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NGLS interviews Messeh Kamara, former President of the Children’s Forum Network in Sierra Leone

arton3589The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General launched its third working paper “Children and Justice During and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict” on 12 September.. The aim is to bring conceptual clarity to the mechanisms through which children afflicted by armed conflicts can seek justice. The paper addresses ways to reintegrate victimized children into society, plus it deals with children who have committed criminal acts as accountable for their actions.

The launch was accompanied by a panel discussion, in Geneva, featuring Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Emina Keco-Isakovic, Permanent Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Pernille Ironside, Senior advisor of Child Protection in Emergencies, UNICEF; Benjamin Clarke, Legal adviser of ICRC; and Messeh Kamara, former President of the Children’s Forum Network.

In the panel discussion, Mr. Kamara’s comments drew the attention of the audience as he stressed the importance of bringing forth justice and accountability for the affected children reflecting on his own experiences during the armed conflict in Sierra Leone. The objective of the paper was highlighted along the same line as it puts forward concrete recommendations for strengthening judicial and non-judicial mechanisms dealing with grave violations against children during armed conflict. Under the existing legal system, international armed conflicts are governed by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and non-international armed conflicts by human rights law and domestic laws. As most war-afflicted children of today are victims of non-international conflicts, national authorities need to align their domestic legal system with the procedural safeguards contained in international agreements such as the IHL, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the paper recommends.

As a measure to encourage the participation of children in justice-seeking, a growing number of children have been called into international courts as witnesses over the past decade. Yet the paper cautions that this can only be viewed as meaningful when measures to protect the best interests of the witnesses are ensured. It urges national courts to adopt special protection mechanisms for the child witnesses to minimize the risk of reprisals by the perpetrators or the negative psychological repercussion on the children after testifying in court. The International Criminal Court has set a good example in this regard by adopting the concept of “victim status,” which allows the physical absence of the victim in the court.

On the issue of holding children accountable for their participation in criminal acts, the paper takes the position that legal prosecution should be a measure of last resort. Ms. Coomaraswamy reaffirmed the position during her speech in the Human Rights Council, by stating that: “Given the forced nature of their association with armed groups, and considering their age, children should be treated primarily as victims, not as perpetrators.” Therefore, emphasis should be put on prosecuting adult recruiters and States should consider exempting children below 18 from legal responsibility, the paper asserts. However, during the panel discussion, while fully agreeing to such an approach, panelists also expressed the dilemmatic situation wherein minimal accountability mechanisms for children can be exploited by adult recruiters.

Acknowledging such a dilemma, the paper expresses support for non-judicial alternative mechanisms for justice and accountability-seeking. These include truth-telling, traditional ceremonies, and community-based reintegration programmes. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and traditional justice mechanisms have also been constructive alternatives in facilitating children’s participation in justice-seeking, the paper states. In the end the paper re-emphasizes that “the best interest of the child and his or her reintegration of children into society should at all times be the primary concern.”

Following the launch of the working paper, NGLS interviewed Messeh Kamara, former President of the Children’s Forum Network and a victim of armed conflict in Sierra Leone.

NGLS: Could you tell us about your previous engagement in the Children’s Forum Network and your activities today in terms of advocacy for children?

Despite the difficulties and the traumatic experiences of war in Sierra Leone, I never lost hope and continued in my passion to create a better world for children. After the decade civil war ended, I took an interest in human rights and peace building efforts. I became a leader among the young generation in Sierra Leone - promoting peace and championing child rights. At age 14, I helped establish a democratic child-led organization, and I was elected national president of the Children’s Forum Network (CFN), which chaired the children’s inputs to the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I helped in the formation of the UN Voice of Children Radio, covering and reporting child rights issues across the country. My actions on behalf of children, saved countless lives from abuse and neglect and provided support for their recovery.

I was the leading campaigner who presented the child rights agenda to the President of Sierra Leone and advocated tirelessly for the enactment of the Child Rights Act, adopted in 2007.

I assisted in the establishment of branches of the Children’s Forum Network in all the parts of the country, which culminated into the National Children’s Assembly (Children’s parliament). In the Western Area alone there were more than 60 branches of the organization, with more branches being formed in Freetown and the provincial headquarters towns of Bo, Kenema, Makeni and other part of the country.

Monitoring child right violations in schools, institutions and neighborhoods was a key aspect of my activities in the CFN. Findings of such monitoring activities are first discoursed at regular CFN meetings and reported to the Ministry of Children’s Affairs and other child-focused NGOs who help to address those findings.

I acted as a mentor and facilitator, and supported the participation of a number of child rights activists, including Miss Aminata Palmer, aged 12, who delivered an emotional speech for advancing the rights of children at the first G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005.

I initiated and organized the National Children’s of Excellence Award (NaCEA) to honour both children and adults who promote the rights of children across the country. The event is usually attended by the President of Sierra Leone and representatives from Government, NGOs and local celebrities.

I was greatly involved in the preparation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) to reflect children’s point of view, and helped produce a child friendly version of the PRSP, which was presented to the Vice President of Sierra Leone by members of the Children’s Forum Network.

