Cold Play:   Eliminating Barriers to a World Fit for Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Aug

Children on Swing

War is what happens when language fails.  Margaret Atwood

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.  Howard Zinn

Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. Suzanne Collins

We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.  Erich Maria Remarque

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, if mankind perished utterly. Sara Teasdale

The picture at the head of this piece is one I hesitated to use.  Most all of you have already seen images of this extraordinary sight – children (and some adults) on both sides of the US-Mexican border riding a “see saw” projecting through a heavy-metal fence designed by policy to keep them separate.

But the events of yesterday, the carnage associated with shooters in Dayton and El Paso whose hatred and access to weapons had literally colonized their consciousness, brought me back to this hopeful but bittersweet image, an image that reinforces the indomitable spirit of children around the world who find the means to connect and play amidst the psychic and physical rubble courtesy of we “well-meaning” adults.  Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael deserve major honor for developing this simple piece of playground equipment that unlocked spaces of hope we’d probably forgotten we had.

This was also, in some ways at least, an important week for child-attentive policies at the UN.   Under the leadership of current president Poland, the Security Council held a 9 hour debate on “children and armed conflict” this past Friday covering virtually every aspect of the distressing encounters of children with situations of armed violence including sexual abuse, children locked away in adult facilities, and forced recruitment into the service of some armed groups and national militias.  Special Representative Gamba and UNICEF Chief Fore led a procession of 80 state and civil society briefers weighing in on an issue that weighs heavily on the consciousness of many – our limited ability (despite numerous resolutions and debates) to protect children from the worst consequences of our conflict-prevention failures.

A day earlier, Canada had hosted an important side event during which it launched its Implementation Guidance for the Vancouver Principles.  The “principles” are proving increasingly relevant both in identifying and addressing recruitment and other abuses perpetrated against children in conflict zones.  They are also proving their value in recruiting “eyes and ears on the ground” — peacekeepers, gender specialists, child protection advisors and others — to ensure both that abuses can be prevented wherever possible and that children freed from conscriptive bondage have accesses to the services they need to successfully walk that long road to healing from stigma and trauma.

Perhaps surprising to some, despite the near-unanimous views expressed by states that a “world fit for children” is a world where children and armed violence do not mix, success in providing protection and rehabilitation services for abused, abducted, incarcerated and recruited children is lagging in several instances.   We do have more child-protection advisors assigned to peacekeeping missions.  We do have a growing list of implementable normative frameworks — including the Vancouver Principles and the Safe Schools Declaration — designed to monitor and address conflict-related threats to children.  We are becoming more skilled at reintegration of child soldiers. And yet, the UN-identified “six grave violations” against children in armed conflict are still being committed, often with impunity, and increasingly (as noted in the SC debate) by state actors. Schools are still being targeted by bombing raids or used for military purposes. Hospitals and other medical facilities are also under frequent attack in confict zones.  Children continue to be conscripted into armed groups via abductions or propaganda, and then forced to endure numerous violations of their basic rights.  Children continue to seek opportunities for playful communion across militarized borders with peers facing indefinite separation from loved ones should they somehow find a way to squeeze through the intimidating metal fence.

In addition such children are so often denied access to things that might not rise immediately to the level of “gravity,” but which are essential to growth and wholeness — things like food security, safe places to play,  nurturing communities, schools equipped to prepare children for the world they will live in and not the world their teachers have lived in.  And perhaps also, communicating those too-hard-to-find assurances that the adults now “in charge” are doing everything possible to ensure that there is a viable, liveable planet for today’s (and tomorrow’s) children to inherit.

Among the takeaways for us from our diverse news feeds and this UN week of child-focused meetings is the sense that there truly is something seriously and collectively wrong with us.  To sacrifice the well-being of children in the ways we continue to do in the name of “settling differences” (that too-often remain unsettled) represents a moral sleight-of-hand that leaves philosophers and psychologists, not to mention child policy and protection advocates, fighting back tears of anger and disbelief.

In addition, and for reasons that literally defy our policy experiences and genetic predispositions, children facing violence or forced conscription, stigma, or trauma somehow escape consciousness when it comes to negotiating and implementing the agreements that seek to “bring peace” to communities, nations and regions.  This in itself constitutes a remarkable example of the ever-shrinking limits of our human concern.  We who fuss endlessly over our own children, who demand the “best” for them even if we have to bend the law to get it, endorse policy agreements and their negotiators that (in the name of unity and peace) literally put our children’s generations at risk; as though we are somehow doing our own children a favor by betting — through peace talks or parenting — that they can somehow escape the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) flood that is set to engulf their peers and those who follow.

While I am not the world’s foremost fan of the institution, there is (for me) a moving part of the marriage ceremony practiced in some Christian communities that goes like this:  Those whom God has joined let no one put asunder.   As one trying to maintain some semblance of faith amidst all of the idolatry and meanness of our collective present, these words seem particularly relevant to the children playing through a steel fence along the US southern border, or the 2 year old whose life ended abruptly yesterday in an El Paso shopping mall.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are hard wired for connection, for communication, for play.  We have been “joined” to each other by our sometimes-glorious, sometimes sordid history, by the proddings of divinity, by the existential crises that we share (and must now resolve) in common.  And yet, despite all of this connective tissue, we are literally running out of time to demonstrate that we can sustain the innate and inclusive dispositions that can guarantee a future for our children that is more about riding see-saws and less about dodging bombs and bullets.

Those who would continue to disconnect us through ideology or economics, through social snobbery or overt racialism, must quickly be called to account for these actions.   We continue to laud our own technical and policy cleverness, but are actually making the case for our own collective demise and, what is worse, for the demise of those children who fervently wish that the physical and metaphorical barriers in their homes, schools and playgrounds could once and for all be removed.

If we truly seek to preserve and enhance the potential for exploration, wonder and play of children, we adults need to stop “playing” ourselves and commit fervently to freeing from bondage the enthusiasm and hopefulness of our young, sentiments now held hostage by our too-frequent short-sightedness and self-delusion.

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