Thirty years ago, the international community adopted the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, promising to expand efforts to protect the fundamental human rights of children. But while important progress has been made globally—including improved access to health care, nutrition and education—significant challenges remain. Most pressing is the need to protect children from harm in war and conflict.
The Convention boasts of being the “most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.” Yet, this may be largely irrelevant in the context of contemporary armed conflict; wars today are rarely fought between state signatories to Convention. Rather, non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations, are increasingly central actors in armed conflict. They care little for the provisions of international law, instead exploiting children on all sides of the violence.
Even when the United Nations “names and shames” terror groups by including them on a list of grave violators of children’s rights, there are no real “teeth” to compel adherence.
The violence in Gaza clearly showcases this problem. The past two years have seen indiscriminate rocket fire, most recently last week, and riots along the border, such as those from mid-2018. In these episodes, internationally-designated terrorist organizations Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) regularly target Israeli children and exploit Palestinian children for political gains.
During the latest round of violence, PIJ was responsible for indiscriminately targeting civilians in southern and central Israel. One million children were forced to miss school for fear of being injured or killed by rocket attacks either at school or while traveling there. And indeed, at least one rocket barrage hit a kindergarten. An 8-year-old girl was severely hurt after she collapsed during a rocket attack on Nov. 12, and babies had to be delivered in an underground bomb shelter at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.
Within Gaza, terror groups continuously utilize civilian structures as launching pads, turning these civilians into human shields and overtly failing to ensure the “protection and care” of children. These groups are also responsible for recruiting and using Palestinian children as soldiers, as explicitly seen in the 2018 Gaza border riots, where minors were involved in acts of violence such as breaking through the border and using weapons against the Israeli military.
While civil society actors and the United Nations should play a role in helping to enforce the Convention and hold armed groups accountable, they regularly fail when it comes to Gaza.
UNICEF, the U.N. agency tasked with monitoring and reporting on violations, admits that it is unable to carry out its core mission in Gaza, owing to security concerns. The problem is not only one of access; there is also apathy. During a July 2019 press conference at the United Nations regarding child rights violations, every question but one from the media and activists in the audience related to allegations against Israel. The exploitation of children by non-state armed groups was simply ignored.
Further exacerbating the problem are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that claim to promote human rights, often specifically the rights of children. Too often, these NGOs ignore terror groups in favor of solely attacking Israel. For instance, international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch failed to report on any violations against Israeli children that occurred as a result of last week’s rocket barrage. Instead, Amnesty falsely blamed Israel for a rocket that was fired by Palestinian terrorists, fell short of its intended target (civilians in Israel) and struck a building in Gaza. Objective, credible fact-finding has been substituted with anti-Israel propaganda.
Likewise, during the 2018 Gaza riots, the Palestinian organization Defense for Children International–Palestine (DCI-P) failed to condemn terror groups for exploiting children in violence.
At its 30-year mark, significant work remains to ensure the Convention is upheld in conflict with terrorist organizations like Hamas, PIJ and the PFLP. Civil society can and should play an important role in this regard, but so far has failed spectacularly. Until accountability is more than an Orwellian term used for bashing Israel, the Convention will fail to protect all children.
Becca Wertman is Managing Editor of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.