Protecting children in conflict zones

Punch Editorial Board

Without food and medical aid, while forced to flee war at home, life is becoming ever more hopeless for children. A new report – The State of the World’s Children 2017 – by the United Nations Children’s Fund paints a disturbing trend of attacks on children in armed conflicts around the world. From Nigeria’s blood-soaked North-East to the killing fields of Congo, and from Yemen to South Sudan, there is an escalation of sadistic crimes against children. No doubt, world leaders need to redouble their efforts to rein in inhuman acts against this defenceless group.

The report warned of a new pattern of attacks, condemning the “widespread and blatant disregard for international laws designed to protect the most vulnerable” as “a new normal.” This is unacceptable. It is a threat to civilised ethos, and it defies laid-down rules, with armed groups now bombing classrooms and playgrounds. Bandits rape children, abduct and recruit them as suicide bombers and child soldiers. Some regain their freedom, yet suffer further abuse in the hands of the security agents upon their release.

The most despicable acts against children occur in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In Nigeria and Cameroon, Boko Haram forced at least 135 children to act as suicide bombers in 2017. That was five times more than the number of children it indoctrinated to carry out its evil campaign in 2016. On January 3, a boy suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Gamboru, Borno State, with explosives, killing between five and 10 persons, including his father, the Army stated. Over half of the displaced 1.8 million refugees in Nigeria are children, the UNICEF report added. This is dangerous. This is a period character and learning ought to have moulded the children.

In DR Congo, atrocities by the armed groups led to displacement of 850,000 children from their homes in 2017; over 200 health centres and 400 schools were attacked by armed groups. In South Sudan, afflicted by internecine fighting, 19,000 children have been forcibly recruited into armed groups or the armed forces. The situation is also pathetic in Yemen, where 5,000 children have been killed and 10 million others affected overall by war.

In eastern Ukraine, 220,000 children are living under the constant threat from landmines and other devices. Children are being deliberately targeted in Afghanistan; the volatile country recorded 700 children deaths in 2017. In Myanmar, Rohingya children are being hounded into exile. “In Somalia, 1,740 cases of child recruitment were reported in the first 10 months of 2017,” the report said.

The escalation is alarming. Following Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, nearly 500,000 children now live in camps with little food and shortage of medicines. In all, 25 million children aged between six and 15 are out of school in conflict zones globally. This indicates that the world is perhaps not so bothered about a multi-pronged action to curb assaults on them.

Sadly, this attitude is not new. In its 2016 report on the state of children, UNICEF had warned that half a billion of them lived in countries undergoing conflict or other disasters. Frighteningly, about 393 million of the children were in sub-Saharan Africa, where bad governance and corruption are fuelling extreme poverty and war.

Though aid organisations like Save the Children, Red Cross and the United Nations agencies invest heavily in humanitarian programmes to support the victims of war, they are incapacitated by the fact that they are not state actors. They do not have the legal backing or authority to stop kidnappers, insurgents or wars; they can only care for victims.

However, the world leaders are not that helpless. Violence against children is feeding largely on a culture of impunity by the perpetrators because the world is not calling them to account. In Nigeria, for instance, no Boko Haram insurgent has been brought to book for the kidnap of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in Borno State in April 2014. To secure the release of some of the girls, ransom was even paid. It is a delicate subject, but crime thrives when offenders are not punished. When armed groups and militants bomb schools and kidnap children, they commit crime and ought to face the full wrath of the law.

Therefore, those implicated in these heinous acts should be made to face prosecution even at the end of conflicts. Their trials could be conducted in the international arena, just as Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milosevic were made to undergo trial at The Hague. Taylor, a former Liberian president, was convicted by a special court convened by the UN for aiding the war in Sierra Leone, while Milosevic, a former Serbian president, was tried at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity following the war that dismembered Yugoslavia.

Without wars, criminals have no loophole to exploit and abuse children or turn them to sex objects or child soldiers. Currently, there are several needless conflicts in different parts of the world. These criminals thrive in such climes. Therefore, political gladiators should stop pursuing self-interests that trigger conflicts.

The UN, in collaboration with NGOs and governments, should create awareness about the rules of engagement during wars. Many non-state actors commit atrocities with the claim that they are ignorant of the rules. This is why it is imperative to sensitise them about the local and international laws, including the Rome Statute of the ICC. The statute makes it a war crime to conscript or enlist children under the age of 15 years or force them to participate actively in hostilities.

The Nigerian government should build a framework for the seamless reintegration of the children affected by war into the society. The bedrock of this is education, which should be readily provided at the primary and secondary levels.

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