Unicef has estimated that the 39 armed conflicts between 1980 and 1990 caused the deaths of 1.5 million children, and severe physical and psychological harm to many millions more. Indeed, in recent decades, the victims of armed conflicts have increasingly been civilians rather than soldiers (the 1991 Gulf war being an exception).
Many of those raped by the Serbian soldiers were apparently children as young as seven, and certainly large numbers of them were teenage girls. Yet under international law, child civilians are entitled to special protection and assistance in situations of armed conflict.
A large number of seemingly little-known and little-used provisions establish, for example, that such children should be treated with humanity and respect; that they should be removed to safe areas within or outside the combat zone; and that they should have priority in receiving food and other necessities.
Most of these rules can be found in the 1949 Geneva Conventions (and are therefore more than 40 years old), and in the 1977 Geneva Protocols.
In relation to the former Yugoslavia, the parties to the conflict - except Bosnia-Herzegovina - are party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Geneva Protocols. In addition, all the parties signed a special agreement on 22 May 1992 to the effect that they would apply the 1949 Geneva Convention IV regarding the protection of civilians. Clearly this has not been done.
It is shocking that this conflict has continued to devastate the lives of so many, including thousands of children, and that the fundamental principles of international law, and indeed of basic humanity, are being violated on a daily basis. There seems to be no easy solution to this problem, but surely greater efforts can be made at least to spare children some of the worst ravages of armed conflict? And perhaps the time has come to stop talking about war crimes trials and to start taking concrete action to establish these?
The Children's Legal Centre
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