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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 society.

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.


A steady process

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 level.

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.

Creative alternatives

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 and weapons.

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 Department.

Tore Svenning is a Senior Officer in the External Relations Department at the Federation.


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