Impact of War on the Lives of Children: A Rights Perspective

The 2008 Kanchana Abhayapala Memorial Lecture
By Kul Chandra Gautam
Colombo, Sri Lanka, 28 November 2008

I bring you greetings from the roof of the world, Nepal, whose high Himalayas seem to have ancient geological connections with the deep seas of Sri Lanka. Though at two opposite ends of our sub-continent, separated by an ocean, mountains and plains, the people of Nepal and Sri Lanka have deep historic links and affinity.

Last month I was in the holy city of Janakpur in the southern plains of Nepal. I was reminded there that Princess Sita of Janakpur, once a thriving capital of the Kingdom of Mithila, had landed in Sri Lanka several thousand years ago.

Apparently the Kingdom of Lanka was highly developed and prosperous at that time. The ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, describes the glittering wealth and glory of Lanka. Historians might debate how much of that legend was factual and how much fictional. But the fact that there had been such links since ancient times between the peoples of today’s Nepal and Sri Lanka is in itself quite remarkable.

Nepal and Sri Lanka have had even deeper links over the last 2 millennia, because of our shared faith in Buddhism. It was Prince Siddhartha Gautama of Kapilavastu, born in Lumbini in today’s southern Nepal, whose enlightened teachings have been the guiding faith of most people of Sri Lanka for over 2000 years.

Lord Buddha, as we know, has been the greatest apostle of peace in human history. His messages of peace and non-violence have inspired people all over the world.

Yet, in Sri Lanka over the last 3 decades, and in Nepal over the last decade, we seem to have put aside the teachings of Buddha and engaged in fratricidal civil wars that have claimed the lives of 70,000 Sri Lankans and 14,000 Nepalis, and instilled a culture of violence that has caused untold misery and destruction, and deeply scarred our nations.

Yes, we have heard many nationalistic, ideological, ethnic, religious, and other justifications for these violent conflicts.

Indeed, throughout human history, nationalists, warriors, revolutionaries and even terrorists have always found justification for their wars and have glorified violence in defense of their favourite causes.

But something profoundly different has started to happen in the wars and conflicts in the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century. Whereas previously wars were fought among soldiers, and their casualties were largely combatants, the victims of modern warfare and conflict are largely non-belligerent civilians, specifically women and children.

Thus, among the victims in the conflict in Sri Lanka and Nepal, a disproportionate number have been innocent civilians, including women and children.

In the global scheme of things, Sri Lanka and Nepal are a small microcosm of a full scale war against children whose costs and consequences are just mind-boggling.

That is the topic of my speech this evening: impact of war in the lives of children, which I have been asked to present from a rights perspective.

For me, it is indeed a great honour to be asked to deliver this year’s Kanchana Abhayapala Memorial lecture on this weighty topic in front of this august audience. I do so with some trepidation and much humility, because I know my predecessors as previous speakers have been very distinguished scholars, experts, jurists of national and international stature.

I note the audience here tonight comprises great scholars, eminent lawyers, and leaders. I feel very privileged but also humbled, to address you all.

Until I was invited to deliver this lecture, I had not heard of Kanchana Abhayapala. I now realize he was one of those great heroes – a young man in the prime of his life, full of idealism, prepared to stick his neck out to defend the rights of those who rarely get justice.

He paid the ultimate price – his own life – in trying to defend the defenseless.

My speech this evening deals with the cost of war on children. The tragic loss of a young life like that of Kanchana Abhayapala, is a poignant reminder of such cost – not just to an individual or a family, but to society at large.

I am so glad that Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, under the enlightened leadership of my good friend AT Ariyaratne has so thoughtfully established a programme for the legal empowerment of the poor, and enlisted the support of bright young lawyers like Kanchana Abhayapala.

Just like food, shelter, health care and education, the right to justice is a basic human right in modern democracies. I thank Ari for his vision in setting up this right to justice programme, as a key feature of Sarvodaya.

By institutionalizing the Kanchana Abhayapala memorial lecture, Sarvodaya has not only sought to immortalize the memory of a dedicated human rights activist, but to highlight the cause of the rule of law so essential and vital for a functioning democracy.

I am so glad to be associated with this noble enterprise through this lecture tonight.

Dr. Ariyaratne has been a true Guru and a source of inspiration for so many of us dedicated to the ideals peace, non-violence, human rights and human development from the grass-roots up.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Ari and all the dedicated staff and volunteers of Sarvodaya on the 50th anniversary of the founding of this great movement – Ari’s precious brain child, and one of the greatest civil society organizations, not just in Sri Lanka but in the whole world.

