Scotland’s international charities have a proud record of campaigning for vulnerable children in the world’s poorest countries, taking action against hunger and disease and working to secure for every child the right to go to school. Yet these efforts are hampered by the atrocities that are being committed against children in war zones on a daily basis and the international community’s failure to hold the perpetrators to account.
This is the challenge taken up by the Inquiry on Protecting Children in Conflict, a major review chaired by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The inquiry’s final report – authored by a legal panel headed by leading UK barrister Shaheed Fatima QC – has just been published as a book, Protecting Children in Armed Conflict.
The plight of children in the world’s 50 war zones is dire. Today, an estimated 350 million children – one child in every six – live amid conflict, an increase of 75 per cent from the early 1990s. UN data shows an increase in reports of grave violations against children in war zones, including the killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools and hospitals, abduction, and denial of humanitarian assistance.
This is particularly so over the past five years. In recent months, a suicide bombing in a school in Afghanistan killed 37 students; government forces and allied militias in South Sudan systematically abducted and raped women and girls as young as eight; starvation has been employed as a weapon of war in a host of conflicts including Yemen, where five million children are now on the brink of famine; and 79 students were abducted from a school in Cameroon. In conflicts around the world, society’s most vulnerable members are being subjected to unthinkable suffering. All too often, the world looks the other way.
The inquiry’s legal report reminds us that for as long as there has been war, there have been children affected by it. Many of the stories of children in armed conflict in history glorify that involvement – from the biblical example of a young David defeating Goliath and going on to achieve military success in King Saul’s army, to the countless stories of young men misrepresenting their age in order to join up and serve in World War I or World War II. The reality for children in armed conflict has been very different. Since the advent of aerial bombardment in the first half of the 20th century, there has been a dramatic increase regarding the impact of armed conflict not just on combatants, but on entire civilian communities. Children have been caught up in violence that now stretches far beyond battle lines.
In the past 20 years, three marked shifts in the nature of war have complicated the task of safeguarding children from harm. First, inter-state conflicts have declined and more small-scale, intra-state wars have emerged. Second, many of today’s non-state armed groups are using terror as both an explicit tactic as well as a standalone aim. Third, new forms of technology are being used to detonate bombs and to recruit and indoctrinate children to spread violence. In the 20th century, advances in the legal framework for protecting children in war were achieved in response to changes in the realities on the ground. Can our fractured international community build consensus around this issue once again?
Ms Fatima’s report offers a blueprint. The 500-page study – already been backed by a host of eminent international lawyers, activists and military advisors – concludes that the international system of rules designed to uphold the rights of civilians in war is failing to protect children in conflict-affected countries. It calls for immediate reforms to protect millions of children. The proposals include giving schools the same protection as hospitals, making clear that a denial of humanitarian access will always be unlawful where it may lead to the starvation of civilians, and obliging states to take measures to prevent sexual violence against children.
Even where the law provides adequate protection, it is being undermined by a systemic lack of compliance and accountability. To tackle this culture of impunity, the report urges renewed efforts to secure more widespread ratification of existing accountability mechanisms, including the third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and advocates greater domestic implementation.
In the longer term, the report suggests a single, new international instrument aimed at consolidating and clarifying existing provisions in humanitarian law and human rights law relating to children in armed conflict to strengthen protection. One instrument, instead of the multiple existing ones, would make the law clearer and simpler, which will enhance implementation. Another purpose of a single instrument would be to improve accountability, by giving one international, civil, adjudicative body jurisdiction to receive complaints – a role that could potentially be undertaken by a strengthened Committee on the Rights of the Child.
One likely response to the work of the inquiry is that the scale of violations against children in armed conflict and the lack of accountability are attributable to a failure of political will, rather than any deficiency in the legal framework. On this basis, it might be said that a review of the law will not make any real difference. We disagree. The report recognises that one fundamental problem is the failure to comply with, and implement, existing laws, and that enhancing protection will require a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach which encompasses political accountability, support for the physical and emotional well-being of children, and consideration of educational, economic, demographic and socio-cultural issues. But no-one can be satisfied that the legal status quo is beyond improvement, especially when the current situation is so desperate. All of us, and lawyers in particular, have a responsibility to examine the role that law and legal initiatives can play in galvanising public opinion and mobilising support for change.
The global climate could hardly be more challenging, with the rules-based international order under almost daily attack and multilateral cooperation in short supply. But the rationale for the inquiry is that attacks on children are of a different order of magnitude from other issues. Historically, the protection of children has been viewed not only as an area most likely to secure international agreement, but as an issue for transforming international relations. When states unite around universally appealing causes – such as the rights of children – they build goodwill that makes cooperation in other, more controversial, areas more likely. If states can agree to anything, it should be to take action to protect the world’s most vulnerable in war. At the very least, Protecting Children in Armed Conflict provides a timely starting point for a debate rooted in the rule of law that may lead to such political agreement.
Andrew Hilland is director to the Inquiry on Protecting Children in Conflict and Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Lanark and Hamilton East