RPN 24 September 1997

2. The protection of children in zones of conflict by Ian Levine


Remember to kill the little rats as well as the big rats.

[Broadcast on Radio Mil Collines, Rwanda, April 1994, to the forces of the Interahamwe engaged in genocide against the Tutsis.]

Recent events in eastern Zaire (now eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo) have yet again demonstrated the appalling gap between the theory and practice of international standards for the protection of human rights. Although the last fifty years have seen the growth of the international human rights movement and the signing of a plethora of international conventions and treaties to promote human rights and international humanitarian law, current and recent conflicts - Bosnia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia and others - demonstrate a disturbing level of barbarity. The 1996 UNICEF State of the World's Children estimated that, in the previous decade, child victims of conflict had included:

- 2 million killed

- 5 million disabled

- 12 million left homeless

- more than one million orphaned or separated from their parents

- some 10 million psychologically traumatised

In addition, millions of children have been denied access to humanitarian assistance as a deliberate tactic of war.

Children living in countries in armed conflict are among the most vulnerable in the world. Many suffer from flagrant violations of their rights: to life, to health, to education, to an adequate standard of living and to protection from abuse, exploitation, neglect, oppression, discrimination and recruitment into the military. Vulnerable children often live in areas characterised by a breakdown of the political, social and economic infrastructure, the delivery of essential services and the maintenance of legal and judicial systems. Civil society and its institutions are frequently so oppressed and disempowered by the deliberate use of terror and violence that the state's capacity to defend the rights of its children is seriously weakened. Perhaps most critically, the breakdown of communities and households through death, displacement, disease and loss of economic capacity weakens or destroys children's immediate sources of care and protection.

The involvement of children in conflict - whether as actors or victims - is unacceptable. The international humanitarian and human rights communities must act to ensure the protection of children in and from conflict. They need to agree on the ethical and legal standards which should apply to children and work out practical strategies for the application of these standards.

Protection: towards a definition

The protection of children in conflict and emergencies should have two principal objectives:

- to protect them from harm inflicted by others (such as exploitation, abuse, neglect, cruel and degrading treatment and recruitment into the military)

- to protect the humanitarian imperative: that is, the right of civilians in need, including children, to humanitarian assistance (and the prevention of the denial or abuse of that assistance)

The legal standards and ethical values which should underpin protection work in conflict are:

- the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other relevant human rights legislation including international standards for the protection of refugees(1)

- international humanitarian law

- internationally recognised humanitarian principles, such as the primacy of the humanitarian imperative, the right to assistance and the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian efforts

The protection of children should seek to deal not only with violations as a direct result of armed conflict but also with other forms of exploitation and abuse: sexual abuse, economic exploitation, slavery and discrimination. Although these may exist long before conflict begins, they may continue or even worsen during the conflict as a result of the breakdown of families, communities and social, political and legal structures.

The protection of children in conflict: action at the international level

The protection of children in conflict demands coordinated, coherent and consistent advocacy at the international level as well as action at field level. The principal advocacy activities required are:

- continued support for the recommendations of the Machel Report on the Impact of Conflict on Children [details in following article] including the appointment of a Special Representative for Children in Conflict

- the promotion of the universal theme of no more war against children (advocating a universal humanitarian imperative to protect children from the brutal effects of war and ensuring children's access to humanitarian assistance through the mobilisation of the international community - governments, regional organisations, NGOs, religious groups and other bodies)

- advocacy in support of raising the minimum age of recruitment of children to the military to 18 years through the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child

- continued support for the international campaign to ban the use of anti-personnel landmines

- political pressure to ensure that those whose activities violate children's rights are, and are seen to be, brought to justice

International humanitarian agencies must also seek to develop collaborative global strategies, including joint action on dissemination and on the role of humanitarian workers and agencies in ensuring the protection of children in armed conflict.

The protection of children in armed conflict: country level action

At country level, protecting children in conflict involves advocacy, education and dissemination, capacity building, coalition building, the creation of safe environments for humanitarian action, monitoring and reporting. Humanitarian assistance must go beyond service delivery and technical interventions. Where possible, the international community should support and strengthen the capacity of the government - or the non-state entities in control - to honour their international legal and moral responsibilities to children.

