2014 – A Devastating Year for Children

Posted by Catherine Dean on December 18, 2014

UNICEF has declared 2014 to have been a devastating year for children. On 8 December, UNICEF issued a press release citing the “worsening conflicts across the world” as the cause of “horror, fear and despair” for millions of children. UNICEF estimates that as many as 15 million children have been exposed to violence and its consequences over the past year as a result of conflicts occurring in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the State of Palestine, Syria and Ukraine.

Violent conflict adversely affects a child’s health in a myriad of ways. Children in warzones may suffer injuries, be permanently maimed or even killed. As a result of the Gaza conflict alone UNICEF reports that 538 children were killed and 3,370 injured. In addition, children trapped within warzones may be left homeless, orphaned and unable to access proper shelter, nutrition or medical resources. For example, in South Sudan an estimated 235,000 children under five years of age are suffering from severe malnutrition.

The effect of violence on a child’s mental health is likewise disturbing.  Children living in warzones have a heightened risk of experiencing extreme brutality, rape, torture and slavery as victims or witnesses. Moreover, thousands of children are annually recruited as child soldiers and forced to commit war crimes themselves. Such experiences have severe and enduring psychological consequences.

Troublingly, UNICEF notes there is a growing global ambivalence towards the plight of those affected by violence because “the sheer number of crises in 2014 meant that many were quickly forgotten or capture little attention.” Such ambivalence can evidence a state’s violation of its human rights obligations under international law and must not be tolerated. A child’s right to health is guaranteed by Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and Article 24 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and as such, states are obliged to protect and promote children’s mental and physical health. When a state looks away as crimes are committed against children within its borders, such disengagement breaches that state’s right to health obligations under international law. In addition, Article 2 of the ICESCR, as interpreted by General Comment No. 3, dictates that states have a duty to provide international assistance and co-operation to progress global realization of the right to health. Therefore, failure to provide any international aid may also evidence a violation of a state’s obligations. While efforts to fulfill individuals’ right to health may be limited by state resources and the security situation within a conflict zone, UNICEF calls on the international community and other aid agencies to band together to find ways of ensuring that children trapped within conflict zones or those displaced as a result of fighting have ongoing access to adequate shelter, food, water and healthcare.

UNICEF’s vision has been realized in the past. In Sri Lanka, for example, where civil war ravaged the north-east for nearly three decades, both the Government and the rebel movement respected the designation of schools as ‘safe havens’ and observed ‘days of tranquility’ where aid workers could provide basic immunizations and other health services to children. Moreover, during times of conflict in the Philippines and Colombia, certain areas were designated as “Zones of Peace”, where local communities decided they wanted to be free from the conflict and would not support either the government or rebel forces. These Zones of Peace helped to ensure that children experienced lesser interruption to their health, education and general wellbeing from the civil unrest.

In addition to ensuring the basic health rights of children exposed to conflict, UNICEF asserts that it is critical for the international community to hold accountable the perpetrators of war-crimes committed against children through mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court or domestic truth and reconciliation commissions. The use of such mechanisms can demonstrate that atrocities against children will not be tolerated, as well as help children to recover psychologically, emotionally and socially.

It is a tragedy that only eight days after UNICEF’s comments the Pakistan Taliban besieged a school in Peshawar, leaving 132 children and nine adults dead, with hundreds more injured and traumatized. The attack was brutal and cowardly.  In light of such a tragedy it is critical that the global community must do more to protect children living within areas of conflict.  Let’s hope that the new year will provide a brighter and more secure outlook for our future generatio

Catherine Deans is an attorney from New Zealand specialising in the field of health law.