- For the right to grow up unharmed and free of fear -
- Pope John Paul II, Annual Message on the World Day of Peace, 1996
According to UNICEF, two million children have lost their lives in armed conflicts during the last decade. Six million have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. At the beginning of the 20th century, 5% of the casualties in war were civilians. In the wars of the 1990s, the proportion of civilian victims rose to over 90%
Children have in fact become not only accidental casualties, but targets in armed conflict. War violates every right of the child spelled out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children need to be protected and cared for when conflicts threaten their well-being. Universal human rights and existing humanitarian international law, which provide for the legal protection and care of children, must be respected and implemented around the world. But at present, they are, for the most part, ignored.
Today, about 300,000 children under the age of 18 are participating in armed conflicts. Children are vulnerable and easily intimidated. They make obedient soldiers and are often forced to participate in acts of atrocity. They are given drugs to overcome their fear of fighting. Girl soldiers are often raped and subjected to other kinds of sexual abuse.
Even for children in areas where armed conflicts have abated, antipersonnel land mines are an ever-present threat. Some 100 million land mines are scattered over 60 different countries. Their use violates the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obligates States that are party to it to protect children when armed conflicts occur. Since 1975, land mines have killed or maimed more than one million people, mostly civilians, one-third of them children under the age of 15.
A new concern for the United Nations is the current stockpile of 500 million small arms and light weapons spread around the world. These weapons are inexpensive and can easily be assembled and used by children.
In 1974, armed conflicts created 2.4 million refugees. By 1994, the number of refugees had grown to 27.4 million. Women and children account for 80% of all displaced persons. Most of these children have lived through traumatic experiences. Many have lost members of their families.
Armed conflicts not only hurt and kill people; they also leave children psychologically and spiritually ravaged. They also often destroy the infrastructure of a country? its water, sanitation and electric systems, along with its agricultural capacity and its ecology.
Military occupation and economic sanctions are also violations of human rights and humanitarian international law. They have a devastating effect on civilian populations, especially on children.
The commitment of the religious community to peace needs to take the form of concrete action to bring an end to today's armed conflicts and to prevent them from occurring in the future. Religious organizations are in a privileged position to take on this task.
Note: The statistical information cited in this paper has been taken from UNICEF and other UN agency sources.
Questions for Discussion
1. According to the basic teachings and values of our religious faiths, what are we prepared to do to help save the lives of children who are suffering from the effects of armed conflicts?
2. We are painfully aware of the continued threat of land mines, which maim or kill so many children. Can we come together in a joint effort to demand that the UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Antipersonnel Mines and on Their Destruction be signed, ratified and implemented by all member states of the United Nations? What can we do to press for the removal of the 100 million land mines now deployed?
3. Will religious communities come to the aid of the children who are suffering so terribly under the weight of economic sanctions, which have effects similar to that of weapons of mass destruction? Will we demand that the rights of these children to an ordinary life and to protection from harm, as stated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, be respected?
4. Will the religious organizations represented here initiate and be willing to financially support the rehabilitation of children who have suffered from armed conflict, to help undo the damage done to them so that they can re-enter their communities and lead normal lives?