Introduction

War Child is a registered charity established in 1993 which helps children in areas experiencing and recovering from conflict with the aim to reach children as early as possible when conflict breaks out and to stay to support them through their recovery. The organisation works in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Yemen. It provides education, protection and support with food security and livelihoods to children, their families and communities.

 

War Child also campaigns for changes to policies and practices to support children in conflict. In 2018, War Child produced a report ‘A Critical Friend’ which examined the extent to which the rights of children in armed conflict are promoted and protected by the UK government in five countries where state forces/state aligned forces are listed for grave violations against children.[1] The analysis revealed that whilst there is a great deal that is positive in terms of the UK’s engagement and support to children affected by conflict, the UKs economic and defence priorities often prevented critical engagement with those allies accused of committing rights violations against children. In 2020, the organisation produced further research – ‘Being A Force for Good’ - examining in greater detail the UK’s record with regards to children’s rights in conflict and providing recommendations to increase UK political commitment to this agenda (some of which are included in this submission).

 

Children’s rights in conflict

Before the pandemic, a quarter of the world’s children already lived in areas affected by conflict and natural disasters, coronavirus has further exacerbated the physical, psychological and social impacts on children highlighting the urgent need for investment.[2] The ten years leading up to 2020 have been labelled a “deadly decade” for children living in conflict-affected countries with three times as many child rights violations recorded during this time than in the previous ten years.[3] In addition to facing death or injury, children have been separated from their families, exposed to violence and been unable to access education or healthcare. Many have been exploited through child recruitment.

 

In recognition of the special needs of children in conflict, the UN established the Children and Armed Conflict Agenda to advance accountability mechanisms and support for children.[4] While the UK has signed up to all international legal and political commitments related to this agenda and has a proud record of leading global initiatives, children and armed conflict remains in need of higher prioritisation in the UK given limited human and financial resources dedicated to this theme. Greater focus on the impacts of conflict would support coherence between themes of girls’ education, preventing sexual violence and ending violence against women and children. Furthermore, the UK can take additional steps when it comes to the issue of accountability by ensuring its foreign, defence and development policy are better coordinated to protect children i.e. conditioning assistance to partners on protections for children in line with internationally recognised standards.

 

Support to Allies committing rights violations against children

Several of the UK’s government’s defence partners have been found by the UN and others to have committed grave violations against children and/or about which there are serious concerns when it comes to their compliance with human rights standards. A number of these States have been listed in the annual reports of the Secretary General on children and armed conflict (commonly referred to as the  “list of shame”).

 

In Afghanistan, government and pro-government forces were responsible for 1,032 child casualties in 2019, with many of these and other grave violations including attacks on schools and hospitals attributed to the Afghan National Army (ANA).[5] In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces and associated militias have been implicated in human rights violations including the killing and maiming of children and military recruitment and use of under-18s.[6]

 

In Nigeria, the UN has found that the Nigerian Security Forces and associated militias have been responsible for grave violations against children including killing and maiming, rape and sexual violence and denial of humanitarian access, as well as the detention in appalling conditions of boys and girls allegedly associated with Boko Haram.[7] In Yemen, 7,745 children were killed in the current conflict between March 2015 to December 2019, 45% of these deaths were attributed to the Saudi led Coalition, which is also responsible for destroying/damaging dozens of schools and hospitals and other grave violations against children during the same period. Although the violations in Yemen continued into 2020, in July, the UK government announced that it had re-assessed past allegations of Coalition violations and found them to be “isolated incidents.”

 

Based on the poor levels of human rights compliance of some of the UK’s partners and the UK’s responsibilities, it is evident that there needs to be better assessment of the conduct of UK partners, as recommended by the UN, to ensure that the provision of military support, intelligence sharing, joint operations and other forms of collaboration is contingent upon partner forces’ commitment to protecting civilians and respect for international law.

 

Meeting the Grand Bargain commitment and responding to the BLM agenda

With the murder of another black person at the hands of police in the United States, unprecedented, multifaceted global protests raged for several months in nearly every major country around the globe. As the protests intensified many were forced to confront their own complicity with systemic racism. Within the development sector the Black Lives Matter movement further generated a period of reflection on how the structure of aid is built on inequality between the global north and south and within organisations racial inequality sees people of colour disadvantaged. The failure to shift power and funding toward local humanitarian actors did begin to raise questions around the ways in which we as a sector function and the need to do much more to address the chronic inequalities that persist in our societies.

