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Children in war

The establishment of the United Nations after World War II raised hopes of a new era of peace. This was over-optimistic. Between 1945 and 1992, there were 149 major wars, killing more than 23 million people. On an average yearly basis, the number of war deaths in this period was more than double the deaths in the 19th century, and seven times greater than in the 18th century.3

War and political upheaval have been tearing whole countries apart—from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Cambodia to Rwanda. And this vortex of violence is sucking in ever-larger numbers of children. Entire generations have grown up in the midst of brutal armed conflicts. At the end of 1995, conflicts have been running in Angola for over 30 years, in Afghanistan for 17 years, in Sri Lanka for 11 years and in Somalia for 7 years.


Photo: One of the rights of children is to be protected from military conscription, but children have participated in a number of recent conflicts. Young soldiers from Myanmar drill. ©


Children have, of course, always been caught up in warfare. They usually have little choice but to experience, at minimum, the same horrors as their parents—as casualties or even combatants. And children have always been particularly exposed. When food supplies have run short, it is children who have been hardest hit, since their growing bodies need steady supplies of essential nutrients. When water supplies have been contaminated, it is children who have had the least resistance to the dangers of disease. And the trauma of exposure to violence and brutal death has emotionally affected generations of young people for the rest of their lives (Panel 1).

Recent developments in warfare have significantly heightened the dangers for children. During the last decade, it is estimated (and these figures, while specific, are necessarily orders of magnitude) that child victims have included:

The increasing number of child victims is primarily explained by the higher proportion of civilian deaths in recent conflicts. In the wars of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, only about half the victims were civilians.

In the later decades of this century the proportion of civilian victims has been rising steadily: in World War II it was two thirds, and by the end of the 1980s it was almost 90 per cent.5

This is partly a function of technology. Aerial bombardment has extended the potential battle zone to entire national territories. World War II saw a massive increase in indiscriminate killings, with the bombings of Coventry and Dresden, for example, and the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And this pattern was repeated in the Viet Nam war, which is estimated to have cost 2.5 million lives.

A further cause of the rising death toll for civilians is that most contemporary conflicts are not between States, but within them. Rather than being set-piece battles between contending armies, these are much more complex affairs—struggles between the military and civilians, or between contending groups of armed civilians. They are as likely to be fought in villages and suburban streets as anywhere else. In this case, the enemy camp is all around, and distinctions between combatant and non-combatant melt away in the suspicions and confusions of daily strife. In 1994, the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 13 countries had ongoing "complex emergencies" of this type, and it classified over 20 million people as "vulnerable"; it also listed 16 other countries with potential emergencies.6

Families and children are not just getting caught in the crossfire, they are also likely to be specific targets. This is because many contemporary struggles are between different ethnic groups in the same country or in former States. When ethnic loyalties prevail, a perilous logic clicks in. The escalation from ethnic superiority to ethnic cleansing to genocide, as we have seen, can become an irresistible process. Killing adults is then not enough; future generations of the enemy—their children—must also be eliminated. As one political commentator ex-pressed it in a 1994 radio broadcast before violence erupted in Rwanda, "To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats."7

In these circumstances, classifying such processes as 'complex emergencies' is incomplete. To say they are complex is true enough, but this would cover most forms of human activity. It also obscures the fact that these are fundamentally political disputes. Even to say that they are 'emergencies' is optimistic, suggesting that they will soon be over. Rather, these are chronic forms of social conflict whose violent repercussions in the form of 'total war' could be felt for years or decades ahead.


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