A Message to our Future: The UN’s Mixed Reputation on Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Aug

We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children. – Jimmy Carter

The UN was a bit less frenetic this past week focused mostly on the health of oceans and the potential of geospatial data to monitor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.  It was also the week that Malaysia took over as president of the Security Council, presiding over both “straw polls” to help determine the next Secretary-General and an important, full-membership debate on the subject of “children and armed conflict.”

This debate included the requisite amounts of wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding our collective compromises with respect to the welfare of children, along with a controversy that was bad news for both children and the UN itself. In the former category were (as noted by Argentina and others) attacks on schools and hospitals, abuse by peacekeepers, hostility at refugee border crossings and, as stated clearly by Indonesia, state denials of access to assistance intended in part for besieged children.

The controversy focused on a decision by the Secretary General, under financial and political pressure from Saudi Arabia and its “coalition” partners, to remove the country from a listing of state and non-state parties in an Annex to an SG report, parties that have been found to kill, rape, or abduct children, or bomb the schools and medical facilities they frequent.  The Saudis were listed in response to coalition bombing campaigns waged in Yemen that have had deadly ramifications for many children, with bombs we might add that have been supplied to the Saudis by at least one permanent Council member.  The list is maintained by the Office for Children and Armed Conflict current led by Special Representative Zerrougui who spoke at this Council session and whose office was widely (and rightly) praised by many speakers.

The Saudi “threat” seemed straightforward enough.   Remove our name from the Annex or we (and other coalition partners as well) will withdraw funding support for other key UN functions, including agencies that support children.  Both the threat and its reactions were well represented in the Council discussion.  States from Demark to Yemen itself pleaded for fact-based, unbiased reporting of crimes against children that would be free of political pressure – from states being listed and states seeking to politicize such listings.  Others alleged that the precedent for the Saudi reaction was established a year earlier when Israel was removed from a similar list.  Other disturbing examples were also cited including (as noted by Croatia) the UN’s slow response to peacekeeper abuse of children and the consequences for children of the military activities in Syria supported in part by permanent Council members.

The useful concept note from Malaysia repeatedly refers to the full-day Council discussion as a “debate.”   But despite the Saudi controversy, the gathering in Council chambers understood that there is little to debate here.   Most states affirmed, as noted 20 years earlier in a UN report submitted by Graça Machel, that it is “unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered.” For every child killed or abused; for every child traumatized by fear and violence, for every child recruited into war and then abandoned by the world to their own devices, our collective dignity diminishes.  In the Council, Austria stated that armed conflict impedes the ability of children to “do good.”  But when the alleged international guarantors of the moral and legal order act in ways that run counter to those guarantees, the fabric of that order has been rent asunder.  Their authority, including for conduct towards children, is literally on life support.

Let’s be clear: The ways in which armed conflict is detrimental to the welfare of children are numerous and increasingly obvious, beyond the reach of credible denial either by states or by groups that violently oppose them.  As guns are loaded and bombs are dropped, the easy narratives of children as “precious” and essential to the future of humankind smacks up against a wall of trauma and loss, the likes of which the rest of us in our relatively comfortable confines can scarcely imagine.

In the West, psychologists’ offices are filled with adults suffering from a range of maladies – many inflicted as children — from sexual harassment and eating disorders to compulsive behaviors and the alleged preferential treatment by parents of one or more of their children.   But the abuses finding expression in the Council place in context the “Dad always loved my sister best” frustrations that in their own way damage prospects for healthy living.   Growing up in a war zone can be far worse than living with one hand tied behind your back.   With all due respect to our collective resilience –and it is indeed a marvel at times – the wounds chronicled in this Council meeting are more like a bleeding that no amount of clotting agents or tourniquets are able to stem.

It is always risky business to “compare pain,” but If the dangers, stresses, neuroses and addictions characteristic of life in our relatively stable, affluent and peaceful societies cause so many to lose their way, what do we say about children recruited into insurgencies, enslaved to satisfy adult urges, separated from families fleeing bombings, or burying parents who simply found themselves in the wrong places?  Beyond safe passage and humanitarian provisions, what do we imagine are the prospects for children for whom hasty escapes from cluster munitions are only the latest in a string of life crises?  Panama, Poland and other states cited the impacts of violence-related trauma that will last throughout these children’s lives.  Indeed, even with the improved psychological services called for by many speakers, damage has already been done.  Potential has been compromised.  Trust in a world of possibility and stability has been broken, in many instances irretrievably.

We have duly processed the clichés.   We know it is “wrong” to abuse the people we are mandated to protect.  We know it is “wrong” to engage in indiscriminate attacks on populated areas where the primary victims are both unable to escape and too young to have any responsibility for conflict that claims their psychological development if not their very existence.  As James Grant of UNICEF explicitly noted to Council members, we are speaking here of child victims of “warring adults,” conflicts which cast a long shadow over both their lives and our own future prospects.

We do not emerge from our various wombs fully formed. Bumble Bees we are not.   Our physical vulnerabilities at birth combined with the staggering array of skills we must develop in order to get on in this increasingly complex world should cause us to pause and consider when our policies and actions bear some risk of ignoring potentially negative implications for children.  That we do not “pause” nearly often enough is a collective “stain” that will not easily clean.

During this UN debate, the Secretary General rightly noted our collective integrity gap on the protection and nurture of children, noting that reputations (including his own) are clearly at stake.  Lithuania (speaking on behalf of the Baltic states) lamented that crimes against children are too many, but cases to end impunity for such crimes are too few.  What may also be lacking is recognition that legal remedies in the aftermath of crimes – as critically important as they are – cannot alone heal deep emotional scars or damaged reputations.   It will be up to the next Secretary General to find the right blend of discernment and capacity to ensure that her/his future reports on children are as free as possible from all political influences; and then to insist in the strongest possible tones that more states take more responsibility together for fulfilling “sacred” obligations to the care and protection of children.

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