The ongoing aggression of Saudi Arabia against Yemen and the bombing from the air of cities and camps, killing women and children raises in a dramatic way the impact of armed conflict on children. Even when aerial bombs are used with care to avoid killing children − and such care is frequently not the case − children are still victims.
As the weapons used by Saudi Arabia are largely of foreign production, supplier states have a responsibility − at least morally − in the way the arms are used. Thus the impact of the current aggression on children is a world issue.
The impact of armed conflict on children arose in the United Nations during the decade-long negotiations which led to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which came into force in September 1989 and is the most widely ratified human rights treaty. The core concept of the Convention is the role that the welfare of children must play in State decisions: “In all actions concerning children…the best interest of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
The discussions around the Convention on the Rights of the Child led first to the 1990 World Summit for Children and then to the UN General Assembly’s request of a study on the impact of armed conflict on children − a study prepared by Ms Graca Machel to which non-governmental organization representatives provided much information. The Report (A/51/306 of 26 August 1996) merits close reading as conditions are largely unchanged. Graca Machel stresses that in conflicts between Governments and rebels, between different opposition groups vying for supremacy, in struggles that take the form of widespread civil unrest “distinctionsbetween combatants and civilians disappear in battles fought from village to village or from street to street. In recent decades, the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leaped dramatically. The struggles that claim more civilians than soldiers have been marked by horrific levels of violence and brutality. Any and all tactics are employed, from systematic rape, to scorched-earth tactics that destroy crops and poison well, to ethnic cleansing and genocide. With all standards abandoned, human rights violations against children and women occur in unprecedented numbers. Increasingly, children have become the targets and even the perpetrators of violence and atrocities.”
There are international agreements which set humanitarian law and human rights standards to protect children in time of armed conflict, mainly the Red Cross Geneva Conventions of 1949 written in the light of experience during the Second World War and the two Protocols to the Convention written in 1977 in the light of experiences of the Vietnam War. Not all states have ratified Protocols I and II, and a number of states have made reservations especially refusing to forgo reprisals against civilians. Protocol I requires that attacks against military objectives be planned and executed so that “incidental” civilian injuries are not “excessive in relation to” the specific “military advantages anticipated”. The decision-making is subjective on the part of the military, and military officers rarely see any action as “excessive.”
However, standards are effective only when and if they are widely known, understood and implemented by policy makers, military and security forces. There is little indication that booklets on humanitarian law are bedside reading in either Saudi Arabia or Yemen.
Humanitarian law and human rights standards have paid little attention to the mental health needs of child survivor of armed conflict although some attention has been given to the re-integration of child soldiers into their communities.
Monitoring and then reporting on ongoing violence is the most crucial and most difficult aspect of efforts to ensure compliance with international standards and commitments undertaken by parties to armed conflict. Currently in Yemen, foreign governments are closing their embassies and pulling out any civilian workers in the country. Non-governmental aid organizations are few, and those remaining can work only in specific locations. (For a useful overview of humanitarian aid operations in Yemen see www.irinnews.org)
The lack of adequate monitoring and reporting mechanisms on the situation of war-affected children weakens the capacity of the UN or others to insist on compliance with international standards. It is not sure that humanitarian law booklets are much read in the Arab countries and Pakistan which are allied with Saudi Arabia in its aggression in Yemen. Given the extent of government support in the UN for the Saudi attacks, it is not clear what action the Security Council or the Human Rights Council will take.
Thus, the avenue is clear for action by NGOs to protest Saudi aggression, to mediate if possible among factions in Yemen at least for a ceasefire, and to monitor and report on violations of the laws of war. How long the attacks will last and how an already highly-fractured society in Yemen will react is unknown. The public within states supplying military assistance to Saudi Arabia has the greatest responsibility for limiting humanitarian abuses. NGOs in the supplying states must have strong political will if they are to obtain the necessary information as to the degree of support and the resulting casualties. At this stage, cooperation and coordination among NGOs is needed and different possibilities of action explored.
Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.