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The Youngest Victims Of War: Is The World Doing Enough To Protect Children During Conflicts?

To those growing up in a warzone,
where there are battlefields, not playgrounds; trenches, not classrooms.
The world owes you so much more.

As the world witnesses a rise in violent confrontations, it is alarming to note that several of them have swept beyond military forces and reached civilians. This is an issue that threatens not only global peace and security but also grossly violates human rights and international humanitarian law. Children, being the most vulnerable, are overwhelmed enormously by the brutality of such events and these experiences cast dark shadows on the child's future cognition, as validated by multiple studies.

Direct consequences include exposure to violence, injury, death and destruction, displacement, separation from family, and longterm trauma. Indirect consequences include loss of education, health, and livelihood opportunities, as well as escalating poverty, hunger, and disease. War can also impact children's psychological and social development, leading to increased aggression, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

What is unfortunate is that the tragedy does not end here; it recommences and passes from children of the past to children of the future. Every war is a war against children, said Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the Save The Children organisation.

A child is defined as any person below the age of eighteen. The United Nations Security Council has identified six grave violations against children in situations of armed conflict
  1. Killing or maiming
  2. Recruitment or use of child soldiers
  3. Sexual violence
  4. Abduction
  5. Attacks on schools or hospitals
  6. Denial of humanitarian access

What has been done so far?
Various conventions have been drafted to construct legal standards and mechanisms to protect and respect children's rights in general and in situations of armed conflicts.

Below is a brief insight into some related reforms:
  • Adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child explains that children must be provided the means required for normal development; must be fed, nursed, helped, reclaimed in case of delinquency and sheltered; must be the first to receive relief in times of distress; must be put in a position to earn a livelihood without being exploited; and must be brought up to devote service to fellow men.
  • In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 of which entitles mothers and children to 'special care' and 'social protection'.
  • The Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949, which is central to international humanitarian law, formulated points specifically addressing children in Article 50. Children also count within the purview of 'protected persons' detailed in Article 4.
  • The United Nations General Assembly called on member states in 1974 to observe the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, which prohibits attacks on or imprisonment of women and children and upholds their rights during an armed conflict.
  • The United Nations General Assembly declared 1979 as the International Year of the Child.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989.

Convention on the Rights of the Child
It is worth elaborating on the most notable action of them all the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. With 196 nations as state parties including India (with certain reservations on matters related to child labour), it is the most widely ratified human rights instrument in history. Ratifying states must act in the 'best interests' of the child. It lays down children's social, political, health, familial, developmental, educational, economic and cultural rights all of which are undermined in case of war.

Additionally, with respect to children's rights during a conflict, Article 38(3) of the UNCRC mentions, 'States Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.' Articles 38(4) and 39 direct states to take 'all feasible measures' to protect children affected by armed conflicts and promote recovery and reintegration of child victims respectively.

Whether and to what extent such hideous crimes are prevented, or the offenders held liable is quite openly known by the world. A 2023 report titled 'Stop the War on Children: Let Children Live in Peace' by Save The Children highlighted that 27,638 grave violations were committed against children during conflict in 2022.

Why haven't things worked out?
Although there exist numerous documents that lay down the 'rules of war', such regulations are seldom upheld due to a variety of reasons. With international organisations having very less say in the affairs of countries and even lesser executive powers, human rights continue to be infringed every time fighting breaks out and children suffer for the most part.

The most common causes for this are:
  • Limited Legislative and Executive Agency: International organisations participate in negotiations and contribute to the creation of important instruments. However, they can work only so much, given their restricted authority and the fact that they require an equal amount of interest and cooperation from member nations. Treaties cannot be imposed by force since a state's sovereignty must be respected, and do not bind countries that do not ratify them, thereby limiting the applicability of rules entirely. A fitting example would be the Geneva Convention itself, which does not provide protection to persons belonging to nonmember nations.
  • Ineffective Enforcement: In cases where nations do assent to regulations, there is no effective enforcement mechanism to ensure that human rights violations are avoided when war breaks out. There are very few systems to address breaches of previouslyagreed upon provisions, rendered all the more powerless by a decentralized structure. Moreover, states and even international organisations themselves, are reluctant to take strict action due to complex geopolitical relations. Despite the many provisions of law that uphold the rights of civilians during conflicts, there is hardly any groundlevel implementation. Since a law is only as credible as its administration, these flaws strike at the very root of humanitarian efforts, making a futile mess out of its vision.
  • Hegemony of First World Countries: In today's world, a singular set of nations continue to wield power over global affairs and actively shape the world opinion as they see advantageous. While this isn't very surprising, it complicates the world order and any attempts at moderating it. The absence of multilateral approaches to disputes and unbiased representation in significant institutions proves costly and even unfair to developing countries who are dominated and discouraged from rising to the top. Thus, economic, military and even humanitarian aid is politicised.
Regardless of the shortcomings and harsh claims of it being inadequate, international humanitarian law can certainly do better in safeguarding children's rights. The change demands sincere cooperation between countries and universal engagement in matters of humanitarian concern. International associations should be strengthened by expanding their jurisdictions, supporting productive dialogue and stimulating diverse interpretations.

Power imbalances must be addressed and perpetrators of crimes against humanity, especially children, be held uncompromisingly accountable. By making laws more adaptive to present scenarios and discarding redundant sections, the foundation of human rights can be revitalized and made inviolable.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) calls for ending indiscriminate attacks on children and stopping the denial of lifesaving humanitarian assistance. Finally, advocating for inclusive and lasting peace and encouraging clear and consistent communication goes a long way in establishing a secure and dignified world for children.


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