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Caught in the crossfire

The wanton killings never seem to stop. A bomb attack recently on refugees inside their own homeland in Syria led to the ghastly deaths of 68 children in Aleppo.

There were haunting visuals of weeping journalists and aid workers working in vain to save at least some of the babies. In the dystopian nightmare that Syria has become, nobody knows for sure who is responsible for this barbaric assault. Earlier this month, about 30 children were slaughtered in a chemical weapons attack. Once again, there is no clinching evidence of who used gas to kill children. More than 17,000 children have died in Syria since the civil war erupted five years ago.For all citizens of the world who believe in basic humanity, the time has come to demand urgent and immediate intervention. The UN Security Council (UNSC) has the military power to bring this unceasing genocide to a halt. Perhaps the time has now come to add moral authority to that. At the end of the day, it is all about morality. Saving children and giving them an opportunity to try to build a better future is a sacred moral duty of all mankind. Scoring diplomatic debating points is fine, but we have crossed the stage of rhetoric. Future generations will never forgive us if the global powers which have the means to stop the genocide do not act now. Who said morality doesn’t have the power to impact the powerful?

The Vietnamese parallel

When I read about these unspeakable horrors, I am reminded of my youth when America was fighting a brutal and bitter war in Vietnam. It was ordinary and patriotic Americans who were revolted and outraged when reports of children being massacred and victimised started filtering through. The My Lai massacre of 1968, where many children were killed in cold blood, shocked an entire generation of young Americans and led to widespread anti-war protests. And when a photo of a nine-year-old naked girl, screaming and running for her life after she was burnt in a napalm attack, was released in 1972, the tide finally turned and morality started prevailing over power. Vietnam was both a shame and a beacon of hope.

But almost 50 years after My Lai, are children safer in regions convulsed by conflicts? It is with a heavy heart that I have to admit that the abuse of helpless children has become yet more endemic even as globalisation and technology have led to instant and widespread sharing of atrocities against children. In Nigeria, more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped and held at gunpoint for years as sex slaves. There was widespread outrage but most of the girls remained captives. In Pakistan a few years ago, over a 100 children were butchered inside their own school by gunmen. And each day we get to know about the horror stories of young Yazidi girls being raped and assaulted for weeks on end. Then there are widespread reports of how tens of thousands of these children from conflict zones are being trafficked into lives of bonded labour or forced prostitution. I sometimes feel that we, collectively as humanity, have abandoned these helpless children. Of course, this is not to conclude that global institutions have not made efforts to protect children and ensure a better future for them through improved access to education, health care and livelihood opportunities. Collective efforts across the world have led to a global ban on child labour and stringent provisions against trafficking. The sustainable development goals of the United Nations have drawn up a clear road map till 2030. But is it enough?

Data and the stark truth

Children constitute a third of the world’s population but account for more than 50% of refugees. In the last 10 years, close to 10 million children have been killed in conflict and more than 6 million have become physically disabled. It is estimated that 28 million children have become refugees. Syria and Afghanistan alone accounted for more than 50% of child casualties and refugees in 2015.

It is also important for faith-based leaders across the world to exert moral pressure on global institutions to urgently help these millions of helpless children who face a bleak future. Recently, I invited religious leaders from all faith groups, particularly Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Jainism, to a peace assembly to collectively raise their moral voice that could influence policymakers. The response was encouraging and overwhelming. Such platforms will not only build public opinion but also demoralise extremist forces.

Children are never responsible for any wars, conflicts or violence, yet they are the worst sufferers. In these times of extreme unrest, it becomes our collective duty to protect the millions of children who, being the most vulnerable, get caught in the crossfire of bombs, bullets and chemical attacks. I strongly demand that the UNSC set up a high powered group to tackle violence against children in situations of conflict, refugee crises, cross-border trafficking and slavery in a time-bound manner. Fifty years ago, it was My Lai. Today it is Aleppo. Can we tap our collective conscience?

Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi is the founder of Global March against Child Labour and Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation

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