UN Helplessly Watching Children Die in War Zones

UN Helplessly Watching Children Die in War ZonesUN Helplessly Watching Children Die in War Zones

The rising death toll of civilians, specifically women and children, in ongoing military conflicts is generating strong messages of condemnation from international institutions and human rights organizations, with the United Nations remaining helpless as killings keep multiplying.

The worst offenders are warring parties in “the world’s five most conflicted countries,” namely Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and most horrifically, Yemen, where civilian casualties have been rising almost by the hour, Thalif Deen wrote for IPS News.

The 1949 Geneva Convention, which governs the basic rules of war, has also continued to be violated in conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Gaza, Nigeria, Myanmar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other military hotspots.

UN’s children agency, UNICEF, says some 230 million children grow up caught in the middle of conflicts, involving both governments and “terror groups” such as Boko Haram, Islamic State and Lord’s Resistance Army.

According to a new report by UNICEF, one of the worst cases is Yemen where an average of eight children are being killed or maimed every day. The study, titled Yemen: Childhood Under Threat, says nearly 400 children have been killed and over 600 others injured since the violence escalated about four months ago.

In the conflict in Gaza last year, according to UN statistics, more than 2,100 were killed, including 1,462 civilians. Civilian killings included 495 children and 253 women compared with the death toll of 72 Israelis, including seven civilians.

  Moral Imperative

Addressing the UN Security Council during an open debate on children and armed conflict last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there was “a moral imperative and a legal obligation” to protect children, and they should “never be jeopardized by national interests.”

He said 2014 was one of the worst years in recent memory for children in countries devastated by military conflicts.

The conflict in Yemen is a particular tragedy for children, says UNICEF representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis.

“Children are being killed by bombs or bullets and those that survive face the growing threat of disease and malnutrition. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

He added that as devastating as the conflict is for the lives of children, “it will have terrifying consequences for their future.”

Across the country, nearly 10 million children, or approximately 80% of the country’s under-18 population, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. More than 1.3 million have been forced to flee their homes.

The New York office of the Tokyo-based Arigatou International, which has taken a lead role in protecting children at the grassroots level, is hosting a forum on “Religious Ideals and Reality: Responsibility of Leadership to Prevent Violence against Children,” in Geneva this week.

The forum is being co-hosted by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes, a global network dedicated to protecting children.

  Interfaith Dialogue

Rebeca Rios-Kohn, a director of the organization, says interfaith dialogue can play a critical role in bringing about behavioral change in areas of the world affected by armed conflicts.

“Religious leaders who have strong moral authority and credibility can influence positive change.” She pointed out the example of “corridors of peace” promoted by UNICEF, which allowed vaccination of children to take place in conflict areas.

“However, while this is an important and tragic issue which receives great attention by the media, we must not forget that the issue of violence is global and affects many more children within the home, school and community, as well as orphanages, detention centers and other institutions where children are residing.”

She said the phenomenon of online exploitation of children is a huge problem that has the attention of experts, including the Interpol, due to its growing magnitude and the fact that the perpetrators can get away with it so easily.

“In other words, the work that we are doing focuses more on the broader dimensions of the problem … We collaborate closely with the Global Network of Religions for Children, another Arigatou Initiative that is led from Nairobi.”

Together, she said, the initiatives draw on the religious teachings and values of all major religions and on the power of prayer, meditation and diverse forms of worship to mobilize concrete actions for children.

  Children’s Education

Jo Becker, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, points out that children’s education has also suffered, as armed forces or groups damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 schools around the globe last year.

The most affected schools were in Palestine, where Israeli airstrikes and shelling damaged or destroyed 543 schools in Gaza and Nigeria, where Boko Haram extremists carried out attacks on 338 schools, including the abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno, in April 2014.

The result: hundreds of thousands of children are denied an education, she said.

According to UNICEF, there have not been this many child refugees since the end of World War II.

The number of children recruited or used in the conflict has more than doubled, from 156 in 2014 to 377 so far verified in 2015. An estimated 15.2 million people lack access to basic healthcare, with 900 health facilities closed since March 26; and 1.8 million children are likely to suffer from some form of malnutrition by the end of the year.

Additionally, 20.4 million people are in need of assistance to establish or maintain access to safe water and sanitation due to fuel shortages, infrastructure damage and insecurity, and nearly 3,600 schools have closed down, affecting over 1.8 million children.

  Psychological Support

Over the past six months, the children’s agency has provided psychological support to help over 150,000 children cope with the horrors of the conflict. Some 280,000 people have learned how to avoid injury from unexploded ordnances and mines.

Yet despite the tremendous needs, UNICEF says its response remains grossly underfunded.

With only 16% of the agency’s funding appeal of $182.6 million met so far, “Yemen is one of the most underfunded of the different emergencies UNICEF is currently responding to around the world.We urgently need funds so we can reach children in desperate need,” said Harneis. “We cannot stand by and let children suffer the consequences of a humanitarian catastrophe.”