Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Children of Conflict

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Children of Conflict

Article excerpt

Innocent victims of war and civil strife, especially children, need special protection from the horrors of violent conflict.

Waging war is not generally considered child's play. And yet, at the end of the 20th century, as wars between nations and civil strife within nations persist, millions of children are affected throughout the world. Although they do not start the wars, children experience the negative consequences of conflict as their lives are disrupted, shattered, or lost. And in a number of countries, children serve as combatants.

In a report prepared for the United Nations in 1996, Graca Machel--liberation leader during the independence struggle with Portugal in Mozambique, widow of the former president of Mozambique, and now the wife of Nelson Mandella--wrote that "war violates every right of a child: the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, the right to the development of the personality, and the right to be nurtured and protected." [1]

At a minimum, the violence of conflict interrupts a child's healthy growth and development. In more severe cases, the physical impact of war on children is extreme, including disease, injury, sexual assault, disability, malnutrition, and death. In poor countries, where children are already vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, armed conflict can increase death rates by up to 24 times.

All segments of society--men, women, and children, combatant and noncombatant--suffer in times of conflict; but children are particularly vulnerable, and children under 5 years old are most at risk. [2] In too many conflicts and complex emergencies, the needs and rights of children fall through the cracks.

Governments, international relief and development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations have not developed suitable measures to consider, much less meet, the needs of children in times of conflict. As the nature of armed conflict evolves from conventional warfare into an entire spectrum of declared and undeclared warfare, civil strife, ethnic conflict, riots, and humanitarian interventions, the international community needs to make a new commitment to the needs of children.

The basis for such efforts already exists in international legal frameworks and conventions. Among the major international treaties that can be used to protect children from armed conflict, the following stand out:

* The Geneva Conventions are a set of four conventions agreed upon by the United Nations in 1948 and 1949, designed to prevent the recurrence of atrocities like those committed during World War II. The first convention makes genocide a crime under international law, and the fourth convention outlaws abuses of civilians during war, including "willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment,...willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person."

* The Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force in 1990 through the United Nations. It sets minimum legal and moral standards for the protection of children's civil and political rights. Only two countries in the world--the United States and Somalia--have not ratified the Convention.

A child-focused approach to situations of conflict and humanitarian emergency is practical, possible, and essential. Above all, children need to be protected from the negative effects of conflict. It's far better to protect children before their lives are disrupted rather than to offer protection or report abuses of children's human rights after the physical or psychological effects have taken hold. This new approach to child protection in war will require more-effective use of existing laws and international agreements, and changes in the ways the international community carries out interventions.

Children at Risk

"All wars, disastrous or victorious, are waged against children," said Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children in 1919. …

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