Stop­ping the war on chil­dren

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Twenty years ago this month, the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly re­ceived a re­port by for­mer Mozam­bi­can Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Graça Machel de­tail­ing the ef­fects of armed con­flict on chil­dren. Doc­u­ment­ing a pat­tern of sys­tem­atic and tar­geted at­tacks, in­clud­ing killing, rape, and forced re­cruit­ment into armed groups, Machel con­cluded: “This is a space de­void of the most ba­sic hu­man val­ues….There are few fur­ther depths to which hu­man­ity can sink.”

Machel was wrong. A gen­er­a­tion later, hu­man­ity is plumb­ing even greater depths of moral de­prav­ity. Chil­dren liv­ing in con­flict zones are be­ing tar­geted for vi­o­lence on an unprecedented scale, and the elab­o­rate sys­tem of UN hu­man-rights pro­vi­sions de­signed to pro­tect them is vi­o­lated with im­punity.

On the twen­ti­eth an­niver­sary of the Machel re­port, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must draw a line and stop the war against chil­dren.

That war takes many forms. In some cases, chil­dren are front-line tar­gets. Rape, forced mar­riage, en­slave­ment, and ab­duc­tion have be­come stan­dard tac­tics for groups such as the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in north­ern Nige­ria, and their coun­ter­parts in Afghanistan, Pak­istan, and So­ma­lia. Killing kids for at­tend­ing school is viewed as a le­git­i­mate mil­i­tary strat­egy.

In other cases, chil­dren are un­der at­tack from both state and non-state ac­tors. In South Su­dan, since the erup­tion of con­flict in 2013, gov­ern­ment and rebel forces have killed, raped, and re­cruited chil­dren into armed groups. So brutal, sys­tem­atic, and wide­spread are the at­tacks that it seems highly likely that they are car­ried out with the high­est level of po­lit­i­cal au­tho­riza­tion. And, in­deed, ac­cord­ing to a UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil re­port pub­lished ear­lier this year, South Su­danese gov­ern­ment forces have been heav­ily im­pli­cated in such ac­tiv­i­ties, which may ex­plain why no one has been held ac­count­able for the May 2015 mur­der of 130 chil­dren in Unity State.

Chil­dren are also col­lat­eral dam­age, which stems from the re­lent­less ero­sion of the laws and norms de­signed to pro­tect civil­ians in con­flict zones. In Syria, chil­dren liv­ing in Aleppo, Homs, and other cities have been bar­rel-bombed and gassed by gov­ern­ment forces act­ing in open de­fi­ance of in­ter­na­tional law. The sanc­tity of schools and health cen­tres is a dead let­ter: more than 25% of all schools in Syria have been de­stroyed or forced to close.

Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in Saudi Ara­bia clearly re­gard the Geneva Con­ven­tion, the le­gal pil­lar of pro­tec­tion for civil­ians, as ir­rel­e­vant. Last Au­gust, a Saudi Ara­bian airstrike on a sub­urb of Saada, Ye­men, hit a school and killed ten chil­dren. This was but one episode in a larger trend of at­tacks on schools, health cen­tres, and mar­kets. Over the last year, the Saudi-led coali­tion in Ye­men has struck four health fa­cil­i­ties sup­ported by the non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders.

The cur­rent vi­o­lence against chil­dren is a far cry from what Machel en­vis­aged two decades ago. Fol­low­ing her rec­om­men­da­tions, in 1997 the Gen­eral Assem­bly es­tab­lished a Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Chil­dren and Armed Con­flict, to iden­tify and re­port to the Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral and Se­cu­rity Coun­cil on par­ties in con­flicts that are re­spon­si­ble for per­sis­tent and egre­gious vi­o­la­tions.

The spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive mon­i­tors six types of vi­o­la­tions of chil­dren’s rights: killing and maim­ing, sex­ual vi­o­lence, mil­i­tary re­cruit­ment, at­tacks on schools and health cen­tres, ab­duc­tion, and de­nial of hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess. Each is barred by in­ter­na­tional law, in­clud­ing the 1949 Geneva Con­ven­tion, which re­quires par­ties in a con­flict to pro­tect civil­ians and main­tain unim­peded hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess, and the Con­ven­tion of the Rights of the Child, the world’s most widely rat­i­fied hu­man-rights treaty, which pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive list of chil­dren’s rights.

Vi­o­lence against chil­dren per­sists not be­cause of a deficit of rights, but be­cause of what Eva Svo­boda of the Over­seas Devel­op­ment In­sti­tute de­scribes as a cri­sis of com­pli­ance. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is fail­ing to up­hold the laws, norms, and rules that de­fine civilised stan­dards. To put it bluntly, killing, maim­ing, and ter­ror­is­ing chil­dren has be­come a cost-free en­ter­prise.

The cri­sis of com­pli­ance starts at the top of the UN sys­tem and trick­les down, through the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, to the Gen­eral Assem­bly and mem­ber gov­ern­ments.

Con­sider the Saudi cam­paign in Ye­men. Ear­lier this year, Saudi Ara­bia was put on the UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral’s “list of shame” for bomb­ing Ye­meni civil­ian tar­gets and killing chil­dren. By June, how­ever, it had been re­moved from the list fol­low­ing in­ten­sive lob­by­ing by the Saudi gov­ern­ment and its arms-sup­ply­ing Amer­i­can and Euro­pean al­lies. Re­gard­less of these al­lies’ in­tent, the sig­nal they sent is clear: pro­tect­ing lu­cra­tive arms deals takes prece­dence over pro­tect­ing chil­dren’s rights.

The end­less cy­cle of re­port­ing on vi­o­la­tions of child rights is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a pan­tomime. While the spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive’s of­fice has done an ex­cel­lent job ex­pos­ing at­tacks on chil­dren – and in some cases ne­go­ti­at­ing the re­lease of child sol­diers – the pun­ish­ments do not fit the crimes.

As world lead­ers gather in New York this month for the 71st Ses­sion of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, it is time to re­assert the val­ues un­der­pin­ning UN hu­man-rights pro­vi­sions. The only way to end im­punity for heinous crimes against chil­dren is by en­forc­ing gen­uine ac­count­abil­ity – and by bring­ing the per­pe­tra­tors to jus­tice.

At a min­i­mum, in­sti­tu­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court in The Hague and the African Court on Hu­man and Peo­ples’ Rights should be col­lab­o­rat­ing far more closely with the UN spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive. But so vast is the scale of the prob­lem, and so deeply em­bed­ded the cul­ture of im­punity, that bolder ini­tia­tives may be needed. Given the fail­ure of ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions, it may be time to es­tab­lish a new one – an In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court for Chil­dren, au­tho­rised to in­ves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute state and non-state ac­tors for war crimes against kids.

We have col­lec­tively al­lowed hu­man­rights laws to be­come ir­rel­e­vant pa­per tigers. But if there is one cause that can rally a di­vided world, it is surely the pro­tec­tion of chil­dren in war­zones.

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