In War, Children are Civilians Too

Images of flying rockets, collapsed buildings, and crying families have flooded the news after Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Effectively declaring war, the autocrat publicly recognized the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent countries and Russian allies, which President Joe Biden called a “flagrant violation of international law.” While the tyrannical regime continues to move troops into Ukraine, many question what this invasion means. News articles and anchors time and time again warn of the devastating effects war has on civilians. Yet, few stop to think exactly who those ‘civilians’ are and how they will be affected.  

Several days before the invasion, news broke that shelling had struck a kindergarten in the Donbass territory, injuring three people and threatening the lives of the children inside. This is not the first time children have been caught in the middle of a bloody feud between an authoritarian regime and a nation fighting for democracy. However, in moments like this, watching video footage of a hole torn in the side of a classroom, balls and stuffed animals strewn throughout rubble, onlookers should realize the grave consequences war has for children and their childhood.  

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as many as 1 billion children experience violence each year. Further, data published by Save the Children shