I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end.
- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
This was not written by a young child in any of the war-torn countries of today; it was written over 60 years ago by Anne Frank as she hid from the brutal occupation of the Nazis in the Netherlands. Sadly, a short time later after these words were penned, Anne would die in a concentration camp.
If one watches any of the network evening newscasts, or tunes into the myriad of cable news channels, they undoubtedly will see the images of the horrors of war from the ongoing conflicts in places like Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and Afghanistan. Deep below the surface of these conflicts lies a story that all too often goes unreported: It is the story of young lives uprooted and devastated by war. These children have become what is termed in military parlance as “collateral damage”, but they are actually the innocent victims caught in the middle of man’s inhumanity to man. Children are the most precious and vulnerable amongst us, yet somehow they have been forgotten. Their hopes, dreams and aspirations have been shattered by the carnage of war. The prospects for their future growth and development are bleak, if they do in fact survive the conflicts. This is a horrific story, and it needs to be told. The sad story of Anne Frank could very well be written by one of these children today.
Will we as a global society permit these children to continue in their suffering? It is my hope that we will not. Can we afford to do so as they constitute our future? No, of course we cannot!
U.N. Recognizes the Urgency
Children in conflict zones suffer a disproportionate share of the burden as a result of the violence and chaos of war. From lost education to poverty and hunger to illness contracted from disease, the plight of children in the world’s hotspots is a difficult one.
The U.N. has taken notice. Last year, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Education for All Global Monitoring Report released a paper titled Children Still Battling to go to School which showed half of the 57 million children, or approximately 28 million of the children who were not in school were displaced due to conflict. This is an alarming number, with a greater percentage of this figure being young girls. This paper was submitted to coincide with the 16th birthday of Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for simply wanting to attend school.
The UNESCO paper revealed that the largest percentage of children out of school lived in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by South and West Asia and the Arab States. The Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova said, “Education seldom figures in assessments of the damage inflicted by conflict. International attention and the media invariably focus on the most immediate images of humanitarian suffering, not on the hidden costs and lasting legacies of violence. Yet nowhere are these costs more evident than in education.”
With respect to education, the leader of UNESCO added that conflict robs “the hopes and ambitions of a whole generation of children.”
With 57 million children out of school, the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education by 2015 will be missed based on the reporting of Education for All. In addition, there are an estimated 250 million children who cannot read, write or handle simple math. According to Pauline Rose, the director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, “What’s the point in an education if children emerge after years in school without the skills they need?”
In the beginning of this year, the U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, indicated plans to assist in educating Syrian children in the midst of conflict by teaching them in schools in Lebanon. This effort is one of the bright lights shining on an otherwise dark situation. We need more of these developments to help educate these children.
Poverty and Hunger Threaten Children in Conflict Zones
Enemy combatants, as part of their strategy of war, use “hunger as a weapon.” Each side makes the conscious effort to eliminate their opponent’s ability to garner food. This can be accomplished by the destruction of the other side’s ability to grow food; namely, an adversary will destroy, for example, the farmland used to produce crops. Because of the conflict, farmers become refugees and must leave. Widespread famine occurs in the area where conflict resides. The U.N., through its World Food Programme (WFP) and other affiliated agencies, makes every effort to minimize this from happening; however, this is a major undertaking.
Of course, those hit the hardest are the most vulnerable of society: our children. The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) believes that in an effort to reduce global poverty it must begin with our children. For example, there are greater than 30% of children in the world today who live on less than $1 a day. Furthermore, “every 3.6 seconds one person dies of starvation. Usually it is a child under the age of 5.”
Goal 1 of the MDGs is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. For their part, UNICEF works to improve health care for children, promote efforts to make certain that young girls have an opportunity to go to school, and they work hard to ensure a safe environment for children. This is quite a challenge for the U.N. agency.
International Legal Safeguards for the Protection of Children
The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in November 1989 and became the first legally binding international document to ensure children would be guaranteed a wide range of human rights protections.
In addition, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court specifically sets out the prohibition for “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities.”
These are only two of a number of specific international legal protections for children. They clearly state the guaranteed safeguards children are afforded under international law. However, as we clearly know, unscrupulous individuals around the world flout these international legal regimes. It is incumbent upon the international community to ensure that the most innocent, our children, are protected. Those in leadership capacities must enforce existing laws. Over 60 years ago, a brave young girl penned these words: …if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end.
It would be nice to know that someday the words of young Anne Frank would loudly resonate around the world, and the cruelty that children suffer would come to an end.