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Future Shocks: Participation-Related Impairments of Conflict-Affected Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Feb

Being a child in a war zone is more dangerous than being an armed combatant. Save the Children UK

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

I could taste the fear, and I could see that my mother was frightened, which I had never seen before, and this made me even more frightened.  Alfred Nestor

As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. Oscar Wilde

War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view “realistically”; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. Susan Sontag

Children and youth have been on my mind and in the news much this week.  A year after the Parkland (Florida) school massacre, we recall both the horror of that incident and the degree to which the massacre revealed some passionate and quite remarkable leadership skills in the student survivors, students who refused to give in to the fear they obviously experienced and “gave it” instead to older persons, including a few media personalities who dared question their sincerity or their right to an opinion about current social policies that helped to cut short the lives of their peers.

I was also moved by the sight of young people in different parts of the world taking the risks associated with school truancy to voice their displeasure at the pace with which we adults are taking action to reverse the climate change that threatens to interrupt any alleged school-to-career pipeline with drought and flooding, coastal erosion and massive storms, even decisions to embark on dangerous and vulnerable displacements because “home” is no longer hospitable.

Such bold and defiant young people seem to have already grown tired of waiting for what appear to be complacent adults to rescue their future from the destruction of armaments and climate events.   Despite what might be implied in a Guardian report that the Australian Prime Minister was actually urging protesting students to “be less activist,” these are not the youthful voices of social anarchy but of legitimate impatience with political leadership that seems to be taking its sweet time silencing the guns and bringing our planetary health back from the brink of utter dysfunction.

This past Monday at the UN, Belgium hosted an Arria Formula discussion with the UN office on Children and Armed Conflict on how to protect children from the consequences of armed conflicts in settings of “shrinking humanitarian space.” Focusing on the children of the Central African Republic, Security Council members and others wrestled with the many ways in which insurgency and other armed conflict inflict undeserved (and often untreated) misery on children, the “expense and outcome” of armed violence including implications regarding the ability of conflict-affected children to manage the “shocks” of what is likely to be an unstable future in their later years.

Children’s events at the UN, including the recent meeting of the UNICEF Executive Committee, tend to be a mixed bag – generally well attended and enthusiastically engaged while offering only bits of soul-searching on the part of we-sometimes-irresponsible older folks. The trauma in this world to which children are routinely subjected – children as precious as our own and with every bit as much innate potential for leadership and productivity in the global commons — are beyond any excuse or rationale we might wish (or need) to suggest.  By shortchanging these children in the ways we have, we also (if inadvertently) compromise their common future, robbing it of some of its capacity for healing, its creativity for solutions that have not yet crossed the thresholds of our collective mind.

I won’t bore you with facts and figures on children victimized by the world’s violence, most of which you have no doubt heard before.  The diplomats, NGOs and UN officials have heard them also, almost to the point that they cease to sufficiently trouble our consciousness let alone shock us into ratcheting up our collective response.

And yet there is a basic (and often hopeful) consensus evidenced in UN conference rooms where children’s issues are raised that is unlike deliberations in other conference rooms.   There may still be insufficient action at present on child protection, insufficient attention to the disastrous long-term effects of childhood trauma resulting from malnutrition, armed violence, displacement and a host of other ills that must surely cause children to wonder – if they dare – just what kind of world they have been destined for? What kind of planet welcomes these children and then abandons them to circumstances that would drive most of the parents we know to utter despair?

But there is no delegation which would dare to utter indifference to the recruitment of child soldiers or deny the need to improve access to basic educational and health services. Few would question that children must be better protected from the armed violence that claims too many young lives and sends even more on dangerous journeys in search of something safer and better, only to find themselves locked down in holding cells or taken in by criminal gangs.  There is virtual diplomatic consensus on the need to generate new forms of meaningful employment for this large and uneasy generation (a topic also raised this week at the UN by the International Labor Organization); or that we must do more to guarantee better access to educational opportunity and health care, all in the context of a recovering planet that has sufficient bees to pollinate our flowers and crops, birds with something in their stomachs other than plastics, and a climate that stops warming faster than its remaining life forms can possibly adapt.

We also know that time is not on our side, that it will take more skill and energy to solve the problems that threaten futures than we now have at our disposal.   And every child recruited into armed groups or snatched up by traffickers; every child whose growth is stunted by infectious disease or malnutrition; every child whose mind is denied creative engagement in quality schools; every child who must watch the fear in their mother’s eyes and wonder if circumstances are really as vulgar as they sometimes seem;  virtually every one of these children will struggle mightily to take their rightful place among those young people “fighting for their lives,”  fighting for a world of greater health and equity, fighting to silence the guns minus any incentive to carry guns of their own.

In the generally-excellent Arria Formula event mentioned above, a representative from the well-respected Geneva Call  noted that we must do more to ensure that “boys and girls are not forgotten” when we start to talk seriously about peace.  But it seems obvious that any peace that could possibly “forget” – even for a moment — the diverse and negative impacts of war and armed conflict on children is surely less than the peace we need.  For all the life-saving work that the UN is doing on behalf of children, for all who are immunized against disease or provided access to schooling or freed from servitude to traffickers or armed groups, our collective, “adult” response to the world’s children is still and too-often more vulgar than mindful, more tactical than determined.

I suppose it is true, as we often say here, that “children are our future.”  But more than that, they are their own future, a future that promises to be better for some than others, but which is nevertheless threatened for all.  If this generation of children is to pass on a healthier more sustainable planet to those who will follow, if they are to successfully manage the shocks that are sure to come their way, then all capable and responsible hands must be on deck. Those who have survived school shootings and now seek a saner policy on guns; those skipping class to rally for stronger measures on climate health; these and other youthful voices need assurances that their global peers are ready and able to help “save what’s left” and forge a more peaceful, sustainable path.  We older folks can and must try harder to provide those assurances.