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John Metzler Archive
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Unthinkable horror:
The targeting of children
in 21st century warfare

UNITED NATIONS — Some of the saddest collateral damage resulting from a score of civil conflicts worldwide remains the tragedy that children are caught in the crossfire or even worse, are specifically targeted by the combatants. Ongoing armed conflict in places ranging from Afghanistan to Libya, and Pakistan to the Philippines underscores this reality. And some of the world’s worst terrorist groups are involved in the brutality.


The vortex of violence against children has many forms which according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon range from the “recruitment and use of child soldiers, killing and maiming, rape and other sexual violence, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access.”

One has only to watch the news; children caught in the crossfire from both sides in Libya, an eight-year-old girl serving as a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, and the all too familiar gangs of 14-year-old boys serving in varied African militias.

Also In This Edition

In the annual Report on Children in Armed Conflict, two-thirds of the specific country reports refer to attacks on schools and hospitals. Recently the UN Security Council debated this troubling report and then unanimously adopted a resolution which strengthens legal protection for children caught in the middle of civil conflicts. Of the 22 country specific reports, fifteen refer to attacks on schools and hospitals by terrorist and militant groups.

Specifically the new Security Council resolution, stressed the special and enhanced protection for kids caught in conflicts. The point of the resolution is to bring additional pressures and sanctions against a host of terrorist groups ranging from Al-Qaida in Iraq to the Taliban and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Afghan children from Helmand province, displaced due to the war, fight as they play outside their tents in Kabul June 22.     Reuters/Ahmad Masood
“We want children to grow up knowing that their schools are safe places. Schools should be places of learning and playing, where children can grow and thrive,” stressed German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, adding, “Attacks on schools and hospitals are barbaric acts.” Germany was instrumental in sponsoring this debate.

“We call on the Security Council to impose sanctions more systematically in order for perpetrators of grave violations against children to be held to account,” advised Canada’s Deputy Ambassador Gilles Rivard.

Canada moreover, according to Ambassador Rivard, has education projects in Afghanistan; “one of our signature projects focuses on increasing access to education in Kandahar, by investing $12 million to build, expand and repair 50 schools in selected districts.” He added the “rights of children are a priority for Canada’s foreign policy and international development assistance.”

There’s an obvious question. Seeing pictures of children caught in the civil conflict is pretty obvious, but let’s face it, in so many places terrorist groups specifically target children, especially girls, to keep them away from school and healthcare. This has long been the case with the Afghan Taliban terrorists.

As Pakistani Ambassador Abdullah Hussein Haroon stressed, “Let there be no doubt that Pakistan condemns in the strongest possible terms any use of children by extremists or any other group to promote their nihilistic agenda and is taking appropriate action to stop such practices.” But this is easier said than done in so many places including strife-ridden Pakistan.

Levels of hate an institutionalized violence have a bitter logic. Al Qaida in Iraq for example, according to the UN report, has an armed youth wing, “the Birds of Paradise”. Other militants especially among Uganda’s vicious Lord’s Resistance Army have long used child soldiers as cannon fodder in a host of murky insurgencies.

Long running conflicts in the southern Philippines may be forgotten by the media but remain very much a security problem in the countryside where Islamic rebels and kidnappers are still very active. The UN report cites the Abu Sayyaf Group (who specialized in kidnappings) the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the communist New People’s Army as being active in systematic abuse of children.

Sudan still sees some of the worst violence. Besides citing the Sudanese Armed Forces, the regime’s military, there are ten other militant resistance groups in Darfur which remain active. In Somalia of course there are the notorious Al-Shabab Islamic militias.

The challenge remains daunting. As U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stated, “The toll never ceases to shock. According to a recent UNESCO report, between 1998 and 2008, an estimated 2 million children were killed in conflicts, and 6 million left disabled. Approximately 300,000 children are reportedly being exploited as soldiers.”

This morbid culture of brutality and violence stalks so much of the developing world. While the UN can certainly assume the high moral ground in such a debate, it’s really up to national governments to treat their own people with dignity and respect, something usually quite lacking.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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