PROTECTION OF CHILDREN IN AREAS OF ARMED CONFLICT
Hrishikesh Reddy Kothwaland, Shivang Mishra, 1st year, National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
These words were written by Warsan Shire in her well-known poem Conversations about Home (at a deportation center). This poem has been instrumental in capturing the essence of refugees in war zones. Among the worst victims of these conflicts are children who are often killed, maimed, orphaned, enslaved, or taken as child soldiers. In 2015, a photo of a 3-year-old Alan Kurdi who has washed ashore the Mediterranean Sea, along with his parents took the world by storm and brought renewed attention to the plight of children in conflict zones. Alan Kurdi and his family were trying to escape to Europe from war-torn Syria in a boat that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. 357 million young girls and boys, that is, 1 in every 6 children in the world live in areas of war or armed conflict as reported by the United Nations. Article 14 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949 provides for the set-up of hospital and safety zones for children under 15 but in reality children in these conflict zones often have only 2 options, either stay in the conflict zone, get exploited and risk the chance of death or try to escape via dangerous means where the chances of death are equally high if not more. These choices are not presented to the children, but they are forced into circumstances where these are their only options.
THE PLIGHT OF CHILDREN IN AN ARMED CONFLICT
The people who live in the presence of an armed conflict inadvertently become the worst victims of the ravages of war. Often, they have to go through sexual exploitation, mutilation, genocide, abduction, amputation, etc. The abundance of inexpensive arms has also contributed to the use of children as soldiers, as well as to high levels of violence once conflicts have ended. The Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict 2007 defines a child soldier as “any individual below the age of 18 years who is associated with an armed force or group or is used by an armed force in any capacity such as fighters, cooks, porters, spies, sexual purposes, etc”. Apart from the usual physical injuries that a child soldier sustains, their mental well-being is also adversely affected. They suffer from negative personality development, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. Physical problems such as maiming, fistula, afflictions caused due to poor nutrition, etc also result in many psychological problems. The exploitation of female child soldiers is on two levels, where they are used as dispensable pawns in the battlefield during the day and as objects of sexual pleasure during the night. The abuse of children in an armed conflict is not limited to their use as child soldiers. UNICEF reports that 90% of the deaths due to armed conflicts since the 1990s have been civilians, out of which a staggering 80% are women and children. With the onset of an armed conflict, their schooling is stopped abruptly, they are orphaned and left without access to a proper shelter, food, and potable water. The children of the already marginalized groups face the worst effects of these conflicts. The consequences of these adversities haunt the children of their lives. Even after the conflict ends, the return to normalcy is next to impossible for the youngest victims of these bloody conflicts.
The United Nations Convention on Child Rights (CRC) is the most comprehensive document and on the rights of children. Article 38 of the Convention states that state parties have to ensure that the rules of the international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflict which are relevant to children are strictly enforced and article 39 states that parties should take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of any child victim of an armed conflict. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 is another significant effort by the UN which gives specific safeguards for women and children who are recognized as the most at-risk groups among the vulnerable population. Articles 24-25 of the said convention provide for the care of children who are orphaned or separated from their families and articles 33 through 135 grant various rights such as access to proper medical facilities, protection from forced labour, protection from collective punishment or deportation, and respect of their customs, culture, and religion. The Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict expresses deep concern over the sufferings of women and children belonging to the civilian population not only due to the international conflict and war but also internal strife. The declaration also condemns the adversities faced by children in purported noble causes such as the struggle for independence, liberation, national self-determination, etc. It calls upon the state parties to abide by the international conventions and human rights laws while condemning all forms of repression and cruel and inhumane treatment of children, be it in national or international conflict. It also invokes the Universal Declaration of Human rights and emphasizes the protection of inalienable rights of freedom and dignity of children. The exploitation of children in conflicts has not gone unnoticed by the international organizations, in particular, the overwhelming number of child soldiers had led the United Nations General Assembly to the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict in 2000. This protocol which has been ratified by a majority of nations prohibits the involvement of anyone under the age of 18 years in any kind of armed conflict. Even the International Criminal Court in the case The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo held that the usage of any child under the age of 15 in a war would constitute a war crime. The adverse effects of a child in an armed conflict are widely known due to which UNICEF has repeatedly made efforts to remedy the situation such as 2014, “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign. The campaign was designed to generate momentum, political will, and international support to turn the page once and for all on the recruitment of children by national security forces in conflict situations and received immediate support from member states, UN, NGO partners, regional organizations, and the general public. Despite the international efforts the spine-chilling stories of Agnes, Mary, Ishmael Beah, and many more continue to make international headlines.
The United Nations Convention on Child Rights is one of the most ratified human rights treaties in the world. Despite this, the international community has failed to protect the children in armed conflicts. The solution to this issue is not singular but is a multifaceted one. The international community has to bring together the various stakeholders of the issue such as the nations in conflict, the international organizations, and the members of civil society to develop multi-pronged solutions. Some efforts that can help can be-
The commitment of States: the states should ensure that no child soldiers are involved in conflicts of any kind. Public services should not be stopped in any way for the children, and this includes humanitarian aid to the affected children. Access to justice for children should not be hindered so that they can present their stories and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Providing psychosocial services: the international community should ensure that the local communities do not disintegrate. Developing mechanisms to provide psychological support to the child victims of war and awareness about healthy sexual behaviour and prevention of HIV and other STDs is also equally important.
Monitoring and Oversight: Under Security Council Resolutions 1539 and 1612, the States should ensure that systematic and regular oversight, reporting, and monitoring of armed conflicts done by the United Nations covers all violations of child rights. This will help in coming up with specific strategies to counter the exploitation of children.
Progressive attitudes: Certain regressive norms exist in the society, effects of which are exacerbated in conflicts. Many discriminatory attitudes result in marginalized communities being the worst victims of war. It is important that the spread of misinformation is contained, and progressive discussion is allowed so that the children can, without fear, express their concerns.
International Sanctions: Any sanctions placed should not hinder the peacekeeping efforts in the state. Access to schools and hospitals should not be restrained in any way. It should be ensured that nutritious food and drinking water are provided at all times.
In the world of our dreams, there would be no wars, but since it is a far-fetched reality, our current aim should be that innocent children do not become victims of conflicts and wars.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Child Rights Centre.)