As Geneva Declaration nears centennial, children still exposed to war and conflict

Drawing entitled “What happened to the Tutsis in 1994” by a Tutsi child in Rwanda, 3 October 1997. Exhibited in the International Reform Museum in Geneva. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

A hundred years after a proclamation on the rights of children was first drafted, aid groups say they still lack protection, particularly in conflict situations. Michel Anglade of Save the Children, whose founder was the original author of what became the Geneva Declaration, explains how.

After international humanitarian law was penned in the late 19th century in Geneva, it became increasingly clear that civilians, including children, were among the most affected populations in subsequent conflicts. Yet legal structures as well as organisations aimed at protecting the youngest of casualties were nonexistent.

“No one was speaking about children’s rights,” Michel Anglade, director of Geneva’s advocacy office at Save the Children, told Geneva Solutions. “A child was part of the family and had to basically obey his parents. The rights of the child were completely unheard of”.

That changed after the first world war, when a first institution, the International Save the Children Union was established by the founder of the original British group Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb, and her sister Dorothy Buxton. Jebb later went on to draft a first version of the declaration of the rights of children, and the final document was adopted in Geneva a year later, in 1924, by the League of Nations.

The Geneva Declaration stated, in five short articles, that children needed to be cared for, nurtured, fed and protected.

But a century later, humanitarians say those simple rules, which have since been expanded at the United Nations in 1989 and to which 196 countries – with the notable exception of the United States – are parties to, often fail to be respected in situations of conflict.

An exhibit at Geneva’s International Reform Museum highlights what that has meant for children over the past century. A collection of drawings from around the world bear witness to the violence they were exposed to and how those experiences have haunted them. Save the Children, Enfants du Monde and Terre des Hommes Switzerland have co-sponsored the exhibit.

Marcos Moyano, a mental health advisor at Médecins Sans Frontières, said the effects of conflict on young victims may be profound. Speaking at the opening, Moyano said that some children present symptoms such as sleep disorders, bedwetting and even lose the ability to speak. “[But] there is also the development of children with regard to their identity and what they think about war, what they think about themselves, and what they think about the meaning of life. When you are raised in war and in violence, it has an impact”, he added.

Even as conflict has increasingly shifted towards fighting between non-state actors, children have become prime targets, either of sexual violence or of forced recruitment into belligerent forces.

The disruption to their education during conflict is another key issue. In Burkina Faso – where 50 per cent of the two million people displaced due to interethnic violence are children – the closure of schools amid ongoing conflict has been profoundly detrimental to their wellbeing, as Simané Ouoba of the NGO Enfants du Monde, explained. “School is the only possibility to provide hope and a future for children,” he said.

Anglade meanwhile stressed the importance of drawings made by children who experienced conflict as proof of crimes.

Geneva Solutions: How much has the situation changed over the past hundred years for children in conflict?

Michel Anglade: Unfortunately not much has changed. Children are still victims of serious violations in conflict. There are more and more conflicts where civilians are directly targeted, including children. The more civilians are targeted, the more children will suffer. The Geneva Declaration was developed just after the end of the First World War, when soldiers were basically fighting against soldiers. There was not the kind of deliberate targeting of civilians. But things have changed. Now you see many conflicts, such as in Burkina Faso and Haiti, where civilians are the first victims of a conflict. Many conflicts are no longer between two states or more. Ukraine may be a kind of anomaly, but there are more and more internal conflicts confronting non-state armed groups between themselves or between non-state armed groups and the regular army. It means that the chain of command is much looser, and the respect for international humanitarian law is much more difficult to implement.

These are having a huge impact on children. Sexual violence is also becoming a weapon of war, with the deliberate targeting of women and girls to instill fear within the population. This may not be completely new, if you look at the history of conflict,  but we can see it being very widespread.

Read more: Gang violence testing humanitarian response in Haiti

The Geneva conventions on the rights of the child have often not been respected. What would it require to keep things on track in terms of protecting children in conflict?

The Geneva Declaration is the ancestor of the UN convention on the rights of the child, ratified in 1989. It is critically important to have that legal framework. But then, you need to implement this legal framework, as well as critical international humanitarian law on how hostilities should be conducted without targeting civilians. Instead, we are seeing a massive violation of these across the board.

What can be done? It's about documenting the violation, ensuring that specific violations affecting children are documented. If they are not documented, it opens the door to more impunity. And it could be complicated because interviewing children may be difficult as it may lead to children being re-traumatized. Psychological support and trained personnel are needed if you want to do this. A lot of things are therefore required to document such violations, but this is something that needs to be done. Finally, the evidence needs to lead to prosecution of the perpetrators.

Is prosecution itself difficult?

Prosecution of the crimes may be complicated. In certain countries, such as in Haiti, the judicial system has collapsed due to conflict. There may also be cases where the perpetrators are the state itself, where there may be little appetite from the judicial system to investigate. There are lots of potential barriers for national jurisdictions to investigate crimes that were committed. Geneva can play an important role because the Human Rights Council may be able to establish a dedicated investigation and reporting mechanism. Such mechanisms already exist currently for Syria, Myanmar and Haiti.

Drawing by 12 year-old Marija, a refugee from Bosanski Brod, Bosnia, entitled “My most terrible fear”, 1994, exhibited at the International Reform Museum. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

But not specifically for children, right?

No, not specifically for children. That's the reason why, at Save the Children, we try to see how these mechanisms may include in their mandate a kind of the obligation to investigate crimes against children. The mechanisms are established by resolution of the Human Rights Council. We need to ensure that the resolutions include at least a paragraph with an age and gender dimension of the crime, so that such violations are investigated. The resolutions should specifically say that children are particularly vulnerable and being particularly targeted, and that violations and crimes against them need to be investigated. It is really important because if it's not in the resolution, then it becomes very difficult for the mechanism to receive the kind of resources that are needed. If you don't have the resources, it's unlikely that violations are investigated.

Recently, the International Criminal Court issued a mandate against Russian president Vladimir Putin regarding the crimes committed in Ukraine by the Russian state against children. Does that give you any hope that the issue of crimes committed in conflict against children may receive more attention?

Ukraine is a conflict that has been very high on the agenda for many European countries, the US and other western countries. Because it has been high on their political diplomatic agenda, there has been a very strong focus on accountability in Ukraine, including about crimes of deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. This is a welcomed element, but we should be looking at accountability in all conflicts, such as in Sudan, in Somalia and in Burkina Faso. We should not be selective in terms of where we are calling for accountability. Ukraine could potentially create a positive momentum regarding accountability for crimes committed against children but it should not only be about Ukraine.

Read more: UN: Russia has committed ‘wide range’ of war crimes in Ukraine

What about the issue of providing humanitarian response to children in conflict?

For a long time, education was never considered in the humanitarian response. Over the last decade, aid organisations, including our own, have said that education should be considered as a fundamental human need and should be taken into consideration. The creation of Education Cannot Wait was created to finance education in emergencies.

Child protection has been unfortunately drastically underfunded in many interventions. We need to collectively make a big push to ensure that resources are available for child protection in humanitarian response. In many humanitarian crises in countries with a very young population, half of the affected population are children. Children are not the kind of niche in aid response, so response should be commensurate to this. A focus on children needs to be mainstreamed throughout humanitarian response.