Issue 8 - Article 4

The impact of armed conflict on children

October 22, 2012
Jennifer Klot

Jennifer F. Klot directed Graça Machel’s secretariat for the UN Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. She has worked with international nongovernmental organisations, private foundations and multilateral agencies in the area of human rights, youth development, women’s rights, and development planning in both the United States and in Africa.

?The report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children is testimony to the millions of children who have been killed, injured and permanently disabled as a result of armed conflicts. It is testimony to countless others who have been forced to witness and take part in horrifying atrocities. More so, it is testimony to the fundamental crisis of our civilisation. Contemporary conflicts force communities into a moral vacuum in which all restraints have been eroded and discarded ?- a world in which children are no longer considered precious. This demonstrates the failure of the international community to protect and cherish its children.?
Graça Machel
Expert of the Secretary-General on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children

“I set out to listen to children,” Graça Machel said about her appointment as the UN Secretary-General’s Expert on Children and Armed Conflict. “The mothers and children I met and talked with, they all taught me lessons I will remember for the rest of my life.” With support from UNICEF and the UN Centre for Human Rights, Ms. Machel led an unusual two year process of research, consultation and mobilisation. It resulted in the most comprehensive human rights appraisal of children and armed conflicts yet debated at the UN General Assembly. Machel’s final report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children documents the two million children killed in armed conflicts in the past 10 years, the 6 million children that have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, and the situation of more than 250,000 child soldiers around the world.

With the cooperation of inter-governmental and non governmental organisations, independent experts, all elements of civil society, UN agencies and governments, Graça Machel established a potentially replicable model of cooperation and mobilisation. Together with these partners, consultations were held in eastern and southern Africa, the Arab region, west and central Africa, the Asia Pacific region, Latin America and Europe to determine regional priorities relating to children in armed conflicts. Field visits were undertaken to more than eight affected areas around the world, and twenty five thematic papers and field-based case studies were prepared.

The report and its ten point call for urgent action (see text below) recommend strategies to protect children from the catastrophic conditions to which they are and continue to be exposed. These include the call to implement and monitor international humanitarian and human rights standards, and in particular the near-universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child; to prevent the sexual exploitation and gender violence against children and women; to demobilise all children under the age of 18 from militaries and all armed groups; to end the scourge of landmines; and to ensure that children’s health, nutrition, psycho-social well being and education are the pillars of all humanitarian assistance policy and programmes.

After the Machel report was launched in November 1996, 129 Member States at the General Assembly co-sponsored a child rights resolution that was adopted by consensus and acclamation. It contains an extraordinary number of new recommendations for action – more than 35 – which for the first time, address human rights and humanitarian concerns as well as the peacemaking and peacekeeping polices of the United Nations. The most significant among these is the call for the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict.

As a result of the Report’s findings, the United Nations ordered an internal investigation into the controversy surrounding the sexual exploitation of children by U.N. peacekeeping troops. In six out of twelve country studies prepared for the Machel report, the arrival of peacekeeping troops was associated with a rapid rise in child victims of prostitution. In armed conflicts, rape and other forms of gender-based violence are increasingly used as tactical weapons of war. The report asserts that these violations – murder, rape, sexual exploitation and forced pregnancy – must be prosecuted as breaches of international law. Consequently, the report recommends that effective monitoring, reporting, and disciplinary mechanisms are established nationally and within peacekeeping operations. It also calls for mandatory training on children’s rights and human rights for military, peacekeeping and humanitarian personnel.

Children have increasingly become targets and not incidental victims in contemporary armed conflicts, because of conscious and deliberate decisions made by adults. The cynical exploitation of children as soldiers prompted the Report’s call for a global campaign to eradicate the use of children under the age of 18 from the armed forces. This campaign has been promoted vigorously by Save the Children Sweden (Rädda Barnen), the Quakers, the ICRC/IFRC, UNICEF and other partners. It seeks to prevent the recruitment of children under the age of 18, the immediate demobilisation of all children in armed forces, and the incorporation of their needs into peacekeeping operations, peace agreements and demobilisation programmes.

