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Panel 7

Impact of war on children: Study by high-level group

In late 1993, the United Nations Secretary-General, through a General Assembly resolution, launched a two-year study of the impact of war on children, to be headed by Graça Machel, former First Lady of Mozambique.

In an address to the UN in 1994, she promised that the study's report would be "uncompromising" in its candour. Speaking at a session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Ms. Machel said, "Violations of child rights and humanitarian law applicable to children are widespread and serious. Incidents of rape, torture, and the murder of child civilians mock the binding promises made by States in their adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Ms. Machel is being supported by a group of eminent persons consisting of Hanan Ashrawi (Palestine), Belisario Betancourt (Colombia), Francis Deng (Sudan), Marian Wright Edelman (US), Devaki Jain (India), Rigoberta Menchu (Guatemala), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Lisbet Palme (Sweden), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (South Africa). Support for the study is coming from all parts of the UN system, with UNICEF and the Geneva-based Centre for Human Rights playing lead roles. There is also a worldwide network of participating NGOs.

Photo: A mother and her 10-year-old amputee son in Mostar are victims of modern warfare. ©

The group is undertaking a series of regional consultations in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East, making field visits to several affected countries and commissioning a significant number of research papers.

The first of two African consultations took place in Addis Ababa in April 1995. Participants noted the "totality" of today's wars, in which political leaders manipulate accidental distinctions of race, class or ethnicity—forcing the participation of every man, woman and child. Some were concerned about confusion regarding the UN mandate to intervene when governments are unwilling or unable to protect the rights of their people. The meeting agreed that all warring parties must stop recruiting or otherwise using children to achieve military objectives; demobilize child soldiers and integrate them into civilian life; protect non-combatants in areas of conflict, especially children and women; protect traditional sanctuaries, such as schools, hospitals and churches, and stop their selection as military targets.

The group will present its findings and a series of recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly in 1996.

"All of us," says Ms. Machel, "find it hard to believe that at the end of the 20th century, children are targets, children are expendable, children are victims, children are refugees, and even perpetrators—in one conflict after another, on virtually every continent."

She also believes, however, that there is a way out of the crisis. "I am under no illusions about the size of the task. But with the necessary political will, substantial progress can be made towards our common goal of making the rights of children in situations of armed conflict the rule rather than the exception...the task that we face is indeed a challenging one. But the cost of failure—for this generation's children and the next—is simply too high to bear."

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