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 

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2019