Stop the War on Children: Join the campaign to make children off limits in war

Speech: Kevin Watkins at the See Me Safe Centenary Symposium

Let me start by thanking our friends and colleagues at Chatham House, our partner for this event, for their enormous contribution in shaping the agenda for the symposium. I also want to acknowledge the generosity of Castle Water for sponsoring the event and for the support they provide to our humanitarian emergency work.

It goes without saying that we are incredibly lucky to have our ambassador Natasha Kaplinsky chair today’s conference, and I want to thank her for her commitment to our organisation.

I should start by recalling the two extraordinary sisters who created our organisation.

Dorothy Buxton and Eglantyne Jebb were horrified by the suffering caused to children in Germany and Austria by the continuation of an Allied naval blockade of Germany after the Armistice that brought an end to the First World War.

They were unwilling to accept national legislation which exacerbated hunger, disease and destitution among children. The fact that the children in question happened to be citizens of previously hostile powers was an irrelevance. The universal rights and the moral obligation to protect children, our founders believed, trumped national laws and arguments of political convenience.

To cut a long story short, Eglantyne was arrested in Trafalgar Square for distributing material demanding an end to the blockade. She was put on trial and fined £5, which the prosecuting counsel promptly paid – making him the first ever contributor to Save the Children.

Over the decade that followed, Dorothy and Eglantyne built an organisation that became a global movement. The organisation provided humanitarian aid, delivered programmes, and campaigned for children’s rights. The first international instrument on children’s rights was published by Save the Children and adopted by the League of Nations in 1924 – and that document was the precursor to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Save the Children is often told that its aims are impossible – that there has always been child suffering,” Eglantyne once wrote, adding: “But it’s only impossible if we refuse to attempt it”.

An impossible ambition

Today’s Symposium marks the start of a series of events to launch our campaign to Stop the War on Children, including a global symposium next week at the Peace Palace in The Hague. The campaign, which has all the hallmarks of an impossible endeavour, aims to ensure that no child living in a war zone is deprived of two things every parent of every child would demand – protection and hope.

So why mark our centenary with an impossible ambition?

Because turning a blind eye to one of the greatest moral challenges facing our generation is not an option.

Because children have a right to expect our best efforts.

And because if we work together, nothing is impossible.

Plumbing new depths

Back in 1996, the UN General Assembly received a report from Graça Machel: The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. That report documented the devastating impact of war on children. “More and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum…. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink,” Ms Machel concluded.

Yet we continue to plumb new depths.

In armed conflicts around the world children are assaulted, violated, maimed and killed. Some 25,000 grave violations of were reported by the United Nations in 2017 – and that number is almost certainly an epic under-estimate.

Some children are deliberately targeted by armed combatants for heinous crimes, including murder, rape, kidnapping and forced recruitment.

Others are caught in the crossfire. Treated as ‘collateral damage’ by armed combatants indifferent to their suffering, children are bombed in their homes and their schools. They are subjected to humanitarian blockades that deny them access to food, life-saving medicine and shelter. And they are left traumatised by fear, anxiety, the death of loved ones, and the appalling violence they have witnessed.

Let me stress that we are not talking about small numbers. As documented in our Stop the War on Children report, around 420 million children are now living in countries affected by conflict.

A window into conflict

Save the Children’s programmes provide a shocking window into the world inhabited by children affected by war. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, we have documented the stories of children who have experienced, at first hand, possible crimes of genocide. In Syria and Iraq, we have produced reports documenting the devastating effects of armed conflict on the mental health of children.

In Yemen, our teams are responding to the world’s most deadly humanitarian crisis. Despite the leadership of the UK in brokering a ceasefire, that crisis still threatens over half a million children with famine. In Hodeida last year I met one little girl called Ayesha*. Aged 7 months, she weighed just 3.5kg – the average weight of a newborn in the UK. She was just being admitted for the second time in six months to an emergency paediatric ward with life-threatening pneumonia.

All parties to the conflict in Yemen have obstructed humanitarian aid and contributed to the crisis. But the Saudi-led coalition bears a special responsibility not just because of the scale and intensity of its attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, or because of the number of children killed and maimed, but also because of its failure to properly investigate possible war crimes.

Others conflicts barely register on the international agenda. But from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, north-eastern Nigeria and Mali, children feature, with distressing prominence, among the targets and victims of armed conflicts.

Stop the War on Children

The starting point for our new campaign is engagement with the public. We need to turn the spotlight on what is happening to children – but do this in ways that invite action rather than despair, anguish and impotent hand-wringing.

One way of building that constituency is by rethinking our traditional campaigning model. When it comes to confronting the reality of being a child in a war zone, there are no more powerful, articulate or authentic advocates than children. Save the Children will be providing a platform for children to tell their stories – and to voice their demands. You’ll be hearing from some of these children today.

With this in mind, our Stop the War on Children campaign has three broad objectives:

The first is to reassert the international rule of law. Children are not suffering because of a deficit of rights. Their plight reflects a crisis of compliance with humanitarian law, human rights protection and international criminal law.

