By Roland Paris
On Monday, the United Nations released its annual report on children in armed conflict. Grisly findings from the Syrian conflict made headlines around the world, including the revelation that children “between 8 and 13 were forcibly taken from their homes and used by soldiers as human shields, placing them in front of the windows of buses carrying military personnel into the raid on villages.”
It was an appalling account. So was the news about Syrian children being tortured while in detention. One can only hope that U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was correct when she warned pro-regime forces in Syria that the “international community can and does learn what units were responsible for crimes against humanity, and you will be held responsible for your actions.”
Syria is just one of many countries where children are being targeted and abused in war. The UN report identifies many other cases around the world – including in Afghanistan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. The UN does important work in tracking and publicizing these abuses and their perpetrators.
At the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that there are other, less obvious ways in which war damages children. The UN report does not consider the effects of armed conflict on development, including indicators of children’s well-being. As it turns out, there is an interesting new article on these indirect effects, written by four Norway-based researchers: Scott Gates, Håvard Hegre, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård, and Håvard Strand. The article is still in press and will soon appear in the journal World Development, but a pre-publication version is available on the journal’s website.
In the article, Gates and his colleagues examine the causal effects of armed conflict on progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. These goals include several that directly address the well-being of children, including education, poverty and hunger, and child and maternal health.
The causal effect of war on infant mortality is particularly striking. The authors find that:
“Conflicts generate a surplus infant mortality at the same level as direct deaths – for every soldier killed in battle, one infant dies that would otherwise have survived through the indirect effects of conflict.”
Gates and his colleagues also find clear, strong, detrimental effects of armed conflict on poverty, hunger, and access to water. These effects tend to linger, even after the termination of hostilities.
This evidence matters, because sudden, dramatic events tend to overshadow less visible, slow-motion disasters. The impact of war on development is arguably more harmful to children than the direct effects of killing and abuse, which receives more attention. While the direct impacts are horrific, and the UN is right to produce an annual report on such acts – and to “name and shame” the perpetrators – this should not obscure the less visible but more insidious effects of armed conflict on children.