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UN Special Rep. Leila Azerrogui speaks to the National Yemen about children in armed conflict

National Yemen

Leila Azerrogui

By Fakhri al-Arashi

During her short visit to Yemen, the Editor-in-Chief of the National Yemen had the opportunity to meet with Leila Azerrogui, the United Nations Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. Ms. Azerrogui has met with President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Prime Minister Basindowa , Houthi representatives and  number of Yemeni officials and ambassadors. In the following interview, Azerrogui summarized her mission to Yemen and offered details from her own life and experience.

Ms. Azerrogui is Algerian and has worked as a judge; she is also recognized as a long-tie defender of human rights. She has worked on a variety of issues, has sought the implementation of truly fair trails and pursued strengthened independent judiciary principles. She entered her first job as a judge in a country with one state party, and went on to work on legal issues connected with women’s and children’s rights. In Algeria, she encountered acts of terrorism, counterterrorism, and violence on the part of armed groups. She considered a number of her government’s actions to be in conflict with the law, and perceived the challenges involved with fighting violence against a civilian population while at the same time working to ensure that the country’s instability wouldn’t lead to its collapse.

She was elected to be a member of the Sub-Commission to Promotional Human Rights Protection in Geneva in 2000 and worked pro bono with the UN. From 2001 to 2008, she was a member and then chairperson of the UN effort to combat arbitrary detentions.

More and more, Azerrogui focused her efforts on fair trail principles and the fights against arbitrary detentions and discrimination in criminal justice systems. In doing so, she was working on human rights issues in Arab countries and Africa.

She was part of the African Union Commission on Human Rights as a member of the panel committee known as the Robin Islands Principles, the aim of which was to combat incidences of torture in Africa.

She had a chair in the Arab League as well as on a committee of Arab experts who were brought to Geneva to modernize the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Azerrogui was then a Special Representative Secretary General for the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2008 to 2012, in which capacity she focused on rule of law and protection. She is now Special Representative Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict.

National Yemen:  Your mission to Yemen comes two weeks after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Yemen. Did the Secretary General give any special orders to you in connection with his stated commitment to support Yemen?

Leila Azerrogui :  First of all, Yemen was on my agenda as a priority which I had to address because when I was appointed, I start thinking about how we could move forward with the mandate. I felt that the mandate which existed since 1997 had a strong legal framework and tools; it’s the implementation that is sometimes lacking. I thought of the Arab region and the new and old conflicts which exist there.

When the Secretary General returned from his visit to Yemen, he was very clear about the fact that he was very happy; he returned with a strong, positive feeling about the context and about the opportunities, and he told his deputies that everyone to the best of his capacity must make sure that efforts will move forward. The UN has a positive image in Yemen, and so the UN can make a difference in helping Yemen with its process. He returned with a positive feeling that the country’s current process can move forward.

NY:  What made the Secretary General feel positive, and what convinced him that Yemen is moving forward?

LA:  I think he felt as I myself feel; first of all, I can understand why there is good faith in the leadership to address problems at hand. You can perceive good faith in the leaders even though there are divisions in the country, and even if there are differences in opinion as to how to move forward, which is normal.

People would like to see things moving in the right direction, so with this strong feeling, you have also to empower those with good will and who act in good faith to address problems. It’s important that the United Nations and all partners help them to make sure that those who wish to spoil things are not stronger than those with good will. This is what made him feel very convinced. There is a strong commitment from the Security Council, the United Nations as a whole, the Gulf Region and other partners working with the Yemeni authorities. So there are many reasons to see that there are opportunities to move forward with this initiative. There is also a risk that everything can collapse that it is important to do the maximum work to avoid the collapse of the state.

NY:  Would you please tell us more about your talks with President Hadi, Houthis, and other political players on the ground in Yemen?

LA:  Well, I have a very specific mandate, which concerns violations of children’s specific rights and which put four Yemeni parties on the list of those who violated the rights of children. This was the main agenda – how we can address this. First of all, do you have this problem, yes or no; then, how can we address this problem. If the answer is yes, then we discuss solutions. The president and the prime minister were very open, and so we discussed the problem itself.

NY:  What was the problem which you discussed?

LA:  The issue of the recruitment of children, either by certain army units, or by tribes, Houthis or the First Armored Division. so we have these issues and we have addressed them to stop the recruitment of children. We also have children whose limbs have been maimed, and those killed by explosive devices; we have schools which have been destroyed or occupied by IDP. I discussed all these issues; I also explained that this was an opportunity, as we are in a transitional process to put the right mechanisms and tools in place to ensure that this would end. He [Hadi] made the commitment, and before the end of the day, the President issued a decree along a strong public commitment which remained everyone that recruitment below the age of eighteen is prohibited. I think this represented a strong commitment from the President.

