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Saving our children from the scourge of war

By Olara Otunnu - posted Wednesday, 23 November 2005

When adults wage war, children pay the highest price. Children are the primary victims of armed conflict. They are both its targets and increasingly its instruments. Their suffering bears many faces, in the midst of armed conflict and its aftermath. Children are killed or maimed, made orphans, abducted, deprived of education and health care, and left with deep emotional scars and trauma. They are recruited and used as child soldiers, forced to give expression to the hatred of adults. Uprooted from their homes, displaced children become very vulnerable. Girls face additional risks, particularly sexual violence and exploitation.

All non-combatants are entitled to protection in times of war. But children have a special and primary claim to that protection. Children are innocent and especially vulnerable. Children are less equipped to adapt, or respond, to conflict. Children represent the hopes and future of every society; destroy them and you have destroyed a society.

The scope of this scourge is worldwide and widespread. Over 250,000 children continue to be exploited as child soldiers - used variously as combatants, porters, spies and sex slaves. Tens of thousands of girls are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence, including as a deliberate tool of warfare. Abductions are becoming widespread and brazen, as witnessed in Northern Uganda, Nepal and Burundi. Since 2003, over 11.5 million children were displaced within their own countries, and 2.4 million children have been forced to flee conflict and take refuge outside their home countries.


Approximately 800 to 1,000 children are killed or maimed by landmines every month. In the last decade, over two million children have been killed in conflict situations, over six million have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. As the horror of Beslan (Russian Federation) and other incidents have shown, schools are increasingly targeted for atrocities and abductions.

The magnitude of this abomination attests to a new phenomenon. There has been a qualitative shift in the nature and conduct of warfare.

Almost all the major armed conflicts in this world today are internal; they are unfolding within national boundaries and typically are being fought by multiple semi-autonomous armed groups. These conflicts are characterised by a particular brand of lawlessness, cruelty and chaos. In particular, they are defined by the systematic and widespread targeting of civilian populations. In the intense and intimate setting of today’s internecine warfare, the village has become the battlefield and civilian populations the primary target.  The purpose of war has shifted from overpowering the enemy army, to the annihilation of a so-called “enemy community”.

These conflicts tend to be protracted, lasting years if not decades, often in recurring cycles, and exposing successive generations of children to horrendous violence. Most cynically, children have been compelled to become themselves the instruments of war - indeed the weapon of choice - recruited or kidnapped to become child soldiers. Another feature of these conflicts is the proliferation of light-weight weapons that are easily assembled and borne by children.

I can think of no group of persons more completely vulnerable than children exposed to armed conflict. Yet, until very recently, their fate did not engender specific and systematic focus and response by the international community. This has changed.

At the end of 1996, the UN General Assembly received a commissioned report by Graça Machel on the impact of armed conflict on children. An important outcome of this report was the creation of the mandate of Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.


Over the last several years, I have led a UN-based campaign to mobilise international action on behalf of children exposed to war, promoting measures for their protection in times of war and for their healing and social reintegration in the aftermath of conflict.

I spearheaded collaborative efforts to develop concrete actions and initiatives. These initiatives and advocacy have yielded significant advances and innovations, most notably:

  • a significant rise in awareness, visibility and advocacy;
  • the protection of war-affected children has been firmly placed on the international peace-and-security agenda;
  • a comprehensive body of protective instruments and standards has been put in place;
  • a systematic practice of obtaining concrete commitments and benchmarks from parties to conflict has been developed; and
  • children’s concerns are being included in peace negotiations and accords, and have become a priority in post-conflict programmes for rehabilitation and rebuilding.
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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited version of the 2005 Sydney Peace Prize lecture given on November 9, 2005. The full transcript can be found here.

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About the Author

Olara A. Otunnu was appointed UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in September 1997. In this capacity, Mr Otunnu serves as a moral voice and advocate on behalf of war-affected children, promoting measures for their protection in times of war and for their healing and social reintegration in the aftermath of conflict.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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