The Movement’s plan of action
By Daniel Helle and Tore Svenning
Children affected by armed conflict
is a matter of deep concern to the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
In the face of this tragedy, the international community is
mobilizing, and the Movement is on the front line.
Children constitute a prominent group among the victims of
armed conflict. Their situation is aggravated by the fact
that current conflicts often involve a deliberate targeting
of civilians, in clear violation of humanitarian law, either
for strategic purposes or, even worse, because their destruction
is the very goal of the protagonists. They can be affected
in many ways: all too often, children are wounded or psychologically
affected, mutilated by landmines, uprooted from their homes
or separated from their families. Furthermore, children have
increasingly been coerced or allowed to take part in hostilities.
This not only disrupts childhood and deprives children of
their youth, but also leaves devastated societies in which
little is left to ensure their recovery and reinsertion into
This is a humanitarian problem as well as a human rights
issue, and is being addressed at several levels, including
a United Nations Working Group, established to draft an optional
protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement
of Children in Armed Conflict.
In accordance with their respective roles and mandates,
the different components of the International Red Cross and
Red Crescent Movement have for decades worked to assist children
affected by armed conflict, and developed a wide range of
activities on their behalf.
Most important is prevention, which includes the development
and dissemination of humanitarian law, and activities to promote
respect for it. The law on the one hand grants children general
protection as persons not taking part in hostilities, notably
from abuses committed by the parties who have power over them,
and through general provisions protecting civilians from the
dangers of military operations. On the other hand, the law
addresses the specific needs of children in 25 provisions
granting them a special protection in recognition of their
particular vulnerability. But prevention must also address
the current situation in the field, through concrete action
aimed at providing the necessary conditions to prevent children
from participating in hostilities.
The scale and magnitude of children’s suffering should
not leave the impression that humanitarian law has become
irrelevant in contemporary conflicts. The disrespect or lack
of awareness of the law rather shows how difficult it is to
ensure that parties to a conflict adhere to its provisions,
and demonstrates the corresponding need for a strong commitment
to respect it on the part of politicians, armed forces and
the general public.
In 1993, the Council of Delegates of the International Red
Cross and Red Crescent Movement, requested a plan of action
to address the issue, and over the following two years a process
of consultation within and outside the Movement led to the
adoption of a “Plan of Action concerning Children in
Armed Conflict” by the Council in Geneva in 1995.
The Plan of Action includes two commitments: “to promote
the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation in
armed conflict of children under the age of 18 years”,
and “to take concrete action to protect and assist child
victims of conflict”.
A coordinating group has been established, comprising representatives
of individual National Societies, the ICRC and the International
Federation to monitor and implement the Plan of Action.
The first commitment has been used actively by a number of
National Societies, the ICRC and the Federation as the basis
for advocacy initiatives, both at the national and international
For instance the Nordic and Baltic National Societies have
written a joint letter to their governments calling on them
to support the raising of the age limit of recruitment and
participation in hostilities to 18 years. The Spanish Red
Cross has launched a campaign to persuade the public and the
Spanish government to take the necessary steps to protect
children in armed conflict.
Regarding the second commitment, the Movement is asked to
address the psychosocial as well as the physical needs of
children. Separate sets of suggestions are made for children
living with families and those who are unaccompanied. Finally,
the Plan of Action requests that advocacy efforts are undertaken
on behalf of children who participated in armed conflict to
ensure their reintegration into their local community.
Many of the activities, so far, have concentrated on promoting
the legal protection of children, and in particular to persuade
all governments to agree to an internationally recognized
age limit of 18 years for recruitment into armed forces and
participation in hostilities, and to encourage governments
to adopt corresponding national legislation and recruitment
procedures and to enforce this age limit. Constructing international
law, and even more, ensuring its implementation, is a long
and slow process and, in the meantime, the Movement should
use its operational activities to minimize the recruitment
of child soldiers and maximize its assistance and protection
to those who have already been affected.
The Movement’s call for an 18-year limit on recruitment
into armed forces is, obviously, resisted in a number of countries.
In many, if not all, cases the resistance to an increased
age limit is based on national traditions, perceptions of
the age at which boys become men, and the military leadership’s
conception of itself as a contributor to the welfare of the
people. Many a military leader will argue that military service
is a better solution for a young man, than to leave him underemployed,
angry, and with access to large amounts of alcohol, drugs
The “creative” National Society might decide
to continue to persuade, but add on a dimension of dialogue
and offer alternatives to military service as an outlet for
the energies of the youths in question: through youth programmes,
first-aid training, involvement in search and rescue organizations,
assisting in fighting forest fires — all offering the
chance of learning and excitment. In Lebanon, during the civil
war, it was quite clear that participation in the Lebanese
Red Cross first-aider organization provided an outlet for
many young men — and women — who wanted to act,
but who also declined to join any of the factions involved
in the conflict.
Likewise, the Movement must use both its capacity and its
influence — on all levels — to ensure that children
that have been affected by armed conflict are offered appropriate
support, assistance and comfort — through established
programmes or targeted interventions. If the world cannot
agree on how to prevent children from participating in armed
conflict, it surely should be able to agree to care for the
children whose lives have been so brutally torn apart.
Daniel Helle and Tore Svenning
Daniel Helle works as Legal Counsel in the ICRC’s Legal
Tore Svenning is a Senior Officer in the External Relations
Department at the Federation.
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