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Children as zones of peace

This report has focused on the increasingly damaging impact of warfare on children—on children as victims and combatants, on the ways in which international conventions have been flouted, and on the prospects for further deterioration as more and more States dissolve into sites of chronic violence. This is an area which will be further explored in the 'Study of the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children' by a high-level commission established by the UN General Assembly and chaired by Graça Machel, former First Lady of Mozambique (Panel 7).

The average viewer of the nightly news might not be too surprised at what is happening to children. War is seldom absent from our television screens. And the fact that all these things are being visited on children might be seen as yet another regrettable but inevitable aspect of humanity's capacity for violence.

But there is also a special reason for focusing on children. Most adults feel a particular shock and outrage when they see the bodies of children slain in battle or wasting away in refugee camps. They believe that children should somehow be above the political divide.

Photo: El Salvador in 1985 saw the first 'days of tranquillity', when the fighting stopped for three days to allow 250,000 small children to be vaccinated. ©

This concern is of more than sentimental value. It has frequently allowed relief to penetrate enemy lines to reach starving children beyond.

After World War I, Eglantyne Jebb, one of the founders of the British Save the Children Fund, who had organized food for needy children on both sides of the conflict, was charged in the United Kingdom with having given aid and succour to the enemy. "My Lord," she is said to have responded, "I have no enemies below the age of 11." She was acquitted.60 Similarly during World War II, the establishment of what is now Oxfam was based on defiance of official opposition to aiding civilians in Belgium and Greece who were suffering from the Allied blockade.

UNICEF, too, has since 1946 frequently used its focus on children as a means of working on both sides in civil wars—as it did in the 1960s in Biafra, and later in the 1970s in what was then Kampuchea. However, it was not until the 1980s that the idea emerged of children as a 'conflict-free zone'—that children should be protected from harm and provided with the essential services to ensure their survival and well-being. That concept was first formulated in 1983 by Nils Thedin of Sweden in a proposal to UNICEF.

If ever an idea seemed quixotic, this was it. To expect the perpetrators of some of the most sadistic actions to stop and think about children initially made little sense. Until it was tried. Since Nils Thedin's proposal, a half-dozen corridors of peace, days of tranquillity, bubbles of peace—different names for the same phenomenon—have actually been negotiated in the midst of a number of bloody conflicts.

The first occasion was in El Salvador in 1985. After much negotiation with the Government and the rebels, there was finally agreement that the carnage should stop for three 'days of tranquillity'.

On three days in consecutive months, the Salvadorian conflict gave way to a campaign in which as many as 20,000 health workers immunized 250,000 small children against polio, measles, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. This process was repeated every year until the end of the war six years later.

Similar principles have been applied in other disputes. In 1986, in the war between the Ugandan Government and the National Resistance Army, the warring parties agreed to allow vaccines, personnel and equipment to travel along a corridor of peace. A few months later in Lebanon, in March 1987, hostilities were suspended for three days to permit all young children to be vaccinated. Two years later in Afghanistan, in 1988-1989, vaccination teams operated in both government- and mujahidin-controlled territories and in some areas raised vaccination levels above 80 per cent.

Probably the most sustained example of humanitarian aid working on both sides of a conflict has been in the Sudan. The Sudan for years had been racked by civil war, but during 1988 this had been compounded by a disastrous drought causing the loss of 250,000 lives and displacing nearly 3 million people. By January 1989, it was clear that a similar tragedy lay in store for the following year. The Secretary-General asked UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant to meet with the warring parties—and Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) was the result. Through OLS the relief agencies negotiated both with the Government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which agreed to allow eight 'corridors' of relief to be created.

In the face of enormous odds, OLS achieved significant results. By the end of September that year, it had delivered over 100,000 metric tons of food and 4,000 tons of medical supplies.61 At the same time, vaccination clinics became operational in all the garrison towns and reached 90,000 children in SPLA areas.

OLS also brought about a reduction in the fighting—at least along the corridors of tranquillity. It allowed people to move about the countryside, and above all it gave people hope. Even after hostilities were resumed, civilian despair was never again to be so widespread or intense. A second phase was negotiated in March 1990 and, within the limits imposed by the fighting, has been running ever since. In 1995, the SPLA became the first combatant group in dispute with a recognized government to commit itself to abide by the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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