NY:  The Economy is not very strong and youths, along with their parents, see the military as representing the jobs they can find most quickly. How will you guarantee that militias and the nation’s military won’t again recruit children below the age of eighteen in the future?

LA:  I fully agree economy-wise, but I think we have to put a system in place which allows you to not open the doors to the recruitment of children. War is an affair for adults; we are in the modern world and even if we look to our tradition and our religion, I think we have no history from the Prophet Mohammed in which he used children in war. He was the first one to say to his first troops who were going to Mecca, “Do not touch children, women, the oldest, and do not even touch the trees.”

This is a clear message, and there is no doubt about it. Yemeni leaders should not argue with this. So it’s important to say that war is not a child’s affair – they are affected by war; don’t ask them to be killers and to be exposed to violence. Yes, there is poverty; yes, there are people who have no other alternative but to send their children to be paid. It’s ok and we do understand that; this could be addressed with a government program.

In an action plan, when we work with the government, we address multiple issues, which include awareness programs that state ‘This is a war crime and you could be prosecuted’. The second part is the verification and separation of children that are still in any armed units. Then, the reintegration of children, the rehabilitation process. There are programs which will also benefit children, their families, and their communities. Then there is punishment and prosecution at the local and international levels.

NY:  You have addressed military officials and the Houthis, but you still have the Sheikhs and the heads of tribes who sometimes take children as hostages. Have you come to know about this? And have you addressed it?

LA:  In two and a half days, I couldn’t address everyone, but I tried to address leaders, those who have influence and those who have been identified either as being involved or able to make a difference. I met with the government – they have a responsibility to protect children, so they are the ones whom I addressed first. I met with the military because they are the ones accused of doing it, and I met with the Houthis.

NY:  What was the response of Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi?

LA:  He said he was ready to implement, and he raised some issues with regards to their own children who had been killed. He spoke about the six wars, but said he had no problem with this commitment and mechanism if it’s fair and transparent, because it’s in him and his community and they would like to see their children protected and go to school rather than be involved in wars.

NY:  How honest did you find responses in the talks with Houthis?

LA:  My personal experience is that you must trust in people, and then you judge actions. I think they have a mistrust of international and even national institutions, and we have to build this trust. They were very passionate about wanting to see the peace process moved in the right direction. They said they didn’t want to resume war. For me, I have seen a strong commitment;  I also felt  there was good faith and I will consider it good faith unless I see something else. I also made a commitment to myself that I would make sure that people work with them and report on the agreement. I also met with Sheikh Al-Ahmar, Ali Mohsen and other government figures. I did my best.

NY:  I’m sure that you did your best – your visit is an expression of your goodwill towards the children of Yemen’s future; but with challenges based on the economy and on survival, how can you address international players to obtain help with supporting the economy, as far as genuine projects and programs are concerned?

LA:  I fully agree, and this is part of my advocacy to all people I met, that to have investment and to have people come, they need peace; because nobody will bring their money where there is a risk that everything will be blown. So it’s absolutely true that everything is linked. This country has a lot of opportunities because of its position, its agriculture, and its history and people. Yemen is a country with resources, but you need to settle and you need to fight corruption.

We need to help people who defend others’ rights and we need to find people who care to make sure the right results are obtained. But at the same time, while we are addressing this, you are building confidence; when the people see you work in the right direction, you can bring forth those people who can do the work. Still, the process is so fragile because some still believe that you must help the state – and many countries have interests in the region. Yes, it’s about the economy, but we have to ask why after fifty years you still have 66% of the population illiterate. That is why it’s important to make sure that the process won’t delay, because if you have the wrong institutions and the wrong leadership, then you will not be able to build; after one hundred years, we’ll find Yemen facing the same problems and the situation may be worse. I’m not here to challenge any person, but know that you have to think that in 50 years, you will have to have a new Yemen. You need to build trust in institutions and in leaders. If you give hope to new generations and you deliver the right services, you will see Yemenis doing things by themselves.

NY:  To conclude, could you please give your comments on something unrelated to conflict?

LA:  My mandate is really concerned with violations which are linked with conflicts, but of course when you have poverty, illiteracy and war, you may have violations which affect a majority of the people. They are mostly children, from 15 to 18 years of age, who are affected by the consequences of war. War directly affects poverty and illiteracy, especially when institutions don’t deliver very basic services. If there are not strong institutions to protect vulnerable groups, they will experience violence, sexual and domestic violence; they will be killed, trafficked, or ill-treated.