Lancet Editorial: Protecting children in conflict

The Lancet  
Feb 15, 2014  Volume 383  Number 9917  p575 – 668  e12 – 14

Protecting children in conflict
The Lancet

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The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have rights to protection, health, education, and fair treatment. For the children killed, tortured, raped, and abused in conflicts, these rights are far beyond reach.

Last week, a report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of children and armed conflict in Syria detailed grave violations against children, committed by all parties. More than 10 000 children are estimated to have been killed since March, 2011, many more injured, and countless psychologically affected. The document contains reports of the imprisonment, torture, and murder of children, and their exposure to unthinkable cruelties. Sexual violence is used to harm, humiliate, and intimidate young victims and those forced to witness. Children have been recruited into warfare, abducted for ransom, and used as human shields. They have lost families, homes, schools, and health care.

Tragically, similar reports have surfaced from other nations gripped by conflict. Brutality against children in the Central African Republic is said to be at unprecedented levels; children are being beheaded and maimed amid widespread sexual violence, and an estimated 6000 are associated with armed groups. For children who escape conflict, the psychological scars from witnessing horrific events endure. In South Sudan, orphaned and displaced children will struggle to find their emotional needs met in a country battered by decades of civil war, many living in camps where their security and health are threatened. Children born as refugees might not have birth certificates, crucial to ensure they can access their rights.

By committing atrocities to children, fighters destroy their nation’s future. Damage to children’s health, education, and psychological wellbeing will delay a country’s recovery; without decisive action, a generation in every war zone could become the lasting casualties. Better protection of children is paramount. The Syrian Government has legislated greater child protection, but violations threaten to continue while war lasts. During the conflicts and the aftermath, international communities must seek to heal emotional wounds and safeguard children’s rights.