Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Debate on Africa, Millennium Development Goals and Causes of Conflict

Wednesday 2nd February 2005

The House of Lords debated Lord Hannay of Chiswick's motion "to call attention to the report to the United Nations by the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the Millennium Development Goals Review, and to the causes of conflict in Africa; and to move for Papers."

The Archbishop of Canterbury made the following speech:

The Archbishop of Canterbury:

My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has given the House of debating this admirable and timely document. I must declare an interest of sorts as chair of the panel of advice to the Anglican Communion Observer at the United Nations.

I wish to begin in another place. I suspect that I am not the only Member of the House to have been deeply moved and challenged by this year's Holocaust memorial commemorations, particularly the event in Westminster Hall last week. Not only were these commemorations a reminder of the lasting cost and the deep tragedy which happens when the international community in dysfunctional mode betrays its responsibility to those most in need, they were also a reminder—a very vivid reminder—of those who frequently bear so disproportionate an amount of the cost of conflict.

I say this because I have in mind the 60 Holocaust survivors who lit candles during last week's commemoration. Anyone watching them would have realised that at the time of the Holocaust they would all have been children. The degree to which children continue to bear that disproportionate element of the cost of conflict, injustice and horror in our world is one of those factors to which I wish to draw the attention of your Lordships during this afternoon's debate.

The cost to children of conflict has to do, clearly, with matters such as disrupted education and destroyed infrastructure. It has to do with a heightened risk of disease, and it has to do with orphans, their care and their needs. But the particular issue I want to emphasise is that of the use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world.

At a recent count, there were some 300,000 child soldiers involved in civil conflicts around the globe. Children are frequently abducted, invariably brutalised and abused in diverse ways. Such children present a uniquely serious challenge for the rehabilitative process within their societies. They are very often regarded as dangerous and feral by their own societies because of the experiences they endured as combatants.

During the later 1990s, a steady tide flowed in United Nations circles of recognition and statement about this problem. The Office of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict was created, a decision taken largely in response to heavy pressure from the NGOs most deeply involved in the issue.

In 1999, the Security Council passed Resolution 1261 on the subject, and in 2000, the General Assembly ratified the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specified the cost and the problems involved in child soldiering. By 2003, more than 100 signatories had been gained for this optional protocol. The International Criminal Court has recognised its responsibility for dealing with issues around the use of child soldiers.

However, this has been a sadly ineffectual story. It is one case of that general problem to which earlier speakers have alluded of holding to account those who sign international agreements. The problem of child soldiering is, happily, not primarily about abuse by government, although that happens in certain places, but the uncontrolled activity of rebel forces in many civil conflicts.

Does the report address this question? In one passage, it addresses it obliquely but significantly. I refer to paragraph 96, which speaks of the need to expedite agreements on the trade in small arms. I was particularly pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Judd, refer to the need for arms control not only in respect of weapons of mass destruction but for small arms as well.

The ready availability of small or light arms is one of the factors which facilitates child soldiering. That is an obvious point but one that none the less needs underlining. It is therefore a trade which needs particularly intensive monitoring, not only in respect of the arms but of the trade in small arms ammunition. I note with interest that last Friday at the United Nations, the German Government were instrumental in stimulating discussion on possible procedures by which governments might mark and source small arms ammunition, thereby making rather easier the monitoring of this trade.

There is a United Nations programme in place on this matter. What needs doing to implement it? I take this particular instance as one case in which the structures envisaged in the report open doors which show vistas in urgent need of development.

I note in passing the way in which the report underlines the significance of regional coalitions in implementing such agreements. My comments on the United Nations programme and its future will show why this might be of such significance.

In developing a policy which seriously addresses the small arms trade, the small arms ammunition trade and the overall problem of child soldiers and their rehabilitation into society, there are three areas worth considering within the context of the structures the report envisages. The report takes it for granted that there is need for better and longer term liaison between United Nations agencies and not only regional coalitions, important as they are, but also civil society groups, including faith groups. Without that grass-roots support, it is unlikely that policies of rehabilitation in particular can be effectively delivered. I hope that the peace-building commission envisaged by the report will have this very near the top of its agenda.

Secondly, there is an obvious need for a clear lead from government in the developed countries, including our own, on all the matters on which I have touched so far. Thirdly, there is an agenda around international law to be pursued. I have already mentioned the International Criminal Court; it might intensify or focus the ICC's responsibilities here to envisage a clear and agreed declaration of the use of child soldiers as specifically a war crime.

There has also been the more controversial proposal recently that the United Nations Security Council should consider establishing an issues-related tribunal which could deal with the question of the criminality of the use of child soldiers at every level. That is an innovation, and a risky one, but arguably justifiable and workable, given the tide of opprobrium towards this practice which has been flowing over the past decade or so and the huge accumulation of data on the matter which have moved into the archives of the United Nations as a result of the work of NGOs.

This is the kind of work that only the United Nations is capable of undertaking. To undertake it adequately and effectively needs structures such as those proposed in the report, which is a timely and necessary contribution to the eradication of what is undoubtedly the most disgraceful and, sadly, one of the most intractable features of conflict in the world at the moment.

Back · Back to top