The UN is empowered to impose economic and other sanctions on Member States by Article 41 of its Charter. The negative effects of sanctions inevitably fall most heavily on the most vulnerable members of the population: healthy adults can generally endure long periods of deprivation but children have far fewer internal resources to call upon and soon suffer irreparable harm.
The 1991 sanctions imposed on Haiti, for example, had a devastating impact on children. A survey conducted in the period 1994-1995 showed 7.8 per cent of children under five with acute malnutrition, compared with 3.4 per cent in 1990. School enrolment fell from 83 per cent in 1990 to 57 per cent in 1994; while the number of children living on the street doubled over the same period.
Evidence like this from Haiti, together with the plight of children in Iraq (where infant mortality more than doubled during the sanctions period), persuaded the United Nations that sanctions must be much more carefully deployed in future. In 1999, the Security Council pledged to consider the impact on children whenever it adopted sanctions under Article 41; in April 2000 it set up a working group to review UN sanctions policy and recommend ways of making sanctions more targeted. In recent, years sanctions imposed on UNITA in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been restricted to banning trade in arms and diamonds as well as travel by senior government members; and their impact and effectiveness have been carefully assessed.
The UN hope is that these targeted or ‘smart’ sanctions will restore the international community’s confidence in measures that stop short of using military force but exert far greater pressure on errant Member States than mere verbal warnings or exhortations.
Children as ‘zones of peace’
The aspiration to incorporate the idea of children as ‘zones of peace’ into international law has not been realized. The notion has, however, continued to prove useful and to save lives in some conflict situations. In Sri Lanka, for example, over half a million children in the conflict-ridden north-east were immunized against polio during a UNICEF-supported Sub-National Immunization Day in October 2003. Since 1995, the Government and the armed rebel movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have annually observed such ‘days of tranquillity’; ceasefire days in which children across the country have been immunized.
A significant recent development has been the specific mention in UN Security Council mandates to UN peacekeeping missions of the need to protect women and children. It is also increasingly common for such missions – in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone, among others – to appoint one or more child protection advisers.
In Angola, Colombia and Sri Lanka, among other conflict-ridden states, the idea of schools as zones of peace has been actively promoted – safe havens from the violence plaguing their countries. Schools must be places of safety for children in every respect, where they are protected by adults they can trust. This is among the first prerequisites of the global push for universal primary education, one of the Millennium Development Goals. If this sense of safety is lost – as it was, tragically, when children died in an armed engagement at a school in western Nepal in October 2003 – the sanctity of childhood itself is impugned.