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The (anti-)politics of ‘child protection’

Child protection services in war zones are inadequate because they do not challenge the sources of violence. To fully protect children organisations must become political.

A scene from the Gaza Strip. Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr. Creative Commons.

We live in a time when the death and injury of children in conflicts are witnessed with sickening regularity through the world’s media. In some locations such violence continues unabated for years or even decades. Gaza is an extreme example of this profoundly worrying trend. The thousands of children in this narrow strip of land who have been killed, maimed and denied their basic rights as a direct result of political violence are an enduring testimony to the inadequacy of child protection measures.

Child protection is only now emerging as a specialised sub-field of humanitarian endeavour. However, the moral injunction to protect the young from the worst effects of conflict is evident across time and culture. Currently the various agencies engaged in this work operate in broad accordance with the definition of child protection as efforts “to prevent and respond to violence, exploitation and abuse”.

The protection of children is a core element of the so-called child-rights based approach to humanitarian and development intervention. The text of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) reminds state parties of the universal character of the right to protection and highlights the obligation to prevent harm.

In practice these two principles—universality and prevention—are not upheld in Gaza or in many other settings where children are routinely exposed to political violence. Why not? The obvious answer is that protection efforts and the institutions that pursue them are simply not powerful enough to counter the forces of violence. Yet evidence from various conflict-affected settings suggests something more troubling: child protection agencies may not actually seek to counter such forces. Gaza epitomises this uncomfortable reality, as there has been little concerted challenge to the violence meted out to Palestinian children there and elsewhere by the Israeli military. Instead, the dominant focus has been upon healing and helping young people cope with the ongoing threats to their lives and wellbeing.

Preventing systematic harm to children in the midst of armed conflict is an inherently political endeavour. Child protection efforts are inadequate because agencies either fail to grasp this basic fact or they lack the will to act upon it. International humanitarian and human rights law compels governments to protect children from the ravages of war. Yet in many locations governments themselves represent the greatest threat to children and their safety, either through direct targeting of the young or the wholesale suppression of their entire communities.

When states fail to abide by their obligations, the role of non-governmental organisations and UN agencies becomes especially important. Directly challenging the government, mobilising global public opinion, and seeking redress through mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court are some of the ways in which these institutions can hold governments to account. Yet, in practice, such actions are rare.

Instead, child protection agencies routinely focus their energies on a-political activities, working primarily at the (very) local level and on individuals. Their technical, reactive approach treats the symptoms but leaves the underlying causes untouched. This is evident in the immense scale of psychosocial activities and in the measures borrowed from European social work practice being sold today as ‘child protection’ programming. While such initiatives have their place, they cannot hope to prevent the harm done by state or insurgent forces.

Towards a political understanding of child protection

Development of a politically engaged approach requires a broader understanding of child protection and of children’s rights. Denial of both is inextricably bound up with political-economic forces. However, the majority of staff and consultants employed by child protection organisations are not equipped or encouraged to consider this dimension meaningfully within their work.

More fundamentally than the lack of institutional capacity, the lack of political will inhibits a robust, preventative approach to child protection. Pressure from governments and other powerful donors consistently causes major child protection organisations to diverge from their stated aim of prioritising the lives and wellbeing of children. Often the unwillingness to take a strong stand is justified in the name of neutrality, and many staff members fear that stronger advocacy will only result in their exile from the country in which they operate. In reality pressure from senior management at headquarters, mindful of the donors’ agendas, is often the primary consideration. Given the growing competition for funding, humanitarian organisations are extremely mindful of giving offence.

To offer an egregious example: in 2005 the UN Security Council established a ‘monitoring and reporting mechanism’ (MRM) that focused on “six grave violations” against children in various war zones around the globe. UNICEF and other child protection organisations—international and local—are involved in gathering and relaying the requisite information to the council. At first glance this appears to be a way for these organisations to play their part in challenging governments and insurgent groups to curtail violence against the young. In practice, however, Security Council members selectively use this information to criticise and sanction states and other actors in accordance with their own geopolitical agendas. In other words, some governments and rebel groups are targeted as violators while others are ignored.

In recent weeks this dynamic was made abundantly obvious by the UN’s omission of Israel from the annexed list of countries guilty of grave violations. Efforts to include the Israel Defence Forces as a violator—initially co-ordinated by UNICEF—failed as a clear consequence of political interference. UNICEF retreated at the last minute from this move and Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the UN, ignored the recommendation of his own special representative for children and armed conflict.

The inclusion of Israel might have increased global awareness of the violence to which Palestinian children are routinely subjected by that country’s military forces and, ultimately, have served to build pressure to curtail such violence. That opportunity has been lost and the chronic vulnerability of young Palestinians persists. It is inconceivable that the UN, western governments, and the agencies that they fund would allow Israeli children to remain exposed indefinitely to similar harm.

Although an extreme case in some ways, the situation of Palestinian children is illustrative of broad trends within the child protection field. Rhetoric about addressing the rights of all children in an equitable, non-discriminatory manner and the supposed centrality of prevention to protection efforts is plentiful. However, young people growing up in settings of political violence across the globe cannot rely on agencies mandated to protect them as a matter of course. Depending on the wider geopolitical agendas behind the funding of such organisations, the integrity of their senior staff, and the skill and savvy of their personnel on the ground, some children may experience a reasonable level of safety and others little or none at all.

About the author

Jason Hart is Senior Lecturer in International Development, Department of Social & Policy Sciences, University of Bath & Research Associate, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.


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