Fighting to protect children
from the devastation of war

On deployment to Iraq in 2017 children and their caregivers spoke to me of their stories fleeing the battle in Mosul.

The term “destroy a city to save it” sprang to mind as they talked of airstrikes flattening homes, shelling devastating schools and hospitals and landmines killing entire families as they fled. Save the Children’s report An Unbearable Reality sets out some of these harrowing accounts. Niven, who is 12 years old told us how his family didn’t want to go back to Mosul.

“There is nothing left there, only destroyed buildings and ruins,” he said.

The destruction caused by explosive weapons is one of the biggest issues for civilians caught up in conflict. Open source reporting has consistently shown that when these weapons are used in towns and cities, over 90% of the casualties are civilian.

For children, we know they are particularly vulnerable to the blast waves from explosive weapons. Their bodies are thrown harder and further. Their bones bend more, and they have less blood to lose.

Aisha, recounted to us how in her story “everything was destroyed, and there were dead bodies around, and people were crying and bleeding.”

These stories are tough to hear and tough to read but it is incredibly important that we work to place the impacts of explosive weapons squarely on the political agenda for states – those that have the power to do something about it.

International efforts and opportunities to address the harm

I write this piece travelling back from Geneva. States are debating the content of a Political Declaration that would seek to address the harm caused to civilians and critical civilian infrastructure when explosive weapons are used in towns and cities where they impact over a large area.

This meeting is one in a series led by Ireland that will end on 26 May in Dublin with an Adoption Conference for the Declaration. The next few months are a crucial window to influence the document and how many countries will support it.

What can we do?

Save the Children is working alongside a strong coalition of civil society organisations from INEW, the International Network on Explosive Weapons, to ensure the strongest possible text is drafted and adopted. Key for us is to see a text that:

  • acknowledges the wider complex and compounded impacts explosive weapons have – because the infrastructure of towns and cities are inter-linked and destruction can trigger a massive humanitarian crisis.
  • includes a political commitment by states to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that will have wide area effects – as without this we won’t get to the root cause of this harm.
  • has strong commitments to ensuring adequate victim assistance, collection of disaggregated data and facilitating principled humanitarian assistance – as minimising harm is also about minimising the harm from the repercussions of war.

How will it help?

Sometimes it’s hard to see how endless diplomatic meetings in the safety of the Geneva bubble can have a meaningful impact for children trapped in conflict. But as an advocate, I’ve seen how a political tool such as a Declaration can lead to real change. It works to create new norms and standards for states to follow and a political mandate to take steps that lead to tangible changes for children on the ground.

We’ve seen how the Safe Schools Declaration has provided such a mandate for militaries to make sure schools are safe during conflict. Now endorsed by over 100 states, we are seeing action all over the world with governments and armed forces taking concrete steps to better protect teachers, students and school buildings from the impacts of fighting.

Essentially, where there is a will to better protect children affected by conflict there is also a way. Explosive weapons used in towns and cities have a massive impact far beyond a military target. A Political Declaration to address the harm caused to civilians by these weapons has the potential to lead to real change, strengthening policy and practice, so that states avoid using these weapons in towns and cities.

And so that in the future children will not experience the horrors and destruction of explosive weapons, like Aisha did in Mosul.

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