Operating in all 24 districts of Sri Lanka, and reaching millions of people in 15,000 villages, Sarvodaya also provides much needed help to vulnerable groups, especially women and children, in war- affected communities in the North and East.

Thank goodness, Sarvodaya is there, especially in times of intense conflict, when other organizations have difficulty reaching these communities.

Let me also congratulate the Sarvodaya Legal Services Movement on its 25th anniversary.

For me personally, Ari’s inspiration has enveloped my life as he was also the source of inspiration for another one of my mentors, the late James P. Grant, former Executive Director of UNICEF, who tried to emulate and replicate the example of Sarvodaya, and of Sri Lanka’s pioneering model of human development on a global scale.

Another great Sri Lankan whom both Ari and Jim Grant admired, and who also became one of my early mentors, was the late Varindra Tarzie Vittachi. In his inimitable style, so full of wit and wisdom, Tarzie helped us all to harness the power of communication for social mobilization, for behaviour change, and for conveying inconvenient truths in a manner that leaders took them as essential pills for their own good.

As I was preparing this lecture, I re-read this wonderful little book “Between the Guns: Children as a Zone of Peace“, written by Tarzie Vittachi just before he passed away in 1993. I commend it to all of you, interested in the subject of children and armed conflict, and in refreshing your memory of Tarzie’s beautiful writing.

As most of you know, currently the senior-most UN official dealing with the issue of children and armed conflict is Radhika Coomaraswamy – another great Sri Lankan, a good friend of mine, and I m sure well known to many of you.

Her reports to the UN General Assembly and Security Council provide the most authoritative and factual updates. She has also been an eloquent and passionate speaker and advocate on behalf of children trapped in armed conflict.

Perhaps the most comprehensive review of The Impact of War on Children is found in this book by Graca Machel, who first prepared a ground-breaking report for the United Nations on this subject in 1996.

The recommendations of that report led to the appointment of a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict – first, Mr. Olara Otunnu of Uganda, and currently Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka.

In my speech tonight I have borrowed liberally from all these publications.

Since we have so many lawyers in the audience, let me confess at the very outset that I may be guilty of plagiarizing from these publications, but at least I have disclosed it to you in advance!

Dear friends,

Before we discuss the causes, consequences and remedies of the phenomenon of children caught in armed conflicts, let us review first the order of magnitude of the problem. It is huge.

Wars today victimize children, women and civilians far more than they impact soldiers.

  • Since 1990, over 2 million children have been killed around the world as a result of armed conflict
  • over 6 million children have been permanently disabled or seriously injured in wars
  • some 20 million children have been forced from their homes by war as refugees or internally displaced persons
  • even greater numbers of children have fallen victim to disease, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and sexual violence
  • and in the worst manifestation of today’s civil and ethnic wars, over 300,000 children, some as young as 8 years old, serve as child soldiers and combatants, and are exploited in armed conflicts in over 30 countries around the world today.

Everyday thousands of girls are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence and exploitation. Girls as well as boys are being abducted from their homes and communities.

Schools and hospitals which should be safe haven for children, are also increasingly becoming targets of attack by armed groups. And in many countries, parties to the conflict systematically deny humanitarian agencies access to areas under their control, with devastating consequences for civilian populations, especially children.

The easy availability of small arms and light weapons in many parts of the world coupled with a culture violence and impunity, have made children not only lose their childhood but also perverted their ideas of adulthood and masculinity.

Indeed, the proliferation of war and conflict takes a horrific toll on children. Not only are millions of children slaughtered, raped, maimed, forced to work as child soldiers and exposed to inhumane brutality, but those who survive such atrocities suffer deep, psychosocial trauma often for their entire life.

It is a blot on human civilization that we allow such barbaric exploitation of children to occur in the 21st century. This, despite the fact that for over a hundred years now there has been a concerted global movement to protect children from harm, especially during armed conflicts.

Let us recall a few historical facts.

During the First World War, a remarkable English woman named Eglantyne Jebb had founded an organization called Save the Children Fund in London. SCF had defied the British blockade of Germany during WW1, and had sent relief supplies for children throughout continental Europe on both sides of the conflict.

There was a court case in Britain against Eglantyne Jebb, accusing her of indirectly helping the enemy during war time – a very serious charge.

When the charge was read out to her: “Are you guilty or not guilty of having given aid and succour to the enemy?”, she replied memorably: “My Lord, I have no enemies below the age of 11″. And she was acquitted.

This principle, that there was no such thing as an “enemy” child, had an even earlier antecedent in the Geneva Convention of 1864, out of which grew the Red Cross movement. That Convention conferred neutrality upon voluntary relief workers tending to the wounded, dying, and prisoners of wars.