 

It has already been over four years since the World Humanitarian Summit where world leaders and humanitarian agencies committed to scale up support for locally-led humanitarian action but significant progress remains to be seen. Local and national partners are almost always the first responders and are best placed to urgently respond to emergencies given their extensive knowledge of the context, existing vulnerabilities and full-time presence. Working more closely with local and national partners is both the right and strategic action to take as it provides the most sustainable approach to programming. War Child, a signatory to the Charter for Change[8], has struggled to increase our level of local partnership due to resource constraints and a funding environment ill-suited for equitable partnering with local/national entities. Some reasons include an aversion of a reasonable risk appetite on the part of donors, an inability to adequately account for and address capacity gaps in partners and finally limited resources to support local/national partners in a meaningful way. Some of the immediate actions donors can take is to provide flexible funding, open calls with simplified and fast-tracked partner assessment processes and ensure a greater percentage of funds are allocated directly to local NGOs, rather than via intermediaries. The UK government took some useful steps during the pandemic response for example the DFID Rapid Response Facility call for NGO proposals included two criteria for supporting local efforts and should become a systematic requirement. The FCDO should also increase its support to local and national groups, organisations and platforms to provide more rapid and effective support.[9]

 

Need for reintegration of children acutely impacted by conflict

While child recruitment into armed forces and groups has a long history, the last ten years has seen new trends and norms emerge increasing the means of child recruitment and the degree to which children are exploited to commit extreme violence. Children have been used for fighting, as spies and for sexual purposes. An estimated 30-40% of children recruited are girls. Children who have experienced displacement, sexual violence and who have been in conflict with the law need similar support to return to their communities and be accepted back.

 

The recruitment and use of a child is a grave violation of children’s rights and there is currently a need to ensure that reintegration programmes are supported and barriers to reintegration are removed. As it stands now the sector is hugely underfunded and funding that is available is only short term which may end before the full impact is felt by the child.[10] There is a desperate need for multi-year, predictable, sustained funding for reintegration. Closely linked to this is also the need for the UK government to become a leader in advocating against the criminalisation, detention and mistreatment of children who have been recruited. In addition to advocating for the rights of children abroad, the UK can influence other governments and play a vital role on this agenda by taking on its own responsibilities towards British children recruited by armed groups and recognising them primarily as victims of human rights abuses. The actions the UK takes against its own citizens could have a greater impact on other governments and could incentivise them to take on similar actions.

 

Food and livelihoods

In the contexts where War Child works, children live in households characterised by weak livelihoods where their risk is further increased by age, gender, disability and other intersectional dimensions of exclusion and marginalisation. This results in high levels of food and nutrition insecurity, low income, high unemployment and poor access to social services and protection.[11] To support the household and reduce the number of dependants, families have been forced to resort to negative coping strategies in some instances such as child labour, their children dropping out of school, joining armed groups and early marriage.[12] In countries such as Afghanistan, weak livelihoods and unemployment has led to unsafe migration. Other consequences for children and youth arising out of food insecurity have been malnutrition, stunted growth, wasting and micronutrients deficiencies that undermine children’s physical, cognitive and emotional growth and well-being.

 

This is an area that could be better addressed with an increase in funding support - in emergency situations, positive results can be achieved by providing cash, direct food and other basic needs assistance and emergency cash for work while in resilience and development, donors can support economic empowerment and decent work through technical trainings, entrepreneurship and financial skills.

 

Early Childhood Development

Within crisis settings, millions of young children are growing up without access to explicit support for early brain development and caregiver well-being activities despite early life experiences being vital for developing the architecture of the brain (approximately 90% of the brain’s growth is happening during the first five years of life). There is substantial evidence from economists and neuroscientists indicating that Early Childhood Development (ECD) support during these critical years has lasting impacts linked to the long-term health of the child, cognitive development and brain function as well as social skills and communication.

 

The need for support to these essential services increases within a crisis setting. Children in low resources settings already face significant challenges to access optimal support for their development and these challenges are further compounded in conflict settings by instability, displacement, loss of primary care givers and disruptions to daily routine. This leaves children vulnerable to toxic stress[13] which can limit brain and cognitive development in addition to having wide-ranging and long-term consequences. Without actively delivering these functions, life-saving interventions are incomplete and reduce the impact provided. By integrating these relatively inexpensive early childhood interventions, existing services will increase the amplitude of the power of said services and ensure young children have the comprehensive and complete support structure needed for optimal development and well-being.