Since the report was launched, much progress has been made to negotiate a comprehensive international treaty to ban the use, production, trade and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines. The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which is working in part to declare southern Africa a regional mine-free zone, received a boost in February when the Government of South Africa pledged to destroy its stockpile of 160,000 anti-personnel mines. But even if an immediate ban treaty were enforced, children still need protection from the estimated 110 million mines polluting the earth today. Consequently, the Machel report recommends a three-pronged programme covering (1) humanitarian mine clearance, including the creation of safe learning, living and play areas certified as 99.9 per cent free of mines; (2) mine awareness aimed at children and women, and (3) child-centered rehabilitation.

To ensure a follow-up to the Report, the General Assembly called for the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict. The Special Representative will be the second of its kind ever established with a thematic human rights mandate of global concern. The vision of the Special Representative is that of a focal point – not an operational institution. Hence close cooperation with NGOs, UN bodies and Governments will be essential. The Special Representative will continue to raise awareness and promote the collection of information about the plight of children affected by armed conflict, and encourage the development of networking.

Plans are also underway to hold a Year 2000 Conference to evaluate the progress of the international community in bringing about the report’s recommendations. The conference will mark the 10th anniversary of the World Summit for Children and the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Leading up to the Year 2000 meeting, it is anticipated that a series of smaller, strategic meetings could take place at the national and regional levels to develop plans of action for implementation and follow-up. 

Impact of Armed Conflict on Children


    1. Implementing International Standards
      International human rights and humanitarian standards relating to children in situations of armed conflict must be widely disseminated and vigorously enforced. Broad awareness of the rights of the child must be promoted and education and training activities developed.
    2. Monitoring and Reporting Violations of Child Rights
      Children in armed conflict must be treated as a distinct and priority concern in all human rights, humanitarian and development activities. Effective mechanisms for monitoring and reporting violations of children?s rights must be established.
    3. Promoting Physical and Psychological Recovery and Social Reintegration
      To ensure respect for children?s fundamental rights, measures to promote their health, nutrition, psychosocial well-being and education must be the pillars of all humanitarian assistance policy and programs.
    4. Increasing Commitment for Refugee and Internally Displaced Children
      The care and protection of refugee and internally displaced children requires increased international commitment and cooperation, particularly in relation to family reunification, the equitable delivery of humanitarian assistance and children?s right to education. In each conflict situation, UNICEF is urged to provide leadership to ensure assistance and protection of internally displaced children.
    5. Demobilising Child Soldiers
      Governments and all armed groups should prevent the recruitment of children under the age of 18, immediately demobilise all children in armed forces, and incorporate their needs into peacekeeping, peace agreements and demobilisation programmes.
    6. Ending the Scourge of Landmines
      States are urged to support a comprehensive international treaty to ban, as soon as possible, on the use, production, trade and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines. An integrated programme of humanitarian mine clearance, gender and age appropriate mine awareness and child centred rehabilitation should be accelerated.
    7. Preventing Gender-based Violence and Sexual Exploitation
      Violations of the rights of girls and women in armed conflicts, including murder, rape, sexual exploitation and forced pregnancy, must be prosecuted, and appropriate legal and rehabilitative remedies made available.
    8. Protecting Children from Sanctions
      Whenever sanctions are imposed, their impact on children should be assessed and monitored. Humanitarian exemptions should be child-focused and formulated with clear application guidelines.
    9. Prevention
      The international community must shatter the political inertia that allows armed conflicts to escalate. Priority must be given to promoting sustainable and equitable patterns of human development and measures such as early warning, preventive diplomacy and education for peace. The protection of children and women must be central to all actions to promote peace, implement peace agreements and resolve conflicts.
    10. Special Representative
      A Special Representative on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children should be named to keep the issues of children and armed conflict high on international human rights, humanitarian, peace, security and development agendas, and to ensure a follow-up to the Report of the Expert of the Secretary-General on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.


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