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SPEECH: How British leadership can help protect children in conflict

Kevin made the following speech on Wednesday 18th September at the launch of Save the Children’s new joint report with RUSI, “The UK Strategy on Protection of Civilians”. You can read the full report here.

Let me start by thanking Karin von Hippel and RUSI not just for hosting this important event, but for the ongoing collaboration on this project.

Earlier this year we marked Save the Children’s Centenary by launching our Stop the War on Children campaign. Our organisation was created to defend children caught up in war – or, more accurately, a post-World War One humanitarian blockade that was causing mass hunger. Our founders went on to lay the foundations for a multilateral system of child rights.  They did so for a very simple reason. To quote our founder, Eglantyne Jebb: “Every generation of children provides mankind with an opportunity to remake the ruin of a world.”

In his foreword to the report we are discussing today, Lord Hague reminds us of a widely forgotten truth. The international architecture for protecting civilians in war – the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, through a circuitous route, international criminal law – were conceived by a generation brutalised by the experience of total war. As Lord Hague writes, they were moved by “a sinister evolution in the character of conflict and the growing need to protect civilians from its worst excesses.”

Today, we face a similarly sinister evolution.

My colleagues and our partners working with children and their families affected by conflicts from Afghanistan to Syria, Myanmar, the occupied Palestinian territory, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Nigeria, report every day on what are shocking violations of children’s rights and, more widely, the rights of civilians to protection – rights that our founders fought for and stood for.

The widespread and systematic nature of these violations makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that we are dealing with a culture of impunity on the part of those responsible. That culture is in turn a symptom of the erosion of the rights, norms and rules that Lord Hague describes.

The aim of our Stop the War on Children campaign is to halt this erosion.

It is critical that we respond to the evolving nature of conflict. Armed conflicts are becoming more protracted and more urbanised, and the risk to civilians, and civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, is increasing. As we have documented in our research with Imperial College, recourse to explosive weapons in populated areas poses special threats to children – indeed, in many countries it is children who face the greatest and gravest risks of injury from these weapons.

The threats go well beyond blast injuries. Today, there are 420 million children, nearly one-fifth, living in areas affected by conflict – 142 million of these children are living in high-intensity conflict-zones. These children face a direct risk of being deliberately targeted for killing, sexual abuse, abduction or recruited into armed groups. And they face the indirect risks that arise when combatants fail to act on their obligation to protect civilians. Beyond the physical injuries that scar so many children, we have documented a hidden epidemic of mental health problems that trap children in a cycle of trauma-induced anxiety and despair.

Two weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit our programmes in Afghanistan. I was so inspired to meet some of the incredibly resilient children we support through education and other interventions. They retain high hopes despite the awful situation in which they’re growing up, and despite the shocking personal experiences many of them describe. But 3,062 Afghan children were killed or maimed in conflict in Afghanistan in 2018 – more than in any previous year.

Turning to the subject under discussion today, the UK’s strategy for the Protection of Civilians, I want to commend the authors of the report for the quality of their research and the clarity with which they present the findings. Their work builds on an earlier joint report by RUSI and Save the Children on the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict, published May 2018, looking at the role the UK could play in addressing civilian protection challenges.

The review of the 2010 Protection of Civilian strategy provides the UK with a unique opportunity to demonstrate global leadership in combating the culture of impunity surrounding those responsible for failures of protection, and in restoring the rules-based order for protecting civilians. The UK is uniquely well placed to make a difference because of the military expertise, diplomatic assets and international development capabilities it can bring to bear; and because of the leverage that comes with membership of NATO and the UN Security Council. And it has clear public support – 100,000 people have signed our petition calling on the Government to adopt a Protection of Civilians strategy that has specific measures to protect children in conflict.

We’ll hear from the report’s authors on their recommendations. Without pre-empting their presentations, they make a powerful and compelling case for:

  • A strategy that provides for generic protection of civilians while recognising the very distinctive threats facing specific groups, including children and women. The 2010 strategy didn’t do enough to protect children.
  • A cohesive cross-government Protection of Civilians strategy can help to reduce the impact of conflict on children and contribute to international peace and security as it provides a national framework to ensure adherence to international norms, as the UN Secretary General has recently called for.
  • British leadership in driving change. We know from previous British-led initiatives in areas such as preventing sexual violence in conflict, cluster munitions and landmines, that the resulting changes in policy, practice and global norms have successfully limited the impact of attacks that harm civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Let me end with a passing thought.

We live in troubled times. Our society is increasingly polarised over the issue of Brexit. Trust in institutions is declining. Political narratives are drifting in a worrying direction, with vilification of the ‘other’ a theme reflected in populist discourses that carry deep undercurrents of racism and Islamophobia.

It has become all too easy to forget the common values that bind our society.

I would submit that protecting civilians and defending the rights of children caught up in wars they played no part in creating, taps into the values of compassion, empathy and human solidarity that permeate our society. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit debate, those values must inform how we build policies for an outward looking Global Britain committed to strengthening multilateralism, building international cooperation and defending the universal rights earlier generations fought to establish.

This report is part of the road-map to universally defending children’s rights.

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