Armed conflict has significant negative impacts for a country, and indeed the peace and security of the wider international community. A forgotten implication of war, and one that has done severe damage, is the violation against children in armed conflicts. The world faces serious challenges for the protection of children affected by armed conflict, with this group often the primary victims. Children are too often involved in conflicts where they are not merely bystanders, but targets. Not enough is being done to prevent the escalation of war and to alleviate the suffering children endure as a result of these conflicts.
It was in 1999 that the United Nations Security Council placed the issue of children affected by conflict on the Council’s agenda. Six grave violations affecting children most in times of war were also identified and condemned. The six grave violations determined were:
- Killing and maiming of children;
- Recruitment or use of children as soldiers;
- Sexual violence against children;
- Abduction of children;
- Attacks against schools or hospitals;
- Denial of humanitarian access for children.
A recent report by the United Nations outlined the number of child violations from January to December 2015, highlighting the severity of this problem. Of 20 countries included in the report, there were at least 4,000 verified violations committed by government forces and over 11,500 by armed groups. In Afghanistan alone, 3,512 children were killed or maimed in the one year period, an increase of 24% since 2014. In the current Rohingya crisis, approximately 1,400 children have crossed the Myanmar border without their parents and face significant threat and insecurity. It is clear that children continue to pay the heaviest price for failure to commit to peace.
So why are children so significantly affected by armed conflict?
A primary reason is the changing nature of modern warfare and the fact that today’s wars are being fought within states, rather than between them. In many cases, because religious and ethnic conflicts are involved, these affiliations are being manipulated to heighten the feelings of aggression against children as well as adults. Battles are more often fought within villages and communities, with the proportion of war victims who are civilians increasing drastically from 5% to around 90%. Furthermore, a key issue is the increasing recruitment of children as combatants. Children are often recruited by the government or rebel armies through coercion, being seized from the streets, or even being taken from orphanages and schools. This has largely come about as a result of the proliferation of light weapons that can be handled by a small child. And importantly, millions of children have been forced to flee their countries as refugees or become internally displaced due to conflict. These children are extremely vulnerable, being uprooted, often separated from parents or caregivers, and highly exposed to danger and insecurity.
There has been some success in identifying the need to better protect children in areas of conflict, collecting information about the scope of this issue and advocating for the rights of these children. A mandate of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict was created by the United Nations in 1996 to strengthen the protection of children in armed conflict. Since its establishment, international cooperation and support have assisted in the passing of several resolutions which focus on child protection in armed conflicts. Advocacy efforts have also focused on a number of key priority areas. One initiative included the ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ campaign launched by UNICEF in 2014. This promoted the prevention of government forces recruiting and using children in conflict. Despite these initial steps, more action must be taken in order to effectively reduce the suffering of child victims in armed conflict and increase their protection.
In today’s unstable political climate every possible action must be taken to protect children currently affected by armed conflict. The international community must continue to promote the information about the violations towards children affected by war and raise awareness in order to hold governments in these conflict-stricken countries accountable. Concrete measures must also be taken by governments and other parties to protect children, with greater efforts to reintegrate children into society. This should include effective programmes which assist with the tracing of family members for unaccompanied children. Alternatively, there must be greater community care, such as placing orphaned children with relatives or friends, rather than institutions. Additionally, there must be greater pressure put on governments to enact laws that prevent the recruitment of children under the age of 18 into armed forces, and for the demobilisation of all such children. To this date, only an optional protocol stands. Furthermore, education can provide children with a sense of security and continuity even if they are surrounded by conflict. Where possible, schools should be kept open to continue classes in countries experiencing conflict. Otherwise, informal classes can be established in camps for internally displaced persons and refugees.
In the long-term, the international community must take greater responsibility and action to prevent the outbreak of war by addressing the internal issues of conflict, implementing peace agreements and preventing the shipment of arms to these areas. Governments and other actors have ultimately failed to protect children in these conflict-stricken areas and must take stronger action to alleviate and prevent the suffering endured by children. The violations against children make war even more damaging and inhumane than it already is. As stated by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Even wars have rules.”