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News Feature

Wars and the vulnerable

Armed conflict is shattering the lives of millions of children, says UNICEF in its latest annual report, The State of the World's Children 1996. From forced military servitude to rape and murder, the report presents a grim catalogue of war's effect on society's most vulnerable victims.

Increasingly, says the report, children are deliberate targets of conflict-as soldiers, political pawns and victims of campaigns to terrorize civilians. Their rights to protection and care are trampled in proliferating battle zones across the globe.

Vowing to meet children's needs "even in the midst of the inferno of war," UNICEF has launched a broad Anti-war Agenda to protect and care for these young victims and pave the way for peace. "The death and suffering of children cannot be tolerated," UNICEF says.

"It is the singular characteristic of warfare in our time that children suffer most," the report says. Wars have taken a horrifying toll on children in the past decade: 2 million estimated killed, 4-5 million disabled, 12 million made homeless, more than 1 million orphaned or separated from parents, some 10 million psychologically traumatized by violence, and legions of 'survivors' who have yet to experience peace in their lifetime.

More than 50 countries today are embroiled in armed conflict. Some countries have seen conflict for decades: Afghanistan, 17 years; Sri Lanka, 11; and Somalia, 7. In Angola, where there are now hopes for peace, fighting has been going on for 30 years.

One of the most disturbing aspects of recent conflicts, according to the report, is the "frightening escalation" in the use of children as soldiers. Recently, boys and girls under the age of 16 have participated in conflicts in 25 countries, either as army aides or combatants. Deploring this trend, UNICEF declares its support for an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which will raise the minimum age for military recruitment from 15 to 18.

Another scourge of war is land-mines, which maim and kill thousands of children every year. An estimated 110 million land-mines await the unwary footfall of a farmer or a small child in 64 countries, says the report.

UNICEF takes a strong stance on land-mines. The organization will not deal with companies making or selling these deadly devices. UNICEF is calling for an international law banning the manufacture, use, sale, stockpiling and export of anti-personnel mines. The organization calls such a measure the only way to "stop the endless suffering of children and other victims."

In addition to recruiting child soldiers and planting land-mines, many of today's combatants target civilians by damaging hospitals, schools, water supplies and food-producing areas. As a result of this strategy, many more children die slowly from malnutrition and disease than from bombs and bullets.

In Africa, which has more conflicts than any other region, these anti-civilian strategies are put to work to disastrous effect. In regional conflicts, food and medical shortages, combined with the hardships of flight, have killed about 20 times more people than have weapons. In one Ugandan war zone, a 1980 study estimated that hunger accounted for 78 per cent of deaths, and diseases 20 per cent, compared to only 2 per cent due to violence.

Between 1980 and 1988, the lack of food, safe drinking water and adequate health care in war zones contributed to an estimated 333,000 child deaths in Angola and 490,000 in Mozambique. War destroyed more than 40 per cent of Mozambique's health centres between 1982 and 1986 and left about two thirds of the country's 2 million primary school age children without classrooms. In the early 1980s, the Ethiopian Government's 'scorched-earth' tactics destroyed vast tracts of arable land in Tigray. War and drought brought famine in the 1970s and 1980s, and the country remains extremely vulnerable to acute food shortages. Half to three quarters of Somali children under five years old reportedly died in 1992, the overwhelming majority from malnutrition or disease, conditions caused or exacerbated by war.

Factions in Lebanon's 17-year civil war made Beirut's water supply system a prime target. A 1990 survey showed that 66 per cent of the country's urban water sources were contaminated. Antagonists in war, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia have resorted to the same tactics.

Economic sanctions take a terrible toll on women and children, says UNICEF. The report quotes United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as saying that sanctions are a "blunt instrument." Haiti and Iraq have been particularly hard hit, according to the report. Sanctions are thought to have cost the lives of thousands of children in Haiti. In Iraq, where sanctions have contributed to widespread undernourishment, they are also implicated in the collapse of the water and sanitation system and the critical shortage of life-saving drugs. If sanctions are applied against a country, UNICEF calls for a 'child impact assessment' and for constant monitoring to gauge the impact on children.

According to UNICEF, reopening schools is crucial to the recovery of war-ravaged countries. Rehabilitation must also include therapy-not just physical but also psychological-for children injured and traumatized by war. But to prevent future wars, efforts must begin with children themselves, in education programmes that teach them tolerance and non-violent means to resolve conflict.

In its report, UNICEF proposes that governments spend less on war and more on children. Of the 79 countries engaged in major conflicts or other political violence in 1993, 65 were in the developing world. Between 1960 and 1991, total military expenditures by developing countries rose from US$27 billion to US$121 billion. Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen all spent more on their armies than on health and education.

Though the main responsibility for such skewed priorities rests with the developing countries themselves, the report points out that the leading exporters of arms to the developing world are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

To meet children's ever-growing needs, UNICEF has committed itself to expand the scale and scope of anti-war efforts and "to mobilize whatever resources are necessary." The organization proposes an Anti-war Agenda as part of its plan. In addition to providing emergency relief and rehabilitation of schools and communities, UNICEF advocates an end to the conscription of child soldiers, an international ban on the production, use, sale and stockpiling of land-mines, and efforts to educate children to embrace peace, among other measures.


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