After my service to the Children’s Forum Network, I began to re-establish networks of support from Sierra Leoneans at home and the Diaspora and formed a youth-led organization called the “Young Leaders of Sierra Leone” (YLSL), with branches in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and in the United States. Many educated and experienced individuals are contributing their skills, talents, in support of young people’s rights.

I have contributed greatly in the work of international agencies and participated in the formation of a number of civil society organizations/projects in Sierra Leone and across the world. I recently created an enterprise for positive social change, the “Messeh Partnership Trust;” and have also founded the “African Movement for Change,” with the aim of improving the lives of children and young people and creating empowerment and employment opportunities for young people and their local communities.

Currently studying law at the University in London, I am also greatly involved in promoting young people’s issues in the UK and across the world through the Commonwealth Secretariat; as well as engaging the Africa diaspora in support of the children’s agenda. I assisted in facilitating a delegation of young people to visit Prime Minister Tony Blair and established a working relationship between YLSL and the office of Tony Blair in support of young people in Sierra Leone. I also work with a number of UK based charities to support children orphaned and disabled by war and provide them with opportunities for a better future.

More recently, I have become increasingly involved in environmental issues and working to engage young people in tackling climate change, with a focus on the implications for the enjoyment of children’s rights. I was invited by UN-Habitat to share youth perspectives on climate change at the World Urban Youth Forum in China and supported the Clinton Global University Initiative held in Texas, USA. My goal upon returning was to inspire other youths and to inform them about the environmental impacts of youth actions around the globe. I subsequently formed the Commonwealth Youth Network on Climate Change and hosted the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Summit in London in October 2009.

I have travelled to a number of countries (across Africa, Europe, America, Asia) in order to speak at conferences, engage in practical projects and contribute to the work of international development agencies, in support of children’s rights. I was a keynote speaker at the Swedish European Union Summit on human rights and children, held in Stockholm in July 2009.

Recently, I participated in the UNOY Peacebuilders Job shadowing project, in the framework of sharing and understanding different realities and issues regarding peace building. See the following links for more information:

Case studies/ testimonies from Sierra Leone on ending war and promoting lasting peace Messeh Kamara, and

Interview with Mr. Messeh Kamara from Young Leaders Sierra Leone

I was also at a panel, together with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict in Geneva. Read for example:

Opinion divided over prosecution of child soldiers; and

Seeking justice for children during and after armed conflict

NGLS: Reflecting on your experiences and that of your community, how would you assess the recommendations provided in the working paper “Children and Justice During and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict”?

I am both pleased and disappointed in equal terms. I am pleased that the working paper has highlighted some very good recommendations, but also disappointed that most of these recommendations will never be implemented. Over the past years, we have attended a number of meetings, and produced countless working papers and recommendations on children’s rights, yet progress is slow and still children are suffering during and after conflict. I personally feel that the working paper is a clarion to action and has highlighted a number of key issues which need urgent and collective global action.

I support the recommendation that children should always be treated as “victims” and not “perpetrators.” I am also of the view that detention, or otherwise judicial engagement of children without their consent must never be a measure of last resort... prosecution or representation of children in the judiciary system must never be an option. We must be careful and ensure the full protection of children as witnesses. Children have a right to speak and have their voices heard and their views considered in judicial proceedings... this is Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child!

I agree, “the best interest of the child and the reintegration of children into society should at all times be the primary concern.”

NGLS: What do you think are the imperatives that need to be undertaken by the UN system to bring justice for war-affected children? How would you like the UN and other stakeholders to take this forward? What are some of the main obstacles?

I hope we can turn these recommendations into action - world leaders through the UN system supporting children affected by war and also a Global Consortium to deliver recommendations of the working paper i.e. a global network of child rights activists “End the Recruitment of Children.” We can mobilize around this global campaign and also establish a “Justice for Children” campaign, etcetera.

The UN should focus on advancing the rights of children affected by war and the passing of successive UN resolutions to immediately intervene and save children in conflict situations that use children as soldiers. A travel ban must always be placed on all those persons involved in the recruitment of children. Also, national governments who do not provide adequate services to children affected by conflict must be suspended from the UN Assembly, until such provisions are met. Those who are convicted by the ICC for crimes against children, their punishment must be doubled or made to serve a higher prison term. Adults must be held accountable for the crimes committed by children, which such children could otherwise be held accountable for if they were to be prosecuted as adults. If convicted, their assets must be confiscated and directed towards a Trust Fund for child victims to promote their well-being and to pay for their basic education and health services - as a form of reparation to restore children’s dignity.

The focus of stakeholders should be on promoting the voices of children during and after conflict and help seek justice for children. The development and implementation of non‐custodial measures, the improvement of protection and rehabilitation programmes, and reintegration support for children affected by war. This will involve increasing coordination between UN agencies and other stakeholder, and the allocation of the needed resources from within national governments. The development of sustainable interventions and the implementation of non-judicial systems including Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to ensure the effective participation and healing of children who have suffered in the hands of selfish adults.

