What Can the World Do?

by Matt McCleskey and Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Over the last decade, the United Nations has passed major agreements protecting the rights of children and banning child soldiers. But what impact do these kinds of treaties have in practice? And what role does the United States play in this all-important area?

The United Nations has made tremendous progress in raising awareness about issues affecting children of war, but there's a gap between what is written on paper and what happens in the field, one expert believes.

"The reality is that when you're talking about international policy, and you're talking about the UN Security Council and other big international bodies, the wheels of change are too slow for many of these kids," said Julia Freedson, coordinator of the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of nongovernmental organizations.

"By the time we're done talking about what we should be doing to protect the kids, many of them have already lost their lives or suffered in other horrible ways."

Take, for example, the issue of landmines. More than 130 countries have ratified a treaty banning the use of mines. Jo Becker of the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch says landmines can have a particularly devastating effect on children.

"When children step on landmines, they're much more likely to be killed than adults because of their smaller body size and their vulnerability to the kinds of injuries that landmines cause," she said.

Safety Training for Children

Since 1997, when the treaty took effect, the use of landmines has declined around the world, Becker said. But many countries, including the United States, have not signed the treaty, arguing that they mark minefields and therefore their explosives aren't a danger to civilians.

But that's not how it looks to the victims.

In Macedonia, once part of Yugoslavia, thousands of grade school children have seen a play in which animal characters discover an unexploded bomb. Many of the children live in Tetovo, a site of heavy fighting between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians during the Balkans conflict. In this region, landmines planted by both sides—as well as unexploded cluster bombs dropped by Holland, Britain, and the United States—still pose grave dangers to civilians.

Cluster bombs are made up of many small bomblets contained within one large delivery system. Experts estimate that between 7 and 11 percent of the bomblets do not explode on impact. Cluster bombs are not covered by the landmine treaty, but do pose a danger to children.

Education efforts like the play put on by the International Committee of the Red Cross are helping children understand the importance of not picking them up.

"The message from the play is not to touch unknown objects," said Emma, one of the students who watched the play. "Tell our parents if there is danger. And don't even get close to unknown objects."

US Opposes International Treaties

While many countries have not signed the landmine treaty, every country in the United Nations has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child except Somalia and the United States. The treaty guarantees children's rights to education, housing, and a decent standard of living. The US Senate has refused to ratify the treaty because it bans the death penalty for anyone under 18 and allegedly takes rights away from parents.

Ambassador Michael Southwick, a US State Department deputy secretary, says the convention interferes with how countries treat children within their own borders.

"Some countries try to give it the status of a secular religion and say this is the only standard in the world; to me this is an absolutely silly position," Southwick said. "How people treat children in the world is a product of culture, it's a product of religious traditions, and so forth, and to say that one treaty negotiated at one particular time is the be-all and end-all on children is a little bit absurd."

But human rights activist Jo Becker says failure to ratify the convention damages US credibility around the world.

"When I travel outside of the United States I'm repeatedly asked by both government officials as well as people in civil society why the US, which purports to be a champion for children, has not ratified the most basic convention designed to protect them."

The United States has also angered human rights groups by opposing the International Criminal Court, which, among other duties, will prosecute individuals committing war crimes against children.

American Progress

But those same groups concede America has made progress on other fronts. In 2002 the United States ratified the optional protocol banning child soldiers. The State Department's Southwick says US ratification of this treaty is significant.

"First and foremost, it breaks a cycle of the United States being outside some fundamental treaties, or treaties that are regarded as fundamental by a number of countries, on human rights issues," he said.

Southwick says the United States also helps children of war by funding agencies that provide emergency relief to parents and children during and after conflicts.

Such assistance is provided at a feeding center operated by the World Food Program in the city of Kuito, Angola. After 27 years of vicious civil war in that country, the government and rebels agreed to settle their conflict in 2002. But as recently as July of that year, some 45 percent of children were chronically malnourished.

But today the situation has improved. Adalia Cacassava is among those receiving corn meal, beans, and cooking oil from the World Food Program.

Her one-year-old baby is moderately malnourished, but she thinks the food will help her recover. Of her five children, the infant is the only sick one.

Angola still could face serious food shortages because landmines and war-damaged roads make it difficult to reach the former child soldiers and other civilians in remote areas.

The World's Short Attention Span

Sadako Ogata, a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, worries that children in countries such as Angola suffer when world attention shifts to new crises, like a war in Iraq.

"When there is not the really big outflow of people, refugee crisis, the international attention seems to fade away a bit and the money doesn't come, people don't have the resources to be present in unstable areas," Ogata said. "In Africa I think there's a double problem, of not only security problems but also poverty problems."

These days Ogata, who is now a fellow at the Ford Foundation, focuses her efforts on the concept of human security. She says the best way to protect children and their parents from the ravages of war is to work with countries and communities so they avoid fighting in the first place.

"While we emphasize the importance of protecting their well-being, safety, and so on, I think there has to be a much bigger effort made to solving their problems," she said. "And it is really political negotiation insisting on peace, insisting on security, and insisting on stabilizing societies.

"You cannot just keep on protecting refugees in refugee camps for decades. That is not only bad for the children, for the refugees, but for the whole world."

A Parental Problem

Certainly, children wouldn't suffer if their parents didn't wage war. And every country agrees that—at least in theory—nations must not conduct war against civilians. But has all this international attention helped promote those concepts in practice?

Olara Otunnu, the United Nation's special representative for children and armed conflict, said in an interview that ratifying international treaties has been a major and necessary step forward. Now, he said, the United Nations must apply these international norms to individual countries.

"We must translate these norms into a protective regime on the ground that can save a child in danger in situations of conflict," Otunnu said. "And we must now move to begin systematically monitoring, reporting, naming, and shaming parties in conflict that continue to abuse children and mobilize international pressure to lean on them to change their practices."

Otunnu said he is also worried that some nations continue to ignore international laws protecting children. Whether they are Third World dictatorships or industrialized democracies, he offers this appeal:

"No matter what quarrels we have among ourselves, children have not contributed to that. And so I hope we could agree that all our children are entitled to special attention and protection, and that we should create a world, especially the world of the 21st century, in which all these children can be safe and protected."

That's a beautiful dream.

And a daunting challenge.

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