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It’s About Children

Just as it is shocking to see how little has happened in the wake of school shootings in the US, it is shocking to read the current statistics about dead and injured children in war zones.

"This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped and maimed;...a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality." (Photo: Oxfam International)

"This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped and maimed;...a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality." (Photo: Oxfam International)

More than twenty years ago, in August 1996 Garca Machel the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, issued her report to the Secretary-General of the UN: Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children: Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The introduction outlined a bleak international landscape in which "...nothing was spared or protected—not children, families or communities".  It estimated two million children had been killed in the decade previous to her report and  three times as many seriously injured or permanently disabled. I want to drag it off the dusty shelf where it sits, forgotten in some UN office.

When you hear figures for dead and injured in Syria, compute this statistic: one in four deaths is a child. Then there is Congo, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq; the list goes on and on and on.

Children and youth in the US are asking why there has been no effective government action on gun control,  and insisting that gun control measures be taken to protect them in their schools and neighborhoods. I am asking why there are not more effective international efforts to protect children and their human rights from another kind of violence—the ravages of war around the globe? Where is the passion to save children in 2018? Where are the laws and resources —both here and abroad—we need to enforce them?

Iraqi boy waits to see doctor at Al-Ghazolia Refugee Camp, Baghdad 2004. (Photo:Claudia Lefko)

This moment is rightfully about children in schools, guns  and gun violence.  Kudos to the youth who expanded the movement to include children and youth who live in communities where violence is part of their everyday lives, where they must worry and be vigilant about every place, every day.  And deep gratitude to the international children and youth who stood in solidarity with those in America to call for an end to guns and gun violence. Expanding the focus beyond Parkland or any one particular place or incident is an important and significant step.  Leave it to kids to lead the way.

I want to expand it further.  For me, to paraphrase a Quaker poster about war: this current moment is not about this or that child, in this or that country, in this or that circumstance. It’s about children. Children will make and occupy the future of every village, town and city, every inch of humanly habitated land around the world.  They are the planet’s most valuable and most vulnerable resource.  At some more enlightened time, the international community recognized this; children, were given special status in local, national and international laws, in treaties and conventions to help guarantee their well-being and their basic human rights.

Yet, looking at figures of children killed and injured around the globe “just” in 2017…the numbers are staggering.  According to UN statistics, the number of child deaths in Afghanistan in 2017 was the highest ever recorded; this in a country that has been at war for decades.  When you hear figures for dead and injured in Syria, compute this statistic: one in four deaths is a child. Then there is Congo, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq; the list goes on and on and on.  

Governments are always quick to tell us how precise their weapons of war are.  Civilian deaths—if they are counted at all — are portrayed as isolated, unfortunate incidents.  But,  on May 12, 1996 in a rare moment of truth-telling, Madeline Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, acknowledged the U.S. government knew and accepted that hundreds of thousands — half a million — Iraqi children had died as a result US government determination to support UN Economic Sanctions against Iraq.  Asked about the deaths in her now-infamous interview on 60 Minutes in 1996, Albright responded.  "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”  The Machel report was also released in 1996 just months after this.  It is difficult to comprehend how a government — the US government — could bargain with the lives of children at the same time they join with the international community’s efforts to protect and care for them.

Just as it is shocking to see how little has happened in the wake of school shootings in the US, it is shocking to read the current statistics about dead and injured children in war zones,  and contemplate how little has been done overall to protect the lives of children around the world after the passionate call to action of the Machel Report some twenty years ago.

Below, some excerpts from the report, numbered by paragraph in which they appear:   

(3) These statistics  (2 million killed, 3 times as many injured) are shocking enough, but more chilling is the conclusion to be drawn from them: more and more of the world is being sucked into a moral vacuum.  This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped and maimed;...a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality.  Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization.  There are few further depths to which humanity can sink.

(29) Armed conflicts across and between communities result in massive levels of destruction: physical, human, moral and cultural.  Not only are large numbers of children killed and injured, but countless others grow up deprived of their material and emotional needs, including the structures that give meaning to social and cultural life. The entire fabric of their societies—their homes, schools, health system and religious institutions –are torn to pieces.

(30) War violates every right of a child—the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, the right to the development of the personality and the right to be nurtured and protected.  Many of today's conflicts last the length of a "childhood"...and for this duration, can have profound physical and psychological implications.

(270) Governments bear the primary responsibility for protecting children from the impact of armed conflict, and indeed for preventing conflicts from occurring.  While this report provides testimony of the efforts...it is ultimately a testimony of their collective  failure to do so.  Governments have clearly failed to harness the necessary financial and human resources or to demonstrate the compassion, the commitment and the tenacity required to fulfill their moral, political and social obligations to children.

I am—we are all  rooting —for the brave, articulate and determined children and youth who are leading a movement against guns and to halt gun violence. I feel hope re-born.  I’m trying to quiet my rumbling skepticism, hoping there will finally be action this time. There is no excuse for what we are witnessing —in the US and around the globe—today. No excuse.

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Claudia Lefko

Claudia Lefko, a long-time educator, activist and advocate for children, is the founding director of The Iraqi Children's Art Exchange and its project, Baghdad Resolve: An International Collaboration to Improve Cancer Care in Iraq.

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