the central debate of Tuesday’s panel, moderated by Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of SIPA’s United Nations Studies Program. Members of the panel hailed from virtually every area of international affairs: Ralf Schorrer currently serves as a political advisor to the German Ambassador to the UN; Jo Becker, who teaches at SIPA, works as Advocacy Director for the Children’s Rights Division of the NGO Human Rights Watch; Radhika Coomaraswamy serves as the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict at the UN; and Grace Alkallo, a former child soldier herself, is the founder of United Africans for Women and Children’s Rights.

Alkallo began the panel’s discussion by relating her experiences as a conscripted child soldier in Uganda. Children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the country’s notoriously brutal rebel group, are beaten, threatened with witchcraft, and sometimes forced to kill close family members. “You actually wish for death, but it does not come,” Alkallo said, “The pain is unbearable.”

Coomaraswamy, meanwhile, summarized her work at the UN to end child warfare. The UN Security Council had once refused to consider issues of human rights, yet agreed to take on child soldiers as a matter of peace and security. By 2009, not only had the Council commissioned an annual report on children in conflict, it had also extended its parameters for defining violence against children and requested a list of nations and entities using child soldiers. Coomaraswamy described these developments as “a gradual process of naming and shaming.”

Becker reiterated just how far children’s rights advocacy has come over the years, recalling how politicians had once defended the now universally abhorred practice of conscripting children. Becker also stressed the vital role that NGOs play in the process as organizations that can often gather information inaccessible to the UN.
Despite its success in countries such as Nepal and Uganda, the UN’s efforts against child conscription are not without their difficulties. Schorrer described the difficulty of negotiating with armies and commanders involved in internal conflicts, since leaders do not represent a government or a state. In addition, Coomaraswamy noted that some member states of the UN are lobbying to only discuss child conscription in countries that are specifically on the Security Council’s meeting agenda. Yet Alkallo ended the discussion with the most chilling reality of all: “For a child, it’s often too late.”

Cute children via Wikimedia Commons

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