During armed conflict and other situations of violence children are especially vulnerable to a myriad of risks that deprive them of the opportunity to fully experience childhood. They are often deprived of food, clean water and health care—which is particularly troubling given the number of children who die of preventable illnesses, malnutrition, lack of safe shelter and violence. Moreover, despite the protection afforded by international law, children are all too often drawn into hostilities—directly as fighters or indirectly, separated from their families, detained, recruited, forcibly driven from their homes, killed, injured, sexually abused or exploited in other ways.
Another essential service that is affected by armed conflicts is education. As a fundamental element of a functioning society, education can be thought of as an essential service, akin to electricity and clean water. Increasingly, protracted conflicts lead to a prolonged lack of access to education, raising questions on how to protect children and ensure that they have the tools to continue their development both during and after the conflict.
Although children have been tragically affected by war throughout history, today’s conflicts seemingly reach new levels of suffering. Vulnerabilities of children can be manifested differently through the lens of gender, ethnic and cultural background, disability, beliefs and other factors (see e.g., here). In light of this, more research is needed on the mental health and psycho-social consequences armed conflict has for children, as well as on the most suitable responses to various needs and challenges they face during and after armed conflicts. For this reason, the Review has chosen to dedicate this upcoming edition to children and war.
The Review’s focus on cruelty to children: A brief history
This is not the first time the Review has addressed international humanitarian law, policy and action related to children. The ICRC, and therefore the Review, has always been concerned by the particularly tragic effects of armed conflict on children. The ICRC continues to work to improve the lives of children affected by conflict.
Initially, the Review simply described the plight of children caught up in war and recounted humanitarian activities on behalf of children. Later, the journal reported on the activities of the International Save the Children Union (L’Union Internationale de Secours aux Enfants), founded in 1920 by the creators of Save the Children UK and supported by the ICRC before closing its doors in 1986.
As the journal evolved, there was more in-depth examination of the cruelty children suffered in war, and how it drives humanitarian action. This included the plight of children separated from their families by the Rwandan genocide, the human cost exacted from civilians of the wars in Iraq and in South Africa during the Boer War—which disproportionately fell on children—and more recently the heavy costs borne by family members of detainees, including children. In the most recent edition, Debbie Busler describes the British Red Cross response to young migrants in the Calais ‘jungle’.
Inhumanity directed at children sometimes inspired more humanitarian sentiment than the same cruelty directed at adults. In a recent edition of the Review, Fehrenbach and Rodogno examined how, historically, photographs of suffering of children have been instrumentalized by humanitarian campaigns to galvanize public sympathies.
Children, war and international humanitarian law
Over time, norms of international law have arisen to address some of the cruelties visited upon children, both in peacetime and in wartime. Under international humanitarian law (IHL), children are protected from being the object of attack as civilians not taking direct part in hostilities, but also benefit from special protections because of their particular vulnerability. This is true in both international armed conflicts (IACs) and non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), and this special protection afforded to children has been recognized as customary international law (see e.g., CIHL Study Rule 135).
Additionally, children are protected from being recruited into armed forces or armed groups (AP I, Art. 77(2), AP II, Art. 4(3)(c) and Rule 136) and must not be allowed to take part in hostilities (AP I, Art. 77(2), AP II, Art. 4(3)(c) and Rule 137) (although the minimum age of recruitment is dependent on the treaties to which a given State is party). Even if children do take part in hostilities, they are still protected (AP I, Art. 77 and AP II, Art. 4).
The Review followed these legal developments closely, publishing several articles on legal protections for children in armed conflict. And, when the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was adopted in 2000, Daniel Helle detailed the background of the negotiations in the journal.
Child soldiers: Victims or perpetrators?
Despite legal prohibitions on children’s participation in hostilities, children continue to be used in various capacities during armed conflict by States and armed groups alike. Many authors have examined various aspects of this phenomenon in the journal.
For example, Rachel Brett looked at the motivations of adolescents who have volunteered to join armed forces or armed groups based on research conducted by the Quaker United Nations Office and the International Labour Organization. Meanwhile, María Teresa Dutli provided insights into the status and treatment of captured children associated with armed forces or armed groups, in both IACs and NIACs. Naïri Arzoumanian and Francesca Pizzutelli questioned the criminal responsibility of child soldiers once captured, particularly in Liberia, DRC, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.
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It is especially relevant to address the topic of children in war in light of changing public perception of children in humanitarian crises around the world, whether they are refugees and migrants in search of a better chance at life, or caught up in armed conflict or other crises. This year on the Annual Day of Discussion on the Rights of the Child, Helen Durham asked ‘How can we meet children’s needs and rights in humanitarian situations?’, observing that ‘children who fall into certain categories or are associated with certain labels—categories such as “migrant” or “girl”, and labels such as “violent extremist”—are often at greater risk of facing lower standards of implementation of existing legal protections’. To echo Dr Durham’s speech, in an age where it is perhaps not politically popular to provide children with the protection they are both morally and legally entitled to, how can we ensure their needs and rights are fulfilled?