It's time to end the war on children

It's time to end the war on children
Comment: We won't accept that killing children in conflicts is the new reality, writes Save the Children CEO, Kevin Watkins.
5 min read
15 Mar, 2018
Syrians run for cover after a government bombing in Eastern Ghouta [AFP]
With 357 million children now living in conflict-affected areas it is more important than ever to protect children in conflict 

The founder of our organisation, Eglantyne Jebb, once said "all wars, whether just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child".

She was writing in the aftermath of the Great War almost 100 years ago - and she founded Save the Children in part as a protest against a humanitarian blockade imposed by the UK on Germany and Austria at the time. 

You can't help wondering what Eglantyne Jebb would have made of our world.

Today, children living in conflict-affected areas are bombed, treated as collateral damage, and subjected to heinous crimes, including rape, abduction and forced recruitment into militias. Humanitarian blockades prevent vulnerable children from receiving help and life-saving medicines, as the wars in Syria and Yemen demonstrate.

And the perpetrators of this war against children are protected by a culture of impunity.

Children are not the only victims. Humanitarian aid workers are also targeted. In January of this year we lost four colleagues when a militant group attacked our offices in Jalalabad. This should never happen. But it is the sheer scale and the barbarity of the attacks on children that challenges our shared humanity and demands a response.

Our new report, The War on Children, paints a bleak picture. We have found that globally 1 in 6 children live within a conflict zone. As conflicts become more urban and protracted, explosive weapons are having a devastating impact. The report shows how the killing and maiming of children, the denial of lifesaving aid and attacks on schools and hospitals have risen dramatically over the past 20 years.

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The stories of the children who've been caught up in this new reality demonstrate how it has become normalised - especially by non-state actors - to abduct and rape children, bomb schools, playgrounds and hospitals, and hold them hostage. It has even become acceptable to operate humanitarian blockades that will inevitably cause huge suffering for children, in defiance of the internationally accepted rules of war.

We won't accept that killing children in conflicts is the new reality. We need to rally against this status quo and engage in new and dynamic coalitions with a variety of actors to challenge this new normal.

The numbers don't do justice to the sheer horror of what's happening. I've travelled across the world to meet children who've fled conflict and there's nothing more harrowing than speaking to a seven-year-old who's seen their father murdered or an eleven-year-old who's seen their home burnt to the ground.

What we are witnessing is symptomatic of a deeper malaise summed up by one word - impunity

Behind these numbers is a fundamental failure in our collective responsibility to protect children.

What we are witnessing is symptomatic of a deeper malaise summed up by one word – impunity.

Too often there is a complete lack of consequence for committing such grave violations of children's rights. This is fundamentally a failure of international politics that reaches deep into the global norms and legal architecture, whether that be found in international criminal law, international humanitarian law or even the laws of war where concepts such as proportionality and distinction are becoming dangerously blurred. 

Save the Children UK CEO Kevin Watkins speaks with Venetia*, 9, an unaccompanied child refugee from
South Sudan. Venetia* lives in Imvepi refugee settlement in northern Uganda. She fled
South Sudan because of war and came to Uganda with a group of unrelated people because her parents were killed.
[Save the Children]

In Yemen the Saudi-led coalition is the principle state-actor responsible for a blockade that has placed eight million people on the brink of famine in a country where an estimated 130 children are dying ever day due to preventable causes.

In the Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta the world watches on with horrified impotence as the principles of proportionality are thrown out of the window as barrel bombs filled with high explosives drop on densely-packed urban areas. 

Against a backdrop of such darkness there are glimmers of hope that we must steer the world towards.

Improving policy and practice relating to how modern warfare is conducted today is essential. The Safe School Declaration is a mechanism for states to express broad political support for the protection and continuation of education in armed conflict.

Improving policy and practice relating to how modern warfare is conducted today is essential

So far 73 countries have endorsed it and we hope the list will grow and that we can start to reverse the 100 percent increase in attacks on schools and hospitals that has occurred over the last decade.

We also need to commit to better understanding the physiological impact that modern conflict has on children.

That's why we've helped set up the Paediatric Blast Injury Partnership with Imperial College London, which is committed to finding solutions to the challenges of children affected by blast injuries.

It seeks to deliver practical resources quickly and to activate research strategies for paediatric blast injury going forward. Increasingly we are also aware of the mental health impacts that conflicts are having on children and the critical need for an integrated approach in responding to the challenge.

In her landmark work on children in conflict Mozambican politician and humanitarian Graça Machel once described the "moral vacuum" at the heart of child rights violations. Today, more than ever, we are aware of the scale of the issue and that gives us the courage and strength to keep fighting to better protect children in conflict. 

Kevin Watkins is Chief Executive of Save the Children, UK.  

Follow him on Twitter: @KevinAtSave

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.