As you read this, children in warzones around the world are being attacked, starved and denied access to lifesaving care. In places like Idlib in Syria, across Afghanistan, in Yemen, in South Sudan, in northeast Nigeria and in many other places, children are being killed, raped, abducted and maimed in war.
In fact, 420 million children – nearly 1 in 5 – are today living in areas affected by conflict. This number has doubled since the end of the Cold War, reflecting plummeting respect for international norms and failure to hold the perpetrators of violations to account.
Who can end this?
These hundreds of millions of children dream of growing up safe, away from bombs and bullets, and they trust that there are people in the world who can protect them and help them realise those dreams.
They are right to believe that such people exist. The ministers and the prime ministers of this world have exceptional power to turn the tide and to start keeping children safe in war. That is why last week Save the Children brought our campaign to stop the war on children to the highest table of all: the United Nations General Assembly.
A plan to protect children in war
Working with Belgium, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Germany, Indonesia, South Africa and the European Union, we brought together monarchs, ministers and ambassadors to announce concrete actions to protect children in war.
These included ringing endorsement for the Safe Schools Declaration, an initiative that Save the Children has supported right from its inception five years ago and which now 96 states have endorsed. By signing this Declaration, governments commit to prevent militaries occupying schools and thus turning them into military targets. This way, lives are saved.
They included re-committing to the idea that children who are associated with armed groups are victims, not criminals. This means that states like the UK must urgently repatriate the children of nationals who have become associated with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Whatever the crimes of the parents, the children are innocent.
They included getting serious about holding the perpetrators of violations of crimes against children to account. That means not turning a blind eye when allies bomb children. The UN’s head of peacekeeping argued strongly for more child-protection specialists in peace operations and the UN Human Rights chief argued that all UN investigations need a specific focus on violations against children.
And, importantly, they included funding to support practical action to protect children – for example by keeping schools open during conflict, by tackling sexual violence against girls and boys, and by supporting the mental health of children whose lives have been devastated by war.
Our responsibility to deliver
We were joined by Islam and Huthaifa, two incredibly eloquent youth activists from Syria and Jordan, and by Nadia Murad, the young Iraqi Yazidi who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her work to help women and children victimised by genocide, mass atrocities and human trafficking.
In her harrowing address, Murad described how thousands of Yazidi children are still not receiving the support they need. “What happened to those girls and boys is an awful example of what children in conflict are suffering all around the world,” she said. “We need a plan to protect children affected by conflict.”
We know what that plan needs to look like and this week was an important step in getting governments to commit to it. Now, for the sake of those millions of children, we need to make sure they deliver.