The humanitarian laws embodied in the Geneva Conventions set out well-defined rules and norms for the protection of civilians, including children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the most widely ratified international treaties. The Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court as the first treaty based international criminal court with jurisdiction over crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

It is easy to forget that this body of laws and rights emerged out of some of the darkest episodes in human history, as Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West Street reminds us. Perhaps that’s why its equally easy to forget that the universal values enshrined in humanitarian law, human rights and international criminal law reflect the best of humanity.

Today, these laws, rights and norms are violated with near total impunity. This impunity has to end now.

Reinforcing the norms that define the rule of law is critical The UK government’s recent endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration and the measures now underway to embed it in military doctrine and training is a small but significant example of what we can achieve as a country.

In re-asserting the force of the rule of law we can also help to build a stronger evidence base. Let me give a specific example. Through our partnership with Imperial College London, we have been working with UK military surgeons who have spent time on the front-line dealing with blast injuries affecting children. The simple but overwhelmingly powerful conclusion to emerge from their work is that children are not adults in miniature: they face even greater risks of death and serious injury resulting from the use of explosive because of their anatomy and physiology.

That being the case, it is surely time to revise the risk assessments undertaken by armed combatants to determine whether the proportionality principles of the Geneva Convention have been respected. It may also be time for the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies to revisit the evidence used to investigate and prosecute possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The second aim of the campaign can be summarised in a single word – accountability. A crime committed against a child is an offense against our common humanity and an affront to our shared values.

The perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable. There must be no hiding place, and no deals for exemption from investigation and prosecution.

The time has come to send a clear and consistent signal that, whatever differences may divide nations, the human community will stand united in protecting children, recognising their rights, and ensuring that those who commit crimes are subjected to the full rigour of the law, enforced where necessary by financial and other sanctions.

Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the culture of impunity surrounding the failure to protect children in war is, in large measure, the consequence of an accountability vacuum.

The third strand of the campaign is about supporting children to rebuild their lives.

Faced with a crisis of the magnitude and complexity we are discussing here today, it would be all too easy to take refuge in a sense of hopelessness and despair.

Easy – but indefensible.

Let me invite you to do a thought experiment. Think back to when you were 5 years old. Then try to imagine the life of a 5-year-old trapped in the bombardment of a Syrian town for three years – a bombardment that meant it was too dangerous to attend school. Try to imagine the fear and insecurity that child might have experienced six years ago when she and her family fled their home to seek refuge in a neighbouring country.

Today, that young girl is living in Za’atari refugee camp. Her name is Saba. Now aged 14, she has recently graduated from a coaching programme run by the Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children aimed at using sport to help children rebuild their lives and retain the hope that should be part of every childhood.

I’m incredibly proud of that programme and of the work we are doing in other countries to deliver education to children affected by conflict.

And I’m delighted that Saba is one of the children we’ll be hearing from today. Her story is one of triumph and recovery in the face of adversity.

An open invitation

Everyone in this room is here because in some way, you want to make a difference in the lives of children living with the horror of war.

So please treat this as an open invitation to join our campaign.

As an international community we are doing far too little to support recovery. Take the state of education for refugees. Around 4 million refugee children are now out of school. That not only denies these children a chance to rebuild their lives and gain the skills they need to escape poverty. It also exposes them to the risk of recruitment by armed groups, of child labour and early marriage.

Host countries like Lebanon, Syria and Uganda have been extraordinarily generous in opening what are already over-stretched education systems. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the wider international community: just 2 per cent of humanitarian aid is now directed to education. That’s why our campaign will be calling for a plan of action to get all refugees into a learning environment.

Another area that has been characterised by extreme neglect is psycho-social support. Children who have been traumatised by war cannot just pick up their lives without help in processing and coming to terms with their experiences. But that help is seldom available. Too often, the focus of the aid community is on reconstructing infrastructure rather than rebuilding lives.

I’m profoundly aware that Save the Children acting alone is never going to achieve the goals we have set. But I also believe that by acting together, by building new coalitions, and by combining our resources we can make the world a safer place for children.

The role of Global Britain

As I said earlier, the Stop the War on Children campaign will be global, but it will have a special resonance here in the UK. That’s not just because our global movement started up the road in Trafalgar Square – it’s also down to the fact that UK leadership has a critical role to play in righting the wrongs now inflicted on so many children.

Over recent months the country has been locked in an occasionally polarised debate about Britain’s place in the world post-Brexit.

We can debate Brexit (though hopefully not today!), but whatever the outcome, the UK will retain extraordinary international assets and influence. The Department for International Development (DFID) is among the world’s most effective and accountable aid agencies. The UK’s role in shaping the 2030 international development goals bears testimony to the country’s soft power. Membership of Security Council and NATO, the UK’s status as a major shareholder in the World Bank, and its ties to the Commonwealth create a level of influence disproportionate to the UK’s economic weight.

As we reflect on the future of Global Britain, it is surely evident that the recovery and strengthening of the multilateral rules-based system, the defence of human rights, and the projection of the values, norms and principles that underpin democratic institutions here in the UK is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do for national interest.

The current review of the Protection of Civilians strategy provides an early opportunity for the UK to set a new standard by putting children at the heart of the new policy, and then projecting that standard into the heart of our foreign policy.

Is there any better cause for the UK to provide leadership on, or any starker illustration of why universal rights and norms matter, than the issue we are here to discuss today?

Thank you.

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