Under Eglantyne Jebb’s leadership, Save the Children drafted a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the League of Nations as the World Child Welfare Charter in 1924.

That Charter laid down important principles, such as a child’s right to the means of material, moral and spiritual development; to special help when hungry, sick, disabled or orphaned; to first call on relief in distress; and a right not to be economically exploited.

These principles endured the test of times, and were reflected in the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child, and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which today is the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty.

An Optional Protocol to the CRC on involvement of children in armed conflict was adopted in May 2000 by the UN General Assembly. It is today the most comprehensive legal document setting out the duties and obligations of state, as well as non-state actors, on children and armed conflict.

The Optional Protocol to CRC establishes 18 years as the minimum age for compulsory recruitment into national armies, and forbids anyone under age 18 from participating in hostilities. It also specifically prohibits non-governmental forces from any recruitment below the age of 18.

The arsenal of legal instruments to protect children from armed conflict, contains many international treaties and conventions. These include:

  • ILO Convention 182 which considers child soldiering as an intolerable form of child labour
  • The Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court which makes it an international war crime for children to be conscripted or enlisted into armed forces or groups – or otherwise used in hostilities.
  •  The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child was the first regional treaty to establish 18 as the minimum age for all recruitment and participation in hostilities.
  •  The 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols which form the backbone of international humanitarian law that govern the protection of vulnerable groups in the conduct of war.
  • Human Rights law, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights as well as Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and treaties that deal with genocide, torture, refugees and racial discrimination – all recognize the right to special protection of children and other vulnerable groups in times of war as well as peace.
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which affirms gender-based violence as a form of discrimination, and notes specifically women’s right to equal protection during international or internal armed conflict.
  • Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, as well as various agreements and codes of conduct dealing with small arms and light weapons which have proven particularly fatal to children.

With such a widespread web of international conventions, treaties and often corresponding national laws, one would expect that the protection of children in armed conflict would be widely accepted and assured.

But alas, that is not the case.

For one thing, although human rights law applies at all times, many human rights treaties allow States to suspend the exercise of certain rights temporarily during public emergency.

But a number of absolute human rights can never be suspended, such as the right to life; the right to freedom from torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment; the right to freedom from slavery; and the right to freedom from retroactive penal laws.

As far as CRC is concerned, it has no general derogation clause. And the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly stressed that the most positive interpretation should always prevail to ensure the widest possible respect for children’s rights, particularly during war when they are most at risk.

Unfortunately, States in conflict tend to unilaterally and arbitrarily assert what they believe to be their sovereign prerogative to suspend some rights.

As legal recourse against such action by governments is not readily available, grave human rights violations during armed conflict are considered not only a matter within national jurisdiction, but also a potential threat to international peace and security.

That is why the UN Security Council has begun to take up the issue of children and armed conflict as part of its regular agenda.

There now is a growing consensus that when a State is unable or unwilling to prevent massive violation of human rights either by omission or by commission, the international community has a “responsibility to protect” civilian population, especially women, children and other vulnerable groups and provide them with essential human security.

Rather than seeing such action as unwarranted external “humanitarian intervention” and violation of a country’s sovereignty, in the diplomatic language of the UN, it is presented as the international community exercising its duty to help sovereign governments to dischargetheir “responsibility to protect” their own people.

In less diplomatic language, sovereignty is not a license for governments to allow or inflict massive violations of human rights. When the survival and protection of large numbers of non-belligerent civilians, especially children, is at stake, the international community has a duty and responsibility to help protect such vulnerable populations.

As we all know, national laws or international conventions are not self-enforcing. It takes political will, administrative capacity, financial means and a culture of respect for the rule of law for such laws and conventions to be implemented.

When it comes to protecting people’s rights and promoting their well -being, against the backdrop of resistance or opposition by powerful forces, be they governments, rebel movements or drug cartels, there is also a need for enlightened vision and bold leadership.

Throughout history, leaders with vision, commitment and courage have found many creative ways to protect children from harm against great odds.

When UNICEF was established in 1946, its top job was offered to an American relief worker named Maurice Pate. Pate accepted the job on one condition: that UNICEF should be allowed to help children in need everywhere, including in the so-called “enemy states”.

Some of you may recall that article 53 of the UN Charter refers to the losers of WWII as “enemy states”. But for Maurice Pate, like it was for Eglantyne Jebb, there was no such thing as “enemy” children.

It was scrupulous adherence to this principle – that children are nobody’s enemy and that they should be above the political divide- which allowed UNICEF to help children in post-war Germany, Japan and Italy, and in countries behind the iron curtain during the Cold War.

