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Child’s Play:  The Security Council Seeks to Shelter Youngsters from Abusive Elders, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Mar

In an earlier life when I was arrogant enough to fancy myself a philosopher, I was involved with a transnational group of scholars analyzing what it means to live in a world with children in it, the unique combination of gifts offered and responsibilities mandated that bring value and meaning to our otherwise emotion-starved lives. The ‘poster’ for this work came in the form of an old New Yorker cartoon in which a young girl – perhaps 6 or 7 – is pulling a wagon inside the chambers of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  One of the generals seated on a dais looks down at the girl and asks a question that many of us might be inclined to ask but which also has enormous irony attached to it.

And what can the Joint Chiefs do for you today little one?

What indeed?  The ironies of this cartoon are at least two-fold:  First the assumption that children only ‘need’ us for things, that they are merely bundles of vulnerability that somehow find strength in the often-silly ‘uniforms,’ structures and speeches that we adults use to impress them.   And second, the assumption that ‘we’ have the wherewithal to deliver the goods for children, that we can somehow find the means to make the world ‘fit’ to sustain their normative and creative ambitions rather than leaving behind legacies of scarcity and violence that make the obsessive refuge of social media seem like a perfectly sane response to global circumstances.

On Wednesday, amidst a bevy of UN activity on sustainable development goals and targets, peacekeeping recommendations, ocean health and much more – all with ramifications for the safety and well-being of children —  the Security Council held an ‘open’ discussion on Children and Armed Conflict, with a specific focus on child recruitment perpetrated by ISIL and other terror groups.  As Council president for March, France organized the discussion and, it should be noted, was also instrumental in the early development of the thematic office of Children and Armed Conflict then run by Olara Otunnu and now by the Algerian Leila Zerrougui.

As with so many other crisis-laden conversations in Council chambers, this one combined frustration, sadness, righteous indignation, thoughtfulness and even some hopeful energy supplied by a former child soldier in DRC who has managed to thrive despite the horrors he endured, and perhaps even inflicted.  Needless to say, his story was heartwarming, though not necessarily representative.  Behind this ‘theme du jour’ lies the sober reality that so many children in this world may have already lost any meaningful chance to transition from violence-related trauma to creative engagement.  Urgings by Angola, Slovenia and other states for more psychological services for trauma-infected youth is wise policy, but with the caveat that, from a professional standpoint, the only certain way to address trauma successfully is to prevent its occurrence in the first place.

What there was little of during this Council discussion, thankfully, were facile recitations of the intrinsic value of education in countering planetary threats beyond what Lithuania and Save the Children referred to as the restoration of “normalcy” for victims.  Though this community often (and rightly) posits universal educational opportunity (especially at elementary and secondary levels) as one key to social stability and economic success, “getting ahead” in a world that seems to be slowly collapsing under its own hubris might not always be the most attractive option for children and youth, no matter how many school degrees (and school debts) they ultimately accumulate.

After all, what could children need from the adult world beyond the shaky promises of a sustainable future while conferring a bevy of expensive school diplomas representing a misleading assessment of their precious talents?  Isn’t that enough?

It’s not nearly enough.   Nor will solving ISIL’s forced recruiting and conversion madness, as important as that is, be enough.   As evil and civilization- threatening as ISIL and its ilk seems to be, it is not the only crisis for which we have deployed – and will deploy again – robust UN capacity. Nor are terrorists the only forces in the world inflicting suffering and future-deflating trauma on children.   Indeed, as SRSG Zerrougui noted, children are also victims of those of us responsible to protect them, agencies which at times have also demonstrably ‘fumbled the ball.’  Clearly, we have much work to do to ensure that our legacy for children is more hopeful and comprehensive than promoting school skills to help them navigate the coming wreckage.   We can and must do better than this.  As Malaysia and the Secretary General both reminded us, there are simply too many children in the world struggling to recover from the impact of “adult wars.” Too many of these children will simply not be able to handle the transition. The brutality of terrorists confers no plenary indulgences for our own transitional negligence.

As New Zealand sensibly noted this week, there is an irony to Council debates held in a windowless room far removed from any of the scenes of horror our resolutions seek to address.   For its part, Argentina asserted that ‘wisdom’ for dealing with our responsibilities to children is not something we’re born with, but rather something that we must practice with a prevention-oriented eye.   The world simply looks more manageable from the vantage point of a closed room full of overly-crafted policy positions no matter how many somber outside voices are invited to brief. As the human world gets younger, more restless, with values defined more by advertisers than by teachers, with youth more anxious about their collective future, and where stability in childhood is more and more elusive, we can’t jump to assumptions that our current protective preferences are in step with the long-term needs of future generations.  If we are to get in step, we’ll probably need to first ‘turn the heat down’ a bit, finding more time for consultation and prevention and earmarking fewer resources on reaction. We will also need to cultivate more measured wisdom to guide the urgent way forward, with less anger and moral righteousness. Adding a few more windows to the world – real and metaphorical – probably wouldn’t hurt either.

What can the Joint Chiefs, or the Security Council or the IMF do for you today little one?  Perhaps we can start by reminding ourselves of just how intolerable our adult lives would be without the presence of children in them. And once we accept the sublime gift that children represent, perhaps we can then accept the responsibility that the fields we so blithely cultivate now must have enough good soil left so that today’s children will have a realistic opportunity one day to plant and harvest for themselves.

Across programs and sectors, within and beyond the Security Council, the UN has many capable hands in this soil.   It’s incumbent on us to cultivate cooperatively, wisely and with greater earnestness. The children we neglect, abuse or even politicize today are much less likely to manage handling the sometimes grave challenges of their own adult lives.