Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

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Patterns in conflict:
Civilians are now the target

Civilian fatalities in wartime have climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century ... to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.

New weapons and patterns of conflict that include deliberate attacks against civilians are increasingly turning children into primary targets of war.

"Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers," notes a new United Nations report by Graça Machel, the UN Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

"It is a basic need of children to be protected when conflicts threaten, and such protection requires the fulfillment of their rights through the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law," the report states.

Modern warfare is often less a matter of confrontation between professional armies than one of grinding struggles between military and civilians in the same country, or between hostile groups of armed civilians. More and more wars are essentially low-intensity internal conflicts, and they are lasting longer. The days of set-piece battles between professional soldiers facing off in a field far from town are long gone. Today, wars are fought from apartment windows and in the lanes of villages and suburbs, where distinctions between combatant and non-combatant quickly melt away.

Civilian fatalities in wartime climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century, to 15 per cent during World War I, to 65 per cent by the end of World War II, to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.

Children are not spared. It is estimated that 500,000 under-five-year-olds died as a result of armed conflicts in 1992 alone. In Chechnya, between February and May 1995, children made up an appalling 40 per cent of all civilian casualties; Red Cross workers found that children's bodies bore marks of having been systematically executed with a bullet through the temple. In Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost one child in four has been wounded.

"Any and all tactics are employed, from systematic rape, to scorched earth tactics that destroy crops and poison wells, to ethnic cleansing and genocide," the report says.

In war, children usually have little choice but to share the same horrors as their parents. As wars take on an ethnic, tribal or fratricidal cast, civilians and their children may find themselves the objects of genocidal violence. As one political commentator cynically expressed it in a 1994 radio broadcast before violence erupted in Rwanda, "To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats."

"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 report says. "The entire fabric of their societies their homes, schools, health systems and religious institutions are torn to pieces."

Even humanitarian activities that were once safe from attack are now treated as legitimate military objectives'. Relief convoys, health clinics and feeding centres have all become targets. And when food supplies run short or water is contaminated during wartime, it is usually children who suffer most. In Somalia, half or more of all children under age five who were alive on 1 January 1992 were dead by the end of the year. In Mozambique, wartime damage to schools has left two thirds of 2 million primary school-age children with no access to education.

Sexual abuse is also appearing more often as a systematic policy of war, deployed to terrorize civilian communities. In some raids during the carnage in Rwanda in 1994, virtually every adolescent girl who survived militia attack was later raped. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rape of teenage girls was systematized into a deliberate policy. It has been estimated that more than 20,000 women have been raped since the Balkan war began in 1992.

The technology of war has also changed in ever more deadly ways. Inexpensive new lightweight weapons have made it tragically easy to use children as the cannon-fodder of modern warfare. In Uganda, an AK-47 which is simple enough for a child of 10 to strip and reassemble can be bought for the same price as a chicken, and in Mozambique for a bag of maize. Thanks to such innovations, by the late 1980s adults had put guns in the hands of as many as 200,000 children under the age of 16 in 25 countries. As soldiers, children are often considered the most expendable: during the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

What are the causes underlying modern armed conflict with its emphasis on victimizing children and other civilians? "The sense of dislocation and chaos that characterizes contemporary armed conflicts can be attributed to many different factors," says the report.

"Some observers point to cataclysmic political upheavals and struggles for control over resources in the face of widespread poverty and economic disarray. Others see the callousness of modern warfare as a natural outcome of the social revolutions that have torn traditional societies apart. The latter analysts point as proof to many African societies that have always had strong martial cultures. While fierce in battle, the rules and customs of those societies, only a few generations ago, made it taboo to attack women and children," the report continues.

Even as wars become deadlier for innocent civilians, it is possible to mitigate their effects on children. In El Salvador, for example, beginning in 1985, government and rebel forces agreed to three days of tranquillity', during which 250,000 small children were immunized against polio, measles, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. This vaccine truce was repeated annually for six years until the end of the civil war. Similarly, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics inspired UNICEF-brokered truces between warring factions in Afghanistan (3 million children were vaccinated) and in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq (66,000 vaccinated) a gold medal success for all sides.

Changing patterns of conflict: Key statistics

  • Increasingly, wars are fought in precisely those countries that can least afford them. Of more than 150 major conflicts since the Second World War, 130 have been fought in the developing world. The per capita gross national product (GNP) of war-torn countries in 1994 included: Afghanistan (US$280), Angola ($700), Cambodia ($200), Georgia ($580), Liberia ($450), Mozambique ($80), Somalia ($120), Sri Lanka ($640), the Sudan ($480).
  • Since the 1950s, more wars have started than have stopped. By the end of 1995, wars had been running in Afghanistan for 17 years, Angola, 30; Liberia, 6; Somalia, 7; Sri Lanka, 11; Sudan, 12.
  • The global case-load of refugees and displaced persons is growing at alarming speed. The number of refugees from armed conflicts worldwide increased from 2.4 million in 1974 to more than 27.4 million today, the report notes, with another 30 million people displaced within their own countries. Children and women make up an estimated 80 per cent of displaced populations.

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