At the height of the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, the head of UNICEF at that time, Harry Labouisse, invoked this same principle to broker a historic agreement with the Federal Government of Nigeria to allow UNICEF, and the Red Cross, to help children in the province of Biafra that was leading a violent campaign for secession and independence from Nigeria.

Similarly, following the genocidal regime of Khmer Rouges in Cambodia, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, were allowed to help children when the government in Phnom Penh was not even recognized by the United Nations.

This principle of helping children in need whatever the politics of their parents and regardless of the legal status of governments or rebel movements under whose effective jurisdiction children live, has been consistently defended by leaders of UNICEF, and the United Nations.

But it has taken great courage, tenacity and creativity to abide by this principle.

For many years, the head of Swedish delegation to the UNICEF Executive Board, named Nils Thedin , who was also the Head of the Swedish Save the Children’s Fund (Rada Barnen), made the case repeatedly that children everywhere should be regarded as a “conflict-free zone” in human relations.

UNICEF’s third Executive Director, and its most charismatic and visionary leader so far, James Grant, took that idea of “children as a zone of peace” to heart, and helped apply it in practice in many ingenious ways.

In the 1980s when a terrible civil war was ravaging El Salvador, Grant brokered a deal with the President and the guerilla leaders to actually stop the war and observe several “Days of Tranquility” to allow health workers to immunize children in all parts of the country.

These temporary cease-fires were organized with the help of the Catholic Church and presented as a precious Christmas gift of life to all the children of El Salvador.

To reinforce this message, every Sunday before the “Days of Tranquility” priests in all churches of El Salvador preached a common homily urging parents that it was their religious duty to take their children to be immunized.

For 5 successive years, children received life-saving shots of vaccine rather than deadly gun-shots during these Days of Tranquility.

It is believed that the Days of Tranquility may have even helped build a climate of trust between the government and the guerillas, contributing, in a modest way, to the end of the long festering conflict.

With some modifications, the example of Days of Tranquility in El Salvador was later emulated and applied in a number of other countries in conflict, including I believe here in Sri Lanka, and in Uganda, Mozambique, Sudan, Angola, Lebanon and the Philippines.

In recent years, Days of Tranquility have been observed to allow vaccination against polio and measles in many countries in conflict, leading today to the virtual eradication of polio and drastic reduction in measles deaths.

Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) was another example of opening a “Corridor of Peace” to allow relief supplies to be delivered in conflict zones to all children in great peril.

In Uganda an Air Corridor was opened to reach vulnerable groups. In former Yugoslavia a Hydrofoil Corridor was opened to reach children entrapped in the beautiful city of Dubrovnik.

During the first Gulf War a “Bubble of Protection” was created in Iraq to allow medical supplies to be delivered to women and children by a WHO/UNICEF team.

In all of these cases, and more, the greatest challenge often was convincing national leaders – many of them unelected dictators and autocrats – that helping children in territories where it required relief workers to be in contact with rebel forces was not a grievous violation of their sovereignty.

Sovereignty – that sacred ingredient of modern nation-states, whose sanctity is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations – how many crimes have been committed in thy name !

In recent decades, the most deplorable abuse of children in armed conflict has been their widespread use as child soldiers.

In the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, half a million Iranian boys between the ages of 12 and 18 were recruited into Iran’s armed forces. Callously and cruelly, they were sent to the frontlines of battle zones ahead of other adult troops in huge waves as human mine detectors and cannon fodders. Tens of thousands of children died, disappeared and were disabled in that war.

Large number of child soldiers continue to be used by official security forces or their proxies, and by rebel groups, in many countries ranging from Afghanistan (under the Taliban) to Uganda, from Myanmar to Sudan and the not-so Democratic Republic of Congo.

Even if they do not deploy child soldiers as such, national security forces or their surrogates in many countries ranging from Chad to Iraq, Haiti to Lebanon abuse children in violation of their commitment as State Parties to the CRC and many other international conventions.

The latest report of the UN Secretary-General submitted to the Security Council lists over 60 different rebel groups and national security forces in two dozen countries as being complicit in child abuse in armed conflict.

Please note these do not include cases of unintentional or the so-called “collateral damage” inflicted on children by the US or NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan or by Russian troops in Georgia or Chechnya. The Secretary-General’s report refers to armed groups that deliberately target children as pawns in their warfare.

Abuse of children, including child soldiers is committed in an even more widespread and ferocious manner by non-State actors and rebel groups in many countries.

We have heard heart-rending stories of the Taliban in Afghanistan burning girls’ schools, and throwing acid in girls’ faces.

A few years ago we saw the monstrosity of a Chechen group holding children hostage at gunpoint, and denying food and water, and even the dignity of using toilets in their own school in Beslan, Russia.