I do not envisage any obstacles in our responsibilities to protect the next generation - poor children affected by war. There could be some obstacles, but this is no excuse to ignore those children who need help most. The main difficulty we encountered is a lack of services for victims of war. You have to be mindful about how they will be supported throughout a challenging process, how have they got to this point where they feel able to participate and how will they be supported during and after a very traumatic experience.

NGLS: Even after the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Sierra Leone, there seems to have been many different opinions on the achievement of justice, healing, reconciliation, peace, and so on. What would you identify as some of the basic principles or practices that everyone can share to steer the process in the most desirable direction for both the victims and society at large?

By involving victims and society and generating public discussion on accountability and truth seeking, the Sierra Leone truth commission help built our capacity and generate interests to participate in the governance of the country and democratic process. Children were given the right to express their views and to be considered in such processes.

I personally feel that truth commission can play an important role in bring together divided societies, together as One Nation and One People. Society will always need a platform for people to express their feelings and aspirations after a very traumatic experience, and acknowledging that something occurred and seeking forgiveness for that wrong is the only platform available to take us to the future we want to see.

But, some people felt that the TRC had a linked with the Special Court for Sierra Leone; hence some alleged perpetrators or certain sections of the societies were reluctant to participate in the TRC. This obstacle illustrates the need for a truth commission to be created on the premises of confidentiality and without any links with judicial processes. In any case, proactive outreach is necessary to inform the public.

Children’s participation was developed based on the involvement of children including members of the Children’s Forum Network and consultations with the wider community. From the start, children were consulted and, we were also able to produce a report of our own (the child-friendly version of the TRC report) at the end of the process. The TRC engaged with different communities and had a specific focus on vulnerable groups and victims, including women and girls.

However, a number of factors prevented some groups including young women from participating in the work of the truth commission, for fear of intimidation, shame, or fear of reprisal because of what they have suffered. Efforts to enable girls’ participation should avoid scenarios that could risk further stigmatization, violence or abuse. Boys who have been victimized, or who have participated in violence may be reluctant to reveal their feelings and debilitating experiences. For these reasons, truth commissions should implement measures to provide safe opportunities for both boys and girls to engage in the process.

The Sierra Leone truth commission was very effective in complementing the work of other peace building initiatives in the country. The TRC was able to document violations and seeking reconciliation, and helped communities move on in many aspects.

The best practices for determining whether the truth commission is appropriate in seeking justice, reconciliation and peace could be determined as follows:

• The participation of concerned communities and victims should be voluntary, with the informed consent of the child and parent or guardian, where children are concerned. The decision not to participate is also a form of participation.

• The best interests of victims should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning work of the TRC and a vital criterion in decision-making, and should guide the entire process. Victims, particularly children and women must be treated with dignity and respect.

• In keeping with international standards of juvenile justice, children’s identity should be protected at all times in both truth commissions and judicial proceedings. Truth commissions should never name child perpetrators in their final report. Truth commissions should not recommend children for prosecution, recognizing that children are not among those most responsible.

• TRC should establish the appropriate polices and mechanism, that guarantee safety and security of those who participate in the process, including the availability of appropriate psychosocial support.

• A gender-sensitive approach should include a focus on protection of the rights of girls, addressing their specific needs.

Identifying funds to implement a reparations programme is a critical challenge. In the aftermath of war, governments are likely to be overburdened and may be unable or unwilling to provide funds for reparations to survivors. This is where the Sierra Leone government is falling and lacking, hence the divided opinions about the effectives of the truth commission in promoting justice, reconciliation and peace.

The war took a lot, yet people are still unable to recover and are still struggling. All the promises and expectations that came with the TRC are, yet, to be realized. There is the urgent need for long-term support for affected communities including the youth, if lasting peace is to be achieved. The implementation of the TRC’s recommendations has proved challenging, and the promotion of the TRC report is non-existent, yet it is crucial to promote democracy, citizenship, tolerance and peace building among victims and the society at large.

The truth commission should give paramount importance to the physical safety and psychological protection of victims and society at large in pursuing accountability and observance of the fundamental principles of human rights, after a violent conflict.

NGLS: And lastly, what do you view as the role of youth (both affected and not affected by armed conflicts) in safeguarding the rights of the children in conflict zones?

Youth can be agent of change! Youth can have a major power and influence in promoting the rights of children in conflict zones. The involvement of the youth can be at both the policy level and at the grassroots level. At the policy level, there are many avenues for engaging young people effectively to participate and advocate for the rights of children. If empowered and informed, youth can help in safeguarding the rights of children, especially in policy discussions at the UN and national governments level. At grassroots level, through the use of email, and social media such as facebook, youth are able to engage in discussions with others from around the world.

It is important for each society to recognise that the youth form an active part of its fabric and are significant forces for prompting and protecting child rights. The UN should encourage Member States to endeavour to engage young people in peace building efforts. Youth can serve as important actors to stop the abuse of children. The youth should be engaged in causes and organizations that champion children’s rights. The national governments and international community should promote continuous consultations with youth-led organizations and give them representation in national delegations to relevant UN events. Youth is the greatest resource available to any society, and the most effective way of harnessing their potential is to deploy the right institutions and incentives for youth participation.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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