Despite the data showing the devastating impact of violence and war on children, the last decades have been the worst of times for children. And the United States remains a global outlier by refusing to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
A memorial to some of the thousands of children killed by Israel in Gaza in front of the US consulate in Toronto, Canada, November 4, 2023
By Claudia Lefko, Common Dreams
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement on grave violations of children’s rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory on October 13, 2023. “We reiterate that the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires States parties and all actors to respect and to ensure respect for the rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict with regard to children. The Convention also aims to ensure the highest level of protection for children. We call on all actors, including the international community, to act to restore peace and preserve the safety and recovery of children as their immediate priority.“
Many thousands of Palestinian children have been terrorized, killed, maimed, and left orphaned since October 12th—their lives destroyed. Their enshrined human rights, and to some extent their future, buried beneath the rubble of home, school, hospital, mosque, and church.
The CRC, the most widely endorsed human rights document in history commits world leaders “…to protect children and to diminish their suffering…to uphold the far-reaching principle that children would have ‘first call’ on all resources, that the best interests of children would come first…in good times or bad, in peace or in war, in prosperity or economic distress.” (Kofi Annan, 2001)
The United States is the only country that has not signed this global agreement.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been shocked then, when on May 12, 1996—in a rare and bold moment of truth-telling—Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, acknowledged the U.S. government knew that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died as a result of US-supported economic sanctions. “The price,” she said in her infamous interview on 60 Minutes, “—we think the price is worth it.” Looking back, I think this might have been the beginning of the end for children around the world. In a brazen public announcement, the US government declared “the child” was not only not entitled to special, protected status; the welfare and well-being of children was secondary to national and international political and economic goals. And because the US wields enormous military and economic power across the globe, children everywhere were diminished, and worse, doomed.
Graca Machel, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, sounded the alarm for children shortly after Albright's comments in August of 1996. Machel's report on the impact of war on children estimated two million children had been killed in the previous decade, with three times as many seriously injured or permanently disabled in conflicts where “…nothing was spared, held sacred or protected—not children, families, or communities.”
"These statistics are shocking enough” she wrote, “but more chilling is the conclusion to be drawn from them: more and more of the world is being sucked into a moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed;...a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink. […] Whatever the causes of modern-day brutality towards children, the time has come to call a halt. [...] The international community must denounce this attack on children for what it is—intolerable and unacceptable.”
Despite the data showing the devastating impact of violence and war on children, despite her passionate call to action, the last decades have been the worst of times for children. And the last weeks, in Gaza and the West Bank of the occupied territory of Palestine, beyond words. Leaders of that same world who signed on to protect children are watching, in real-time, the death and injury, fear and suffering, displacement and orphaning of thousands and thousands of children in Gaza; watching as their houses and schools are destroyed; watching as family members die under the rubble of those collapsed buildings; watching as everything important to support life—not “just” for a child, but critical to life for any and every human—is denied. And, no one—not the United Nations, or any international convention or government has had the political will or authority to stop this unfolding genocide of men, women, and children.
Everything that needs to be said about war, about children and war has been said. I have nothing to add. So I will offer Graca Machel’s words—her call to take action—another chance to be heard by the world community:
Above all else, the present report is a call to action. It is unconscionable that we so clearly and consistently see children's rights attacked and that we fail to defend them. It is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged. This represents a fundamental crisis of our civilization. The impact of armed conflict on children must be everyone's concern and is everyone's responsibility; Governments, international organizations and every element of civil society. Each one of us, each individual, each institution, each country, must initiate and support global action to protect children. Local and national strategies must strengthen and be strengthened through international mobilization.
Let us claim children as "zones of peace." In this way, humankind will finally declare that childhood is inviolate and that all children must be spared the pernicious effects of armed conflict. Children present us with a uniquely compelling motivation for mobilization. Universal concern for children presents new opportunities to confront the problems that cause their suffering. By focusing on children, politicians, Governments, the military and non-State entities will begin to recognize how much they destroy through armed conflict and, therefore, how little they gain. Let us take this opportunity to recapture our instinct to nourish and protect children. Let us transform our moral outrage into concrete action. Our children have a right to peace. Peace is every child's right.
Claudia Lefko, a long-time educator, activist and advocate for children, is the founding director of The Iraqi Children's Art Exchange and its project, Baghdad Resolve: An International Collaboration to Improve Cancer Care in Iraq.
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