In Darfur today we see the Janjaweed militia indiscriminately burning and pillaging whole villages, raping women, killing children and causing unspeakable horrors.

In perhaps the most gruesome action involving a non-state actor in conflict, the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and southern Sudan systematically kidnaps thousands of children from their homes and schools to use them as sex slaves for their leaders, and as porters, informers, and child soldiers.

Whole villages in that region are so terrorized and frightened, that every night parents send some 44,000 children to seek refuge in towns many kilometres away from their home.

Imagine the agony of parents who love their children so much that because they are powerless to offer them safety in their own homes, they are forced to send them off to be herded like cattle in faraway towns out of reach of the militia that would otherwise viciously abuse and brutalize them.

The tragedy of these “night commuters” of Northern Uganda, little known to the outside world, is among the worst violations of child rights in our times.

Closer to our own homes, in my country, Nepal, until a few years ago, children by the hundreds were routinely abducted from their schools by the Maoist insurgents. They were forced to march to unknown destinations for political indoctrination, often disguised as cultural events, and many were coaxed or enticed into joining the Maoist guerrillas.

Imagine the feeling of terror and anguish in the minds and hearts of parents who send their children to school, not knowing if they will return home after school; not knowing where they will be taken and how they will be treated, and feeling totally powerless to do anything about it.

Even though the civil war has ended, and the Maoists are actually heading Nepal’s new government, large number of child soldiers verified as such by the UN Mission to Nepal (UNMIN), are still in cantonments with adult combatants.

One would have thought that such children would be among the first beneficiary of the “peace dividend”. And although UNICEF and many donors are ready to help with the required funds already in hand, the child soldiers of Nepal have not yet been released and rehabilitated under various pretexts.

As the Secretary-General of the UN urged during his recent visit to Nepal, I really hope that the government of Nepal will release them all immediately without any further ifs and buts.

You are better aware than I am of the situation here in Sri Lanka where the LTTE established the so-called “Baby Brigade” and “Leopard Brigade” made up entirely of children recruited largely from schools and orphanages. Even to this day, not just LTTE, but forces aligned with TMVP continue to recruit and use child soldiers.

Several years ago, an ambitious, multi-sectoral Sri Lanka Action Plan for Children Affected by War was agreed by the parties to the conflict. The Plan dealt not just with child soldiers but it aimed to improve the living conditions of all children affected by war and to restore normalcy to the lives of most vulnerable children.

As recently urged by the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict of the UN Security Council, we all hope that all parties to the conflict will give urgent priority to ending the inhuman suffering and exploitation of children affected by conflict in this country, again, without any ifs and buts.

I know that UNICEF, the whole UN country team, and Sri Lanka’s many international development partners, as well as NGOs like the Sarvodaya movement are eager to help end this nightmare which no child in this beautiful country should have to endure.

Dear friends,

I could go on talking about the plight of children in armed conflict with more shocking examples from many other countries. But let me move on now to outline what can and needs to be done to end this all out war on children in our times.

Fortunately, people much wiser than I have come up with many thoughtful proposals to tackle the issue of children and armed conflict. Although a few years old, the Graca Machel report contains many practical recommendations, as do reports by UNICEF, by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers comprising major international NGOs, and of course, the latest report of the Secretary-General to the UN Security Council.

Drawing on these, here is what I would suggest as a 10 point Action Plan:

  1. Raise Awareness of Rights of Children and Obligations of States During Armed Conflict:

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UDHR forms the backbone of all modern human rights treaties, including a series of international conventions, national laws and codes of conduct dealing with child rights and child protection.

Regrettably, most of these laws and conventions are not widely known by the general public, so their violations do not make headlines. Many States and belligerent groups ignore their obligations to uphold them with impunity.

I suspect that even among the distinguished lawyers present here, awareness of these conventions is probably quite rudimentary, and very few of you, if any, will have actually filed and defended cases concerning violations of child rights.

In the spirit of Kanchana Abhayapala who filed so many habeas corpus cases on behalf of the powerless and defenseless, I would hope that the legal profession will take a more proactive position to familiarize itself, disseminate and defend cases involving gross violations of child rights.

But protecting the rights of children in armed conflict is not primarily a legal issue. It is a moral, humanitarian and political issue. We need to better disseminate not just the treaty and legal obligations of states, and non-state actors, but the moral and human obligation of all of us to protect the rights and promote the well-being of children.

As part of broader human rights, child rights must be included in school curriculum, in the training courses for the police, the military, the judges and other law enforcement officials.

