When war and children collide

If the US will not lead in protecting the most vulnerable in the world from violence, who will?

The tragic impact of war on children has taken center stage this month in international forums.

First, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has just issued a report, based on insights from Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative on children and armed conflict, that underscores the effect of war on millions of children world-wide. Second, the UN Security Council will debate this topic Tuesday under the leadership of Council president Jorge Voto-Bernales. Third, pretrial hearings have begun for the International Criminal Court case against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who is charged with forcing children, some as young as 10 years old, into his militia.

These actions take me back to the late 1990s, when I served as American ambassador to Angola and as a member of the UN-led Peace Commission that sought to consolidate a peace agreement and end decades of civil war that cost a half million lives and drove 4 million people from their homes. The memories of that period still haunt me.

I remember going to camps where both government soldiers and rebel soldiers from UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) were being disarmed and prepared for return to civilian life.

I expected to see grizzled old fighters, especially since both the government and UNITA armies affirmed that they did not recruit child soldiers. In fact, we saw thousands of children, many of whom had carried AK-47s that were almost as big as they were.

I remember talking to a group of teenagers, all of whom had been subjected to forced conscription well before their 18th birthdays. Most were porters or messengers, but many had been forced into battle and had taken human life.

We talked about the future. These children were more frightened by the prospects of peace than they had ever been on the battlefield. They knew they had no schooling, no skills, no prospects, and no place to go. Their homes had been destroyed or their families didn't want them back, afraid of their influence on the other children in the family. We put together programs for these child soldiers – a little money, a kit of food and clothing, and transportation to their places of origin. But these children lacked the most important commodities of childhood: hope and faith in the future.

At psychosocial counseling centers, Angolan and international counselors helped children cope with the horrors of war they had witnessed. One technique was to ask them to express their grief and shock through artwork. I was startled by the degrees of violence portrayed in the drawings. The pictures were so filled with blood, the organizers kept running out of red paint. It was as if an entire generation was enduring post-traumatic stress disorder.

I remember a school classroom of 7-year-olds singing what at first sounded like a beautiful little song. Listening carefully, however, I soon realized it was a song about land mines, warning that the earth is a dangerous place filled with enemies that can pop up and bite your leg off. This was a necessary warning in a country plagued by millions of land mines. But just consider the long-term psychological effect on children of viewing the ground not as a place to run and play, but as an ever-present danger.

Most tragically, I remember visiting displaced persons' camps – collectively home to 4 million people living in squalid slums. I recall the children huddled in makeshift tents, eating thin gruel provided by aid workers, serviced by health clinics that had little more than aspirin to share. There were no schools or play areas. The camps were desperate breeding grounds for alcohol and drug abuse, tuberculosis, cholera, and domestic and sexual violence. (Conditions have improved somewhat since the permanent end to civil conflict in spring 2002.)

The well-being of children in war and postconflict situations is not just a matter of justice and humanitarianism, some secondary issue we can attend to once the more important issues are dealt with. It is central to achieving lasting peace. Refusal to respect children's rights and hold perpetrators accountable for actions against children undercuts the need for justice and return to rule of law. Most sobering, children without a future form a ready reserve of potential recruits for any fanatic who can lure them with a siren song.

We owe full support and thanks to Mr. Annan, Dr. Coomaraswamy, Ambassador Voto-Bernales, the International Criminal Court, and others for highlighting these issues. Two additional actions can help give meaning to their struggle.

First, incoming UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon should present to the UN Security Council and General Assembly an action plan within the first 100 days of his term that begins on Jan. 1, 2007, to mobilize all United Nations agencies to protect children from armed conflict.

Second, the newly elected US Congress should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which commits governments to ensure that children are protected from abuse and mistreatment. The United States signed the convention in 1995, but, except for Somalia, is the only country yet to ratify it. The Bush administration has stalled consideration, stating that the convention infringes on US sovereignty – a concern that has not dissuaded 192 other governments from adhering to the convention.

If America will not take leadership in the struggle to protect the most vulnerable in our world from violence, who will?

Donald Steinberg is a vice president of the International Crisis Group. He served as US ambassador to Angola and special assistant to President Clinton for African Affairs.

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