In the past decade alone, an estimated two million children have died in wars and a further six million children have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. But children can also kill, as well as be killed. In perhaps the ultimate corruption of the innocence of childhood, in many recent wars children have been forced to carry out atrocities themselves. In Rwanda, during the genocide of 1994, some children were even forced to kill members of their own families.
Faced with these chilling realities, it is hard not to agree with Graca Machel that "more and more of the world is being drawn into a desolate moral vacuum... a space devoid of the most basic human values".
I want to focus my remarks on three areas.
First, the need to strengthen adherence to international human rights law and the laws of war, amongst both governments and armed opposition groups. In the past, enforcement has focused on states. But we must also ensure that armed opposition groups are held responsible for their war crimes.
A second critical area that I want to highlight concerns the care and rehabilitation of children who have been the victims of war. My Department supports a range of projects to assist children affected by conflict. In northern Uganda we have provided support to children who have been abducted and abused by the Lord's Resistance Army. We have also been involved in Rwanda and Angola in family tracing and reunification programmes. And in various countries we have been involved in the demobilisation of soldiers, including child soldiers.
Prevention is, of course, always better than cure. The third area I want to highlight is therefore the need for greater international support to reduce the incidence of violent conflicts, and the involvement of children.
Child protection in war cannot be isolated from the wider conflict prevention and development agenda. A recent paper by the OECD's Development Assistance Committee lists the 34 developing countries furthest away from the poverty eradication targets. Twenty of these countries are either in the midst of armed conflict or have only recently emerged from it. While there is no simple formula for preventing wars or for peace building, we know the conditions that tend to generate fighting.
We know that where people suffer economic marginalisation and where inequalities are growing, the risks of violent conflict are higher.
Our development approach is therefore geared to promoting a pattern of economic growth that benefits all sections of society, alongside support for good governance, human rights and the law.
Reducing the risks of armed conflict also should involve tighter controls over the flow of arms, particularly small arms and ammunition, to regions of tension. The British government has been instrumental in getting agreement to a European Code of Conduct on arms exports. We are also taking action on illicit arms flows and flows of ammunition.
We must search more actively for a means of building peace and development in Somalia, Angola, Sierra Leone and other war-torn countries. It is not good enough for us to provide humanitarian assistance until conflicts burn themselves out.
Those of us who are anxious to minimise the use of force often call for the use of sanctions instead of military action. While the purpose of sanctions is to push rogue governments into better behaviour, it is too often innocent civilians, particularly children, who bear the cost of sanctions.
We need to identify "smarter sanctions" that safeguard the innocent, but provide the most effective levers to influence those governments breaching humanitarian norms. My department has undertaken some preliminary work on this issue. I am keen that we develop a more informed debate that helps to refine sanctions.
To conclude, great injustice and cruelty often produce anger and despondency in equal measure. But cruelty against children elicits still deeper feelings of outrage. Our common task is to surely turn that outrage into action.