Journalists and the media, and religious institutions can play a critical educational role. Civil society organizations can be both watchdogs and proactive defenders of child rights and providers of protective services for vulnerable groups and victims of armed conflict.

The celebration of the 60th anniversary of UDHR is a fitting occasion for us to launch a campaign to raise awareness of the rights of children and obligation of States, especially during armed conflict.

  1. Protect Children from Recruitment as Child Soldiers

Perhaps the most vicious characteristic of armed conflict in recent decades is the widespread recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers as part of government armies, rebel forces and paramilitary and militia groups.

Children become deliberate targets, and are often manipulated by adults to become participants and perpetrators of unspeakable brutalities, especially in civil wars and ethnic conflicts.

Currently there are about 300,000 child soldiers in the world at any one point. But the cumulative total is much larger, as new recruits replace old ones as they are killed or wounded or grow into adulthood.

As I mentioned earlier, there are numerous international conventions, treaties and national laws that ban the recruitment of children into armies and armed groups. But from the point of view of unscrupulous armies and rebel groups, the incentives for using child soldiers seem much stronger than for complying with national and international laws prohibiting their use.

While we must insist on better enforcement of national laws and international conventions banning the use of child soldiers, we must also address the underlying socio-economic issues that exacerbate this phenomenon.

After all the children of the rich and those in power, including military leaders, do not serve as child soldiers. It is always the children of the poor, often from indigenous and marginalized communities, those who live in refugee camps or among internally displaced persons, who form the pool for the recruitment as child soldiers.

It is important to recognize that girls and women are especially vulnerable for abuse and exploitation during armed conflict. Minority and indigenous children are another especially vulnerable group.

All preventive and remedial actions must therefore be designed in a gender-sensitive and inclusive manner following a rights-based approach.

  1. Preventing Deadly Wars

The best way to protect children from war is, of course, to prevent conflicts by addressing the root causes of violence. The root causes range from poverty and absence of equitable human development, to flagrant violations of human rights, to over-militarization of our societies.

Tackling these causes is easier said than done, but it is not beyond our collective wisdom to do more and better in these areas.

An over-sized military and excessive military expenditures – compared to investment in basic social services, are often the tell-tale signs of impending conflict, especially in poor countries ruled by autocratic governments.

Disproportionately large military budget should be a warning sign for citizens to caution their governments that the country might be unwittingly headed towards more conflict and violence.

International donors ought to be more vigilant and tight-fisted in offering generous development assistance to countries that allocate more money for guns and soldiers than for bread and butter for their citizens.

Yet, at present there seems to be no such vigilance. On the contrary, donor countries, especially the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, whose job it is to safeguard international peace and security, are actually major arms suppliers to undemocratic and unstable countries.

For far too long, nations of the world have given higher priority to military-based national security than civilian-based human security. We need a global movement for preventing war and promoting peace, and honouring the advocates of non-violence.

Let Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ariyaratne, Kanchana Abhayapala be the role models for our children, rather than some gun-toting generals and revolutionaries that glorify violence.

  1. Protecting Children from Landmines, Small Arms and Light Weapons

Of all the threats of war on children, few are more insidious than landmines and unexploded ordnance. They maim and kill not only in the midst of armed conflict, but for decades after.

Today, children in some 80 countries live with the daily threat of landmines. They are more vulnerable to the danger of mines and UXOs than adults, because they may not recognize them or be able to read warning signs.

Since children are naturally curious and are likely to pick up strange objects, especially devices like “butterfly” mines, which look like toys to children.

In the 1990s a coalition of more than 1100 NGOs active in over 60 countries led an International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), together with like-minded governments, the ICRC and UN agencies.

This Campaign culminated in the adoption of the Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Landmines and their Destruction.

There has been some decline in the use of landmines since the adoption of the Ottawa Convention, but still far too many countries in conflict, and rebel groups continue to use mines with impunity, and many of the major producers and exporters of landmines have refused to ratify and comply with the Convention.

For the sake of the world’s children, the ban landmine campaign must continue, as must mine clearance and mine-awareness programmes and assistance for survivors, especially children.

While we all fear nuclear and biological weapons, perhaps the most widely used weapons of mass destruction are actually small arms and light weapons. There are an estimated ½ a billion such weapons causing bloodshed, mayhem and untold misery around the world.

Inexpensive and easy to use, they are a major reason for the alarming rise in civilian casualties in armed conflict over the last decade. It is the ready availability of such arms that has led to transformation of innocent young children into fierce child soldiers.

The international arms bazaar for small weapons is huge. In the year 2000, the legal trade was estimated to be worth $4 to $6 billion; and the illegal trade was estimated to be upwards of $10 billion.