 

Despite its critical importance, there is little funding in humanitarian responses to support early years intervention. In fact, the funding share for ECD in emergencies has declined from 3% of total education funding in 2002 to only 1% and this is predominantly allocated to pre-primary education for 6-year-old children. It is urgent to give children access to early childhood development opportunities and protect future generations from the devastating impact of war by providing greater funding to this area of work and placing a focus on integrated programming inclusive of multiple components of the nurturing care framework such as early learning, child protection and responsive care giving.

 

Conclusion

The government has set out a vision in which the UK will be “an even stronger force for good in the world” whose “guiding lights” will include human rights and the international rule of law. That protecting the rights of children affected by armed conflict should be central to this vision is self-evident. There is serious concern with the government’s decision to press ahead with cuts to UK aid and the impact that will have on that vision. Although in recent years an increase to child protection has been seen by more donors, huge gaps remain. It is in the UKs self-interest that children are protected from recruitment into violent and extremist armed groups and drawn into cycles of intergenerational militarisation. Resilient children and youth will play a core role in mending the fragile states making it critical that the UK pursues an ambitious agenda for children.

 

Recommendations

         Prioritise the children and armed conflict agenda and take additional steps when it comes to the issue of accountability by ensuring its foreign, defence and development policy are better coordinated to protect children. This includes assessing the conduct of UK partners to ensure that the provision of military support is contingent upon partner forces’ commitment to protecting civilians and respect for international law;

         Work more closely with local and national partners and ensure a far greater share of resources goes directly to these organisations;

         Ensure that individuals recruited as children are recognised as victims of human rights abuses and that all British children trapped in conflict zones are supported to return immediately to the UK;

         Increase funding in humanitarian responses to support food security and livelihoods work and early childhood development.

 

 

 


[1] A critical friend? How the UK uses its influence to protect children's rights in conflict, July 2018

https://www.warchild.org.uk/sites/default/files/link-files/a_critical_friend_how_the_uk_uses_its_influence_to_protect_childrens_rights_in_conflict--single_pages_email_02_07_18.pdf

[2] Nearly a quarter of the world’s children live in conflict or disaster-stricken countries, 9 December 2016, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/nearly-quarter-worlds-children-live-conflict-or-disaster-stricken-countries

[3] 2019: Final year of a deadly decade for children, https://www.unicef.org/stories/final-year-deadly-decade

[4] The mandate of the Special Representative, https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/about/the-mandate/

[5] The ANA Officer Academy was built with £75 million of British funding and the UK is the coalition training lead for the cadets. UN General Assembly and Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General, Children armed conflict, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/15-June-2020_Secretary-General_Report_on_CAAC_Eng.pdf

[6] At the invitation of the Government, the UK has helped train over 110,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel. Iraq Military Operations – Questions for Defence, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2020-03-16/30076, UN General Assembly and Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General, Children armed conflict, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/15-June-2020_Secretary-General_Report_on_CAAC_Eng.pdf

[7] See Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria, 6 July 2020, https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2020/652&Lang=E&Area=UNDOC. The UK has also provided support to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has recently been disbanded following protests against its methods including torture and extrajudicial killings, see, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/sars-nigeria-police-protests-uk-government-training-equipment-b1424447.html

[8] Charter for Change is led by both National and International NGOs, to practically implement changes to the way the Humanitarian System operates to enable more locally-led response by local and national actors.

[9] How can the UK better support local humanitarian heroes, https://www.bond.org.uk/news/2020/08/how-can-the-uk-better-support-local-humanitarian-heroes

[10] Rethink Child Soldiers, https://www.warchild.org.uk/whats-happening/news/its-time-rethink-child-soldiers

[11] See WFP and FAO joint Call for Action to Avert Famine, March 2021: https://fscluster.org/sites/default/files/wfp-0000124839-2.pdf, UNDP Global Policy Network Brief, March 2021, “Overcoming the Setbacks: Understanding the Impact and Implications of COVID-19 in Fragile and Conflict-affected Contexts”: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNDP-Understanding-the-Impact-and-Implications-of-COVID-19-in-Fragile-and-Conflict-affected-Contexts.pdf

[12]Covid-19 in fragile humanitarian contexts: impacts of the pandemic on children, July 2020,https://www.warchild.org.uk/sites/default/files/link-files/War%20Child%20UK_COVID%2019%20in%20fragile%20humanitarian%20contexts%20Report_July%202020_Final.pdf

 

[13] Toxic stress occurs when someone is exposed to prolonged challenging circumstances and results in the brain being flooded with cortisol.