[Contents] - [Next Page] - [Previous Page]


Introduction: Children in War

I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty, too, will end.

These are the words of a 15-year-old girl. They could have been written yesterday—by a child in Bosnia or Liberia, in Afghanistan or the Sudan. In fact, they were written more than 50 years ago in the Netherlands, by Anne Frank, who died shortly afterwards in a Nazi concentration camp.

In 1996, UNICEF marks its 50th anniversary. The organization was founded in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II, as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. Times have changed—and they have not changed. In 1996, the world's children again face the carnage of war. Millions live with shattered innocence, daily terror and stifled hopes, which Anne Frank would recognize only too well.

This year, The State of the World's Children reflects the terrible symmetry of 1946 and today. It reports on children in war—on their lives and on their deaths. Children thrown into mass graves. Children wandering without their parents or wasting away in refugee camps. Children brutalized into being killers themselves.

The report also takes a historical perspective. It looks at what has changed in the last 50 years. The thread of violence runs through this too, for communities and children suffering the silent emergencies of poverty and hunger. But there have also been enormous achievements.

Child mortality rates have fallen by about 50 per cent, and total annual child deaths have dropped dramatically from 25 million to 12.5 million.1 Since 1980, basic immunization has saved the lives of about 20 million children.2 As the second part of the report points out, there has also been major progress in the priority accorded to children. Officially at least, governments respect and value children as never before. The Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force in 1990 and had been ratified by 179 countries as of the end of September 1995.

If children are loved and valued, why are they still being used as cannon-fodder? A weary response might lay the blame on innate human cruelty and duplicity. A cynic would also argue that incessant television coverage has done little more than stun our sensibilities, and that all conventions and declarations will inevitably crumple before the barrel of a gun.

UNICEF takes a different view. It believes that this gap between rhetoric and reality represents a historic challenge. In response to so much destruction and pain, there have also been unprecedented efforts at peacemaking and caring for the victims. The urgency now is to vastly enhance the means both to prevent future conflicts and to better support victims.

UNICEF argues that concern for children is one of those means. We believe that love and respect for children are key to humanitarian and political progress. Many of today's most intractable disputes, for all the ethnic or religious character they acquire, are at heart struggles for resources and for survival. Today's problems of poverty and violence will never subside unless we invest in the physical, mental and emotional development of the next generation.

Concern for children is also a way of addressing today's violence. Wars are not going to disappear overnight, but we can at least mitigate their effects and ensure that they do not target children and women. To that end, this report sets out UNICEF's Anti-war Agenda —a series of steps that we believe to be both realistic and effective and that would dramatically improve the well-being of children in situations of conflict. Vital measures here include removing child soldiers from the battlefields, and banning the manufacture of weapons such as anti-personnel land-mines that target civilians. Better information can also play a part: we can publicly recognize and systematically document genocide and instances of torture and rape to warn potential perpetrators that the world is watching—that there will be no impunity.

Beyond defending children, we should also use child protection as a means of opening up dialogue. The idea of children as 'zones of peace' has already proved its worth with temporary ceasefires to allow children in war zones to be vaccinated, or to allow food supplies to pass through enemy lines.

At the same time, we need to address rehabilitation. Many children have immediate needs for food or shelter. They also require psychosocial support—to help them recover from emotional wounds. Communities, too, require social rehabilitation. In many of today's chronic disputes violence does not cease, it merely subsides—sustained partly by the persistence of weapons and the pervasive military ethos. Avoiding future conflicts will require not just caring for the youngest victims of war, but also educating them for peace.

The Anti-war Agenda rests on the proposition that much of the tragedy befalling children is preventable. The evil deeds that this report documents are, after all, driven by human behaviour. Children are suffering as a direct and immediate consequence of the decisions of adults. If conflict seems, at times, to be inevitable, there is nothing inevitable about children bearing the brunt of its consequences. Brutality, violence, rape and torture—all would stop tomorrow if the will to stop them existed, or if the rest of us devised means to compel them to be stopped.

In so doing, the world would be living up to the fundamental purpose of the United Nations Charter: "...to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."


[Next Page] - [Go to top of page] - [Previous Page]