Both governments and private arms dealers are involved in producing and exporting small arms. Many private arms merchants, accountable to no one, circumvent laws and supply arms to and through illegal and organized crime groups.

Fifteen recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, led by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, have developed an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers that seeks to prevent the transfer and use of arms by parties to conflicts that have violated international human rights standards.

More than 200 NGOs have also established an international Action Network to campaign against the proliferation and misuse of such arms.

All of us who care for the well-being of children must join hands with these and other activists campaigning against landmines and small arms.

  1. Meeting Children’s Basic Needs for Survival, Development and Protection

Thousands of children are killed every year as a direct result of fighting – from bullets, knife wounds, bombs and landmines. But many more children die from malnutrition and disease heightened by armed conflict.

In many of the world’s poorest countries and communities, wars disrupt food supplies, and destroy crops and agricultural infrastructure. They wreck water and sanitation systems, and health and education services. In many countries in Africa and elsewhere, war-affected children have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS.

Provision of adequate basic services for women and children on an emergency basis must be a high priority in all war-affected countries.

In the past, emergency humanitarian aid focused on immediate needs of food, shelter and health services, but education was seen as a non-emergency extra.

But experience has shown that lack of education and even some rudimentary recreation facilities can be very harmful and distressful to children who are forced to sit around idle, unoccupied and fearful in war zones, refugee camps and other depressing sites.

So it is vitally important to provide some safe space for children to assemble and be engaged in education, sports and other recreational activities even in the midst of conflict.

During the chaos of conflict, such life-affirming activities can help create a zone of security for children, and help them cope with the trauma of conflict.

UNICEF, UNHCR, the Red Cross, and many humanitarian NGOs have come up with ingenious ways to keep children occupied and learning even in the midst of natural disasters or man-made calamities – such as open air schools, school-in-a-box, etc which should be made essential components of all humanitarian response.

Beyond schooling for war affected children, it is important that school curricula everywhere include education for peace, respect for diversity, mutual understanding among people of different faiths, race and ethnicity.

Remember the preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO that declares, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. Yes, indeed wars begin in the minds of men – please note the element of masculinity inherent in warlike behaviour – but peace must be inculcated from the earliest days in the hearts and minds of children!

  1. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Children

Most peace agreements involve disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of combatants to civilian life with adequate support for their physical, economic and psycho-social well-being.

Child soldiers must always be the first beneficiaries of any DDR package, even in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement.

Having been used to wielding weapons and settling scores with force and violence, it is not easy for children to readjust back to peaceful life. It is common for children who were soldiers to harbour deep-seated feelings of shame and worthlessness. It takes time to rebuild their self-confidence.

Even after they are demobilized, many children are tormented by nightmares, hallucinations, and delusions that can last for years. This can be further compounded if they are ostracized by their own families and communities, as it happens often.

If not well handled, child soldiers become vulnerable to re-recruitment by various armed groups, including criminal gangs.

Cultural beliefs and attitudes make family reunification particularly difficult for girl children who have been raped or sexually abused. Left with few alternatives and little support, many ex-girl soldiers become victims of prostitution rackets.

A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health which followed former child combatants over a ten year period shows that the impact of conflict continues even after ten years, with many former child soldiers having serious psycho-social problems even as adults.

Child soldiers must therefore be shielded from retribution and other punitive measures and ensured protection in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

UNICEF and other organizations have developed detailed guidelines and protocols for child-specific DDR. They recognize that war and violent conflicts affect not just child soldiers but many other non-combatant children in society at large.

Therefore, whenever possible, every effort should be made to help all children affected by armed conflict, including children in refugee camps and internally displaced children.

  1. Protect Children from Effects of Sanctions

Sometimes bilaterally, and often collectively through the UN, or NATO or other groupings, governments have imposed economic sanctions on certain countries to repel aggression, restore democracy, condemn human rights abuses and punish regimes harbouring terrorists.

When sanctions are applied, the official targets tend to be governments or political leaders. But in practice, most economic sanctions affect regular economic and social life of the country, largely impacting on civilian populations.

Sanctions, such as trade embargoes, denial of foreign assistance, loans and investments, and other economic transactions, often unintentionally but seriously impact on children. Studies from Cuba, Haiti and Iraq following the imposition of sanctions have shown a rapid rise in the proportion of children who became malnourished, sick and died.

A UNICEF survey in the late 1990s showed, for example, that during the sanctions regime in the 1990s in Iraq, there were half a million excess child deaths, infant mortality more than doubled from 47 to 108 deaths per 1000 live births, and school enrolment in Iraq declined significantly compared to the pre-sanctions period.

