By Gordon Brown
sheer brutality of the violence unleashed against children is one of the
hallmarks of today’s wars. About 350 million children are living in war zones
from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Syria and Myanmar.
Many of these children are on the receiving end of war crimes and other human
rights violations. Yet the world is turning its back.
cannot do justice to the moral depravity on display. Children are deliberately
targeted for killing, abduction, rape and recruitment into armed groups. Others
are treated as “collateral damage” in attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Schools – and schoolchildren – are regarded as legitimate military targets.
They are bombed in their classrooms or, especially if they are girls, assaulted
for the crime of attending school. Obstructing humanitarian aid is now a
standard military tactic, depriving children of access to food and medical aid.
Jebb, who founded Save the Children almost 100 years ago in the aftermath of
world war one, once commented that “all wars are wars against children”. You
can’t help wondering how she would view the wars of the 21st century.
is happening to children is an affront to our shared humanity. It is also a
violation of humanitarian laws, human rights provisions and norms established
over more than a century, including the Geneva conventions, the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The
principles and provisions underpinning these documents reflect the best of
humanity. They are grounded universal rights and the simple but overwhelmingly
compelling idea that even wars have rules – and that protecting children is a
tragic reality is that the rules of war are now violated with near total
impunity. Those committing crimes against children – from Russian and Syrian
field commanders to the Saudi leaders driving Yemen to famine and Myanmar’s
generals – operate without fear of international law, secure in the belief that
they will never be held accountable for their actions. Is ours a generation
destined to stand on the sidelines and wring its hands at the appalling images
that remind us daily of the plight of children affected by conflict? Or can we
challenge and overturn the culture of impunity surrounding those who harm
children and make the current architecture of protection work?
is the question asked Shaheed Fatima QC, one of the UK’s top barristers and an
authority on human rights law. Her answer is delivered this week in the form of
a 500-page legal report for the inquiry on protecting children in conflict – a
forensic investigation into the rules, laws and norms designed to protect
children in war that has been endorsed by leading human rights lawyers. Fatima’s
argument can be summarised as follows: while concluding that the substantive
legal protections for children threatened by armed conflict could be improved
and strengthened in some respects, the key problem she diagnoses is not a
deficit of rights. The real failing, beyond the deficit in political leadership
to enforce the law, is a fragmentation of provisions across different treaties
and institutions, compounded in some cases by ambiguity, making compliance,
adjudication and enforcement more difficult.
advocates a single protocol that unifies the humanitarian law and human rights
provisions protecting children, allied to the development of rules that bolster
protection in key areas, such as attacks on schools and the obstruction of
humanitarian aid. It is a report that should be read by anyone seeking to
strengthen the protection of children affected by war. Of course, specific
proposals will be debated. What is not open to debate is the urgent need for
action. Headline numbers tell their own story. Last year, the UN secretary
general expressed alarm at a sharp increase in the violation of the rights of
children affected by conflict. Those violations left 10,000 children dead
across a broad swathe of countries. More than 30 million children have been
statistics cannot capture is the suffering and injustice experienced by so many
children. Last August a guided bomb dropped by the Saudi-led coalition killed
40 children heading on a school trip. An attack that should have been investigated
as a possible war crime has been dealt with instead through an inconsequential
“internal inquiry”. Meanwhile, economic strangulation and the obstruction of
humanitarian aid – a violation of the Geneva conventions – has pushed the
country to the brink of a famine that threatens the lives of 400,000 children.
The tragedy is that Saudi Arabia’s allies and arms suppliers – the US, the UK
and France – have, until now, all but turned a blind eye to attacks on
children, rendering the UN security council impotent.
years of conflict in Syria have left one in three schools damaged or destroyed,
and half of the country’s children out of school. Two years ago a Russian or
Syrian air force jet bombed a school complex in Idlib, killing 22 children
gathered in a school playground about to start their journey home. Once again,
a possible war crime has gone unpunished – and once again the security council
has been paralysed by political differences.
need to ensure that more of these cases end up where they belong: in national
and regional courts or in international courts, such as the international
criminal court. In our increasingly fractured world, the international
community is divided by many fault lines. The core principles of
multilateralism, international cooperation and universal human rights are under
attack from many quarters. But whatever the divisions, surely the world can
come together in a common cause to protect children.
Luther King once spoke of the “fierce urgency of now”. The children trapped in
war zones surely have a right to expect and demand that we act with the urgency
and resolve that human solidarity demands.
Gordon Brown is the UN special envoy for global
education and a former prime minister of the UK. This article was co-written
with Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children