Archbishop Desmond Tutu praises Harvard-UNICEF research cooperation


Archbishop Tutu at an earlier event at Harvard Law School

Speaking at the launch of a joint Harvard-UNICEF publication on the role of children in international justice, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu condemned the world’s failure to care for children, but offered praise for Harvard and UNICEF’s work, which includes research the archbishop believes might improve the fate of children in post-conflict societies.

“We have turned the world into a hostile place for children,” said Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is known for his role as an anti-apartheid activist and who appeared at the Harvard Law School launch from UNICEF headquarters in New York via videoconference. “Children die from waterborne diseases, from easily preventable illnesses just because they can’t afford the immunizations, the inoculations. When children should have been going to school, we have employed them as laborers, exploit them as sex slaves, make them helpless victims of the wars of adults, recruit them as soldiers, force them to commit abominable atrocities against their own family members. Children are raped, often infected with AIDS, and children give birth to other children. Children [could] help us heal the wounds in our soul, but they become, themselves, abusers. We should be hanging our heads in shame.”

According to a UNICEF press release, the joint publication, Children and Transitional Justice: Truth Telling, Accountability, and Reconciliation, “analyzes practical experiences to determine how the range of international courts, truth commissions and traditional processes can be applied, both to improve accountability for crimes perpetrated against children and to protect the rights of children involved. The book also makes clear that for a truth commission to have a lasting impact, people need to see the tangible difference in their lives after its work has finished. Education, vocational training and school reconstruction were all noted by children as ways to make up for lost years.”

Harvard Law School provided key research and case studies to the volume, which explores situations from Liberia and Sierra Leone to South Africa and El Salvador. Editors included former HLS lecturer Sharanjeet Parmar, now of the NGO Global Rights, and Mindy Roseman, director of HLS’ Human Rights Program.

Tutu offered hope that the study could produce tangible benefits. “HLS and UNICEF should be commended highly for their seminal work,” he said. “I pray that [their] splendid cooperation will blaze a new trail in dealing with post-conflict situations.”

Ann Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, appeared via videoconference alongside Tutu, and took the opportunity to highlight her organization’s initiatives. “The report being launched today depicts the progress that’s been made over the last decade in establishing a framework for international justice for children,” she said, acknowledging that serious difficulties remain. “There are so many children living in areas in conflict who continue to be abducted [and] mained,” she continued, phenomena that she had recently witnessed in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where children have been terrorized by the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army. Still, she offered hope that children could play integral roles in bringing perpetrators of crimes to justice, pointing out that in Sierra Leone, children walked 17 miles to testify at a war crimes tribunal when their other transportation options were compromised.

Following remarks by Tutu and Veneman, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow lead a panel discussion that explored the tensions which have emerged from attempts to integrate children into the processes of attaining justice and achieving reconciliation in post-conflict societies. Asked whether truth telling or social rehabilitation was a greater priority in such contexts, Tutu demurred, saying both were important. But the difficulty of reintegrating children into communities rife with distrust soon emerged as a significant problem, as was the complexity of post-conflict situations, in which children may have been victims of war crimes, their perpetrators – or both.

Several experts said the new research demonstrated the need for greater empirical evidence for some of the claims being made. Jens Meierhenrich, a Harvard Government professor, said that the book emphasized description over data, and that some of the methods it advocated could lead to unintended consequences, such as child participants in transitional justice processes being marked off as targets. But Theo Sowa, who collaborated on the publication, said that while such targeting was inevitable regardless of children’s involvement in transitional justice, ignoring them would make the problem worse.

All the participants agreed that more funding for and political will was necessary for the international community to tackle children’s problems. “Transitional justice tools have paid very little attention to children’s experiences,” Minow said, but it seemed clear that the new report might help to change that.

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