Children are war's greatest victims

Page 30 

How to explain the brutalisation and death of Palestinian and Israeli children? Or the savagery of fighters in Sierra Leone who chop off children’s limbs? Or the systematic abduction of thousands of Ugandan children as guerrilla fighters and sexual slaves? Graça Machel, author of a watershed report on the impact of armed conflict on children suggests that such depravity can be understood only in terms of the “desolate moral vacuum” that is part of every armed conflict.

At least two million children have died in the past decade as a result of wars waged by adults, many targeted as non-combatants or killed in action as soldiers. Three times that number were disabled or seriously injured, with many more suffering from disease, malnutrition, sexual violence, and the hardships of forced flight. And countless children struggle with the anguish of losing their homes, their possessions and those closest to them. Virtually every aspect of a child’s development is damaged in such circumstances, and the psychological toll of armed conflict is incalculable.

In her latest study (The Impact of War on Children: A review of progress since the 1996 United Nations Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, UNICEF, 2001), Graça Machel points up a new horror: how armed conflict and HIV/AIDS are propagating each other in a monstrous symbiosis, spreading destruction and eroding child rights on an ever-wider scale as each reinforces the conditions that fuel the spread of the other.

The criminal exploitation and targeting of children in conflict is an assault not only on their rights, but also on the very cause of international peace and security. When children are denied the opportunity to grow up in an atmosphere of trust, tolerance and justice, the prospects for stemming war over succeeding generations are dim indeed. It is clear, for example, that the kind of warfare we have seen in the Middle East – the suicide bombings and ambushes, the use of heavy artillery and helicopter gunships in civilian areas, the bulldozing of homes, the mass round-ups of fathers and brothers – are hardening many children in the belief that violence is an acceptable way of resolving disputes.

Yet it is also true that since the publication of the 1996 Machel Report, we have seen significant progress in efforts to protect children in conflict situations, as well as steps to ensure that their interests are central to peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building activities. The pending establishment of an International Criminal Court means that the world will have an institution dedicated to challenging the impunity of war crimes against children and other civilians – one that is empowered to hold guilty parties to account, as the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia are now doing. At the same time, the role of business in inflaming or prolonging conflict and instability has come under scrutiny as a result of investigations into the links between armed conflict and the trafficking of diamonds in Angola and Sierra Leone (see article by Charmian Gooch).

In February, we celebrated the entry into force of an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which raises the minimum age for compulsory recruitment of combatants from 15 to 18 years and prohibits anyone under 18 from participation in hostilities. Moreover, the CRC itself has set benchmarks for what we – and children themselves – have a right to expect from warring parties all over the world. A global ban is now in force on the production and use of anti-personnel landmines, which indiscriminately kill or maim children and other civilians for decades after the end of fighting, while posing a comparably long-term threat to reconstruction and development. The shameless proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which are easily handled by child soldiers, is now being addressed. And the increasing attention paid to war-affected children by the UN Security Council and a number of regional organisations has helped move children closer to the centre of the international peace and security agenda.

This heightened visibility in the Council and elsewhere marks a profound shift in our understanding of the needs of children caught up in armed conflict, and has set the stage for improved standards for child protection and strengthened humanitarian assistance. As recently as a decade ago, most humanitarian assistance focused on food aid, health and nutrition, safe water and adequate sanitation, and shelter. Now, psychosocial care, education, and family tracing and reunification have become pillars of humanitarian action.

Of these, education is crucial. Even in the midst of chaos, education can restore a measure of stability and normalcy for a child. Education provides a critical opportunity to pass life-saving messages to children on such vital questions as HIV/AIDS prevention and landmine awareness. And education can sow the seeds of peace and justice everywhere. In the United States, the September terrorist attacks moved many educators to focus on helping children and young people come to terms with their own feelings about what had happened; and to think about war and political violence in an informed and open-minded way.

Educational initiatives that address conflict in the context of human rights are in keeping with UNICEF’s belief, borne out by evidence from places as disparate as Croatia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and El Salvador, that the values of peace and tolerance can be taught. We are also convinced that schools offer the ideal venue for teaching such skills as negotiation, problem solving, and communication.

Moreover, we have learned that providing quality basic education, especially for girls, can make armed conflict less likely. Educated girls grow up to be educated women who are more likely to have smaller families, healthier and better-educated children – and participate in decisions that affect them and their communities.

All of these issues and more were on the agenda for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children on 8-10 May – the biggest and most ambitious global conference on children and their rights since the World Summit for Children in 1990. The Session, originally scheduled last September, had been postponed because of the terrorist attacks in the US.

Few expected that the special session would provide a panacea for children caught in armed conflict. No magical formula exists that will cause people to lay down their guns – or bring about the immediate release of abducted children. But business as usual is clearly not acceptable. That is the message that must be spread far and wide, atop the banner of a Global Movement for Children – a worldwide campaign supported by UNICEF and its partners to build a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of every child on earth.

In a global economy worth more than US$30 trillion, it is clear that the resources exist to bring about real improvement in the lives of children, their families, and their communities. UNICEF looks especially to the OECD countries to take the lead. The world’s children deserve no less.


• Machel, G., UN Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, 1996.

©OECD Observer No 231/232, May 2002 

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