Britain can lead the way in protecting civilians in conflict

Even wars have rules. One of the rules, grounded in moral ideas about mercy, compassion and restraint, is that civilians should be protected – and protecting children from the worst excesses of armed conflicts they played no part in creating is surely a test of our shared humanity.

We are failing that test. Millions of children have had their lives torn apart by unimaginable acts of violence. In some cases, these children are the target of murderous attacks, rape, kidnapping and forced recruitment into armed groups. In others, they are viewed by warring groups as expendable collateral damage by military commanders who oversee indiscriminate bombardments in high-density urban areas, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, or the destruction of schools and hospitals.

Save the Children is dealing with the everyday realities of modern conflict – and with the culture of impunity surrounding attacks on children. In Yemen, the organisation’s staff are responding to the needs of children suffering extreme malnutrition as a consequence of war, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and economic dislocation. In Syria, Save the Children’s partners have had schools and health clinics bombed. From South Sudan to Iraq, Yemen and the DRC, programmes are responding to the needs of children who have been traumatised or separated from their families.

The UK can play a leadership role in combating the impunity surrounding attacks on civilians. This is not about convening one-off summits. Leadership requires a carefully thought out strategy aimed at strengthening the three critical pillars of civilian protection: humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. It is also about projecting the norms and values that underpin these instruments through the UK’s distinctive voice in international affairs.

This is not a theoretical debate. What you get with the erosion of universal values is chemical attacks in Syria, indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen, and the use of civilians as human shields in Iraq. When combatants are unrestrained by rules, laws and norms, you get 400,000 children left on the brink of starvation in Yemen, schoolgirls being abducted in Nigeria, and young children raped by armed groups in South Sudan.

No one demonstrates the need for civilian protection better than 13-year-old Noran from Yemen. In 2015 the blast wave from four airstrikes nearby knocked her down, irreparably damaging her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, her life has never been the same. She loved going to school but now struggles to even hold a pen. Her future prospects are greatly diminished and her poignant words a reminder to us all that we must do more to protect civilians, especially children, just like her. 

In the past I used to go to school on foot,” she says. “My life was beautiful because I could walk and write. Now, I can’t walk to school. I can only go with the wheelchair. I was able to go out, play and go to school absolutely fine and normal. I was able to sit on a chair at my desk and write but now when I try to write, my hand hurts because of the injury in my back. And on top of all that, I am not able to play like I used to. I dream of finishing school and becoming a doctor.” 

That is the story of just one child – but millions of children are today at risk because of a failure to protect civilians in armed conflict. That is why RUSI and Save the Children have come together to address what we see as one of the defining challenges of our generation.

On Tuesday May 8th we launched Ensuring the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict’, which examines how a combination of British leadership in military expertise, soft power, and humanitarian response can drive responsible military practice and accountability measures that protect civilians in conflict.  

We know that it is possible to make a difference. Previous initiatives like British leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on landmines have demonstrated that changes in policy, practice and global norms can limit attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. They also strengthen the existing international frameworks and norms that are in critical need of protection – which is why last month’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK will endorse the Safe Schools Declaration was so welcome.

Through the UK’s membership of key multilateral groups and its world-class diplomatic service, high-quality overseas aid and some of the world’s best trained armed forces, it is uniquely placed to champion civilian protection. As the Government prepares to leave the European Union, it is presented with a unique opportunity to step forward on the global stage and play a leading role in protecting civilians in conflict based on its expertise, values and priorities.  

Tackling one of the most difficult challenges facing millions of children and their families is no easy task. But it is possible – and we owe it to children like Nora.

Kevin Watkins is Chief Executive at Save the Children UK