Based on what I have seen on two trips I have undertaken to Sierra Leone in the past year, apart from the imperative of reestablishing security and peace there, the most important challenge facing that country today is the "crisis of the children."
The urgent and unique needs of children should not be shortchanged. Good intentions should not be a substitute for systematic and coordinated child-centered action. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures -- to this end I have proposed a 15-point agenda to assist war-affected children in Sierra Leone.
We need to establish a National Commission for Children to ensure that the rights and welfare of this vulnerable population will be a central concern in the aftermath of conflict. This concern would be reflected in national priority-setting, policy-making and resource allocation. As a general policy, I have proposed that child protection and welfare should be an explicit priority in the mandate of every U.N. peace operation and that a senior child-protection advocate should be attached to such operations to ensure the implementation of this part of the mandate. The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone recently became the first mission to incorporate these two new elements.
The disarming and reintegration of ex-child combatants needs special attention. A task force made up of U.N. personnel, peacekeepers and the government has been put in place to arrange for this challenge. Discussions are under way for a humanitarian team led by the U.N. to visit rebel-controlled zones as a first step to the early release of the large number of children who have been abducted and remain behind rebel lines.
Special attention needs to be given to children amputees, sexually abused women and children and the gravely traumatized.
We must all ensure that there is an evenness of response, similar to that in Kosovo, to the needs of Sierra Leonians and neighboring countries looking after them. Everywhere I went, I was challenged to explain perceived differences and the attitude and response of the international community to the two situations. Guinea especially deserves more resources, recognition and solidarity for assuming the heavy burden of hosting more than half a million Sierra Leonian refugees -- the equal of roughly 10 percent of its population.
In spite of the nightmare that Sierra Leone has gone through, hidden strengths have survived the war, including an elected government that enjoys widespread legitimacy, a national cohesion without significant polarization along ethnic or religious lines and a strong and active civil society.
The international community cannot let down the children of Sierra Leone by again adopting a wait-and-see attitude. The accord is a fragile peace that requires a lot of international support for its implementation and consolidation.
The writer is a special representative of the U.N. secretary general for children and armed conflict.