Recognizing such unintended negative impact on children, the UN Security Council has lately been more receptive to designing sanctions that are more sharply targeted against parties to armed conflict who continue to systematically commit grave violations against children.

Recently the Secretary-General has urged the Security Council to consider a range of measures, including a ban on the export or supply of arms, a ban on military assistance, the imposition of travel restrictions on specific leaders and commanders, denial of amnesty to gross human rights violators, and restriction of the flow of financial resources to the parties concerned.

We should build a global public opinion in favour of the measures that the Secretary-General has recommended, but ensure that children who are already victims of bad governments are not doubly victimized by poorly targeted sanctions against their governments.

No sanctions regime of any kind – comprehensive or targeted – should be imposed unless the Security Council is persuaded, by a rigorous assessment, that they will not have negative impact on children.

And when the Security Council imposes sanctions, it should simultaneously provide resources to UN agencies and independent bodies to monitor the impact of sanctions on children and other vulnerable groups before, during and after their imposition.

  1. Ensuring Child-friendly Peace-Keeping Operations

Because of widespread violations of children’s rights in armed conflict, UN and other peace-keeping operations and relevant political missions must be designed and sensitized to be child-friendly and extra sensitive to the plight of children in armed conflicts.

Special training should be provided to peace-keepers and mission personnel on the rights of women and children.

In recent years we have been shocked by reports that even UN and other peace-keeping forces have been involved in sexual abuse and exploitation of local women and children.

In response, the UN has adopted a policy of zero tolerance of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN personnel and issued detailed guidelines for implementing this policy. But in practice, this policy is yet to be fully and effectively implemented.

The UN has also started the practice of appointing child protection advisers in some peace-keeping missions. This practice should be made more universal in all future peacekeeping and relevant political missions to help senior UN staff with timely and accurate information and advice to protect children from any abuse and exploitation.

Member States providing peace-keeping troops must take tougher action against their troops involved in such unethical conduct.

  1. Strengthen International Regime for Child Protection

In adopting the CRC, the international community proclaimed its political, legal and moral commitment to safeguard children’s rights at all times, including in situations of armed conflict. Governments that have ratified the Convention are required to incorporate its principles and standards into national laws and to ensure their enforcement.

Where national governments are unable or unwilling to implement their obligations, the international community has an obligation to help, applying all appropriate measures that are consistent with agreed international norms and conventions.

For example, the Statute of the International Criminal Court includes a number of provisions that are particularly significant for children.

Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 into national armed forces or organized groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities, is punishable as a war crime.

Trafficking of women and children, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and forced sterilization and other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity are considered both war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Intentional attacks against schools, hospitals, civilian populations, humanitarian assistance personnel and vehicles are also considered war crimes.

Governments and parties that are implicated in such war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, torture, etc. can be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Understandably but regrettably, during some peace negotiations, compromises are made against these very clear-cut provisions of international law in order to secure peace.

Similarly, the UN Security Council has sometimes been selective and inconsistent in applying punitive measures against governments implicated in violation of international humanitarian laws, human rights and provisions of the ICC Statute.

As the saying goes, there can be no durable peace without justice. We, as citizens of the world, and members of global civil society must do whatever we can to help strengthen international regime for the protection of children in peace as well as in war.

  1. A Global Peace Agenda and Reduction of Military Expenditure

So long as the nations of the world are armed to the teeth; so long as the power of a nation is judged in terms of its possession of nuclear weapons and military prowess; so long as the merchants of death flood the world’s arms bazaar with weapons of mass destruction, like small arms and landmines, with impunity; there will always be wars and conflict.

And so long as there are wars, children will continue to suffer – disproportionately.

If we dream of a world where our children and their children will grow up in peace and harmony, we must pursue a vigorous global agenda for peace, disarmament and reduction of military expenditures.

Today, parliaments of the world happily approve $1.3 trillion a year for military expenditures. That is more than $108 billion a month, or $3.6 billion every day. And we have ½ a billion small arms and light weapons circulating freely, and traded like any other commodity in the world’s arms bazaar.

Yes, even in these times of world-wide economic crisis, the world seems to have plenty of money – and no shortage of justification – to wage wars, to fuel insurrections, to finance revolutionary violence, sometimes called terrorism.

But when it comes to providing primary health care, basic education and other social services, people are asked to tighten their belts and defer their demands.

For the sake of our children, such order of priority in the allocation of resources in our nations and in the world at large must be reversed.

Let us resolve to make war on children — a thing of the past — unbecoming of civilized nations and civilized peoples in the 21st century.

That would be the best tribute we can pay to Kanchana Abhayapala, and thousands of other lesser known Kanchanas in Sri Lanka and around the world.

Thank you.