The Urgent Need – and Hope – for Protecting Children in War

Human Rights Watch, November 2, 2018

By Bede Sheppard, Deputy Director, Children’s Rights Division

Is there more international law can do to protect children caught up in war? That is the question raised by a major report released today as part of an inquiry on protecting children during conflicts.

The Inquiry on Protecting Children in Conflict, chaired by United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, recommends several ways that international law could be strengthened, clarified, and developed. For example, denying access to humanitarian assistance should always be unlawful when it may lead to the starvation of children, constitutes collective punishment, or violates the obligation to provide care and aid to children. There should be a clearer specific prohibition on targeting schools – to which Human Rights Watch also seeks increased efforts to end the use of schools for military purposes, which turns schools into targets.

Looking at today’s wars around the world, the need to address the question is evident. Children are used as child soldiers in countries such as Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria. Children are killed and maimed in places where they expect to be safe, such as in classrooms or on school buses. Schools are attacked, while others are converted into military bases and become subject to attack. Children are abducted, raped, and forced to share space with combatants. And the blocking of food and medical supplies means children are dying of preventable starvation and disease. How can war crimes against children continue?

The inquiry warns that even where the law is already supposed to protect children, it’s not regularly enforced. Greater accountability for those who break the law is desperately needed.

Any one of the inquiry’s recommendations, if implemented, could make wars less dangerous for children. The question is whether enough governments are willing to do the hard work to make these proposals a reality. International law doesn’t function unless enough governments work together to enforce its moral and ethical rules, even at the cost of suspending more immediate political and practical concerns.

This is where the inquiry offers hope. It maps a path through history – beginning with efforts following the First World War to define children’s rights during wartime – to show how it is precisely around this topic of protecting children that governments have often found the boldness to make progress. The inquiry challenges today’s global leaders to find such courage again. It’s critical that they do.