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Rami G. Khouri

UN's children in conflict report reveals depravity of modern warfare

Half of Syria's children have grown up knowing nothing but conflict [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 July, 2019

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Comment: The disturbingly high number of children killed in conflict in 2018 reveals the dark truths of modern warfare, writes Rami Khouri.
The annual report on Children and Armed Conflict that the United Nations Secretary-General submitted to the Security Council this week comprises the usual grim inventory of large-scale crimes and atrocities covering over 24,000 verified grave violations against children in 20 countries.

Yet behind these depressing statistics are several more troubling phenomena that the report does not mention, and that have crystallised through the half dozen continuing conflicts across the Middle East and South Asia.

Perhaps the most distressing is that, as the report states, "While the number of violations attributed to non-state actors remained steady, there was an alarming increase in the number of violations attributed to state actors and to international forces compared with 2017." 

It is no accident that over half the country cases mentioned in the report are in the greater Middle East region.

The continued wars that have raged there throughout this decade include those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Israel, and Palestine, to mention only the gravest cases. In most of these conflicts, active fighting is undertaken by governments, regional powers, global powers, and many non-state armed groups on both sides.

The report methodically outlines the range of ways in which children suffer and are used in conflicts in each country.

These include death, injury, forced combat duty (including suicide bombings), deprivation of education and medical services, malnutrition, infrastructure disruptions, abductions, home destructions, exile, and sexual violence.

Many global and regional powers are directly complicit in this new legacy

Millions of children suffer emotional stress and even some lifelong psychological problems due to their experiences in war, usually with little or no medical relief services to aid their recovery. In some cases, like the Israeli siege of Gaza, entire economies are strangled, leading to malnutrition and even increased cases of stunting that have been documented by other UN agencies and international humanitarian agencies.

Atrocious as they are, these are not particularly new developments in the context of modern warfare across stressed and fractured states in the South. What may be most troubling - and is not mentioned in the UN report because it is beyond its mandate - are a series of corollary realities that hover around children suffering in warfare like the spectre of death that claims tens of thousands of them every year.

The first is the configuration of fighting alliances in war that is most clearly visible in the Syrian conflict, and that seems to have set a pattern for wars in Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

These coalitions often include a superpower, a regional power, a state army, and affiliated non-state actors from within the state or abroad.

In case of Syria, the coalition of the Syrian state, Russia, Iran, Hizballah, and numerous non-state or semi-state militias faced off against a coalition of Syrian non-state opposition forces assisted variously by the United States, Turkey, European countries, Arab Gulf states and others.

The big power in each coalition offers a guaranteed veto in the UN Security Council

Substantial coalitions like these have devastating consequences: They allow the warring parties to take advantage of immense human and technological resources that were not available to single protagonists in many previous local conflicts.

In addition, they allow the fighting to persist for years, as both sides fight to the finish to maintain strategic advantages they believe they have gained on the ground - and, in some cases, simply to stay alive or in power.

And lastly, they make it impossible to resort to diplomatic resolutions to the conflict, because the big power in each coalition offers a guaranteed veto in the UN Security Council.

Read more: Thousands of children have been killed by Assad's forces in Syria 'reconquest' campaigns

The second devastating new reality is the urban nature of most wars today, which often includes the total destruction of some cities or major quarters of cities. 


Civilians, consequently, are both the direct and immediate victims by death or injury, and the long-suffering ones lose their homes, jobs, and life support systems.

The UN estimates that over 30 million people are now displaced from their homes across the Arab region, while 60 million need humanitarian aid to stay alive.

The third gruesome phenomenon is the transformation of some Arab countries into virtual free-fire zones

The third gruesome phenomenon is the transformation of some Arab countries into virtual free-fire zones, where any foreign power or militant group can enter a country at will and wage war. Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen are continuing examples of this sorry reality.

The fourth is the lack of international accountability for grievous acts of war against civilians, often because major powers are directly involved in the conflicts or are closely allied politically with the protagonists.

Syria is the most obvious case where both the US and Russia protect their respective allies in the Security Council. Other examples include the war in Yemen where attempts to stop the flow of American and British weaponry to the Saudi-Emirati coalition that started the assault on Yemen have failed, because the Trump administration consistently vetoes such efforts, even when a congressional majority favours them.

Our children, it seems, have emerged as the early warning signs of our own destructive depravities

The case of Israeli actions in Gaza and other parts of Palestine, or in the Israeli annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, also indicates that any party to a local conflict can get away with as much violence or harsh and illegal measures that impact the lives of millions of civilians as it wishes, if it enjoys support from the US or Russia, or some other combination of influential international powers like China, France, or the UK.

Of course, the most decisive way to end the extensive suffering of children and other civilians in wars is to end the wars through diplomatic negotiations, as has been attempted without success in Syria, Yemen, Palestine-Israel, and Libya.

Yet it remains difficult to generate any credible diplomacy when the big powers - and some regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia - are active fighters in the wars.

The Secretary-General's latest report on Children and Armed Conflicts is a reminder not only that millions of children and adult civilians continue to suffer or die due to no fault of their own; but also that many global and regional powers are directly complicit in this new legacy that has to a large extent emanated from the Middle East, and now haunts other parts of the world. 

Our children, it seems, have emerged as the early warning signs of our own destructive depravities.  


Rami G. Khouri is a journalism professor and public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an internationally syndicated columnist.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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