The following actions are essential:

A. The promotion of laws and values that embody respect for children and their rights, including the dissemination of appropriate conventions and principles

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly Articles 19-23 and 32-40, together with the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, provide internationally accepted standards for the protection of children in conflict. In addition, the right to receive and to offer humanitarian assistance is embodied in widely accepted principles governing humanitarian action. These principles postulate also that humanitarian assistance must be delivered in a neutral, impartial, accountable and transparent way and that relief supplies and humanitarian workers are to be protected. Such principles are critical to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches its intended beneficiaries and that children receive the minimum support essential for their survival, protection and development. These standards must be promoted through the following activities:

(i) Advocacy for written commitments

The principles enshrined in the CRC, international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles must provide a basis for humanitarian work in a zone of conflict. The CRC, in particular, provides an essential commitment against which countries will now be judged and upon which they must periodically report with respect to the treatment of their own children.

All children everywhere and in all circumstances have the same rights. Though rebel or liberation movements are not signatories to international treaties or conventions, humanitarian and human rights organisations must make it clear to these authorities that they expect them to uphold the same standards as governments on adherence to the CRC, international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles. Commitments to respect children's rights should be obtained through written agreement and should be adequately monitored.

(ii) Dissemination

The observance of child rights requires a level of knowledge and awareness which is often lacking in zones of conflict. Dissemination is therefore critical. A programme of dissemination should seek to reach children themselves, international relief staff, officials of governments and non-state parties (particularly the military), local NGO officials, religious leaders and activists, traditional chiefs, women's leaders, journalists, police and others influential in society.

Where possible, dissemination should be undertaken by nationals of the country and linked to local traditional values of care and protection for the child. Most societies have strong traditional values that govern behaviour towards children or the vulnerable. Although such protective values may break down in war - as a result of violence, fear, community disintegration, economic stress, the brutalisation of society and the disintegration of legal systems - they still provide a critically important reference point for the principles of the CRC and Geneva Conventions.

The protection of girls and women from sexual violence must be supported by ensuring that such dissemination covers the responsibilities of all military personnel - including peacekeepers - towards women and girls.

(iii) Monitoring violations

Although international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, in some conflicts, the UN Centre for Human Rights report on general human rights abuses in zones of conflict, humanitarian agencies in the field must be prepared to ensure that there is systematic documentation of violations of children's rights, preferably by local institutions such as indigenous NGOs or religious groups. They will also need to ensure that information gathered on abuses of children, their families and their communities is channelled - openly or otherwise - to human rights groups and the media. In the most extreme cases, agencies may need publicly to condemn those guilty of such violations. At all times, however, agencies will need to maintain a balance between their moral obligation to the children and the possible consequences of these actions for the safety of staff, their relationship with the political authorities and the implementation of other programmes.

Related to these issues is the use of sanctions against those who commit systematic violations of children's rights. At field level, there is little that can be done. The withdrawal of humanitarian assistance to children and their families in need - the one obvious step that can be taken in protest against human rights abuses and the denial of access to humanitarian assistance - could only be taken in exceptional circumstances, given the moral, political and human consequences of such a step. On the other hand, the international community could do more to demonstrate the unacceptability of crimes against children. The refusal of Western governments to arrest the Bosnian Serb leadership implicated in war crimes and the brokering of a peace agreement in Liberia which allowed the war lords to run as presidential candidates, despite their brutal histories, demonstrate a realpolitik devoid of morality.

B. The creation of protective environments

The international community must create conditions for the improved physical protection of children in conflict. In principle, this involves creating protective environments - such as periods of tranquility and safe corridors in conflict zones - where children's rights and their access to humanitarian access are respected. For this, an international presence is critical in order to discourage violations of human rights, to remind warring parties that there is international concern and, at the very least, to bear witness to what is done so that crimes against children are neither ignored nor forgotten.

Children who remain with their families suffer less than those separated from their primary care-givers. The family and other community level institutions capable of protecting children must be strengthened and supported. Programmes of family reunification are therefore critical to the promotion of protection for children and must be a priority for humanitarian agencies, especially those dedicated to children. Children serving in the military - one of the most physically and psychologically harmful environments possible - must be demobilised and supported in their reintegration into their communities.

Humanitarian assistance and an international presence can provide at least some protection to victims of conflict but it is clear that, in the absence of a political resolution of a conflict, the suffering of children, their families and communities will continue. Therefore, although humanitarian agencies cannot normally take sides in a conflict, they can play a role in urging the international community and parties to the conflict to seek long-term political solutions.


Responsibility for ensuring the protection of children in conflict belongs to all those with control and influence over children - their families and communities, governments, de facto authorities and other institutions and organisations. Such protection must aim to prevent all forms of violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect of children through the practical implementation of human rights and humanitarian law on behalf of children. This involves adopting and enforcing the appropriate legal norms, securing respect for the fundamental ethical principles reflected by those norms and developing practical strategies to facilitate their application.

Iain Levine works for the Office of Emergency Programmes, UNICEF, New York.

Return to Top of Page

October 1997