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International protections

The world should, in theory, be in a stronger position to shield children since the principles of protection for children in wartime have been established in a number of international conventions.

A series of Geneva Conventions after World War I dealt with different aspects of the conduct of war by combatants. It was not until after the atrocities of World War II that the international community specifically addressed non-combatants and produced in 1949 another series of four Conventions, the last of which called for the protection of civilians in time of war (Fourth Geneva Convention, referred to below as 4GC). In 1977, this was supplemented by two Additional Protocols (referred to below as PI and PII) which provided children with special protection—dealing, for example, for the first time with their participation as soldiers. The issues covered by these treaties include:

In 1989, a major new human rights instrument was introduced: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This provides for much more complete protection of the child—defining standards of how children should and should not be treated. Indeed, the principles, the provisions and the procedures of the Convention are particularly relevant at time of war when all the rights of the child are at risk.

Articles of the Convention that are especially important in wartime include all those related to survival and to family support, as well as those concerned with education, health care and adequate nutrition. Other rights that are particularly at risk include rights to:

The Convention also makes specific mention of children in war. Article 38 calls on States Parties (i.e. governments) to apply the rules of international humanitarian law that are relevant to the child, and to take every feasible measure "to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by armed conflict."

Article 38 also urges governments to take all feasible measures to ensure that children under 15 have no direct part in the hostilities. Specifically with respect to child soldiers, it states:

States Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.

There was some controversy over this article in the drafting process. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in particular, felt that the age limit was set too low. However, this debate has continued, and a United Nations working group has been established to draft an Optional Protocol to the Convention which would ban recruiting anyone below the age of 18.

Article 39 of the Convention also covers children in armed conflicts. It refers to the need for physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of child victims.

Given the extent to which these principles have been flouted, it is easy to deride the existing body of international law. But these conventions are genuine landmarks. As late as World War II even the idea of extending any form of protection to enemy civilians was received with incomprehension. And the conventions do have some practical impact. While they may not prevent military abuses, they achieve some degree of restraint. Politicians who know that there are standards against which they can subsequently be judged are more likely to consider those standards in their calculations.

Figure 4: Net resource flows to developing countries, in US$ billions at 1992 prices and exchange rates, have increased since 1985, chiefly from private flows rather than official development financing. Asia and Central and South America have benefited most from private flows. Sub-Saharan Africa, which does not attract much in private flows, has suffered a decline in overall terms. Source: OECD, Development Co-operation - 1994 report, Paris, 1995.

Clearly what is lacking, however, are the mechanisms and the will for enforcement. In some ways, enforcement has become more difficult in recent years. In the days when many conflicts were proxy wars, international agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could make complaints not just to the combatants but also to Moscow or Washington. Now that these alignments have disappeared it is more difficult to apply external pressure. The issue is further complicated because the conventions apply to 'States Parties'. In today's armed conflicts, many of the offenders are not States at all but rather a loose collection of subnational groups, civilian and military, and in certain instances 'non-States Parties' have argued that they are not bound by the provisions of such conventions.

Nevertheless, many of the worst offenders are governments, and should be held to account. When politicians and military leaders know that retribution is not only possible but also likely, then the inhuman and impersonal decree of mass slaughter and genocide carries a much more personal dimension.

Encouraging compliance with international law requires first that any abuses are systematically monitored and that evidence is collected. It also requires a determination to prosecute offenders. Justice needs to be re-established if ordinary people are to have confidence in their reconstituted society. This is obviously difficult to do during the heat of conflict. And it is often even more difficult when the conflict is over and countries are desperate to achieve national reconciliation. But granting immunity for war crimes comes dangerously close to condoning them. Along with war crimes there is also the issue of reparations for abuses suffered, for enforced prostitution of prisoners or for the physical damage suffered as a result of spraying chemicals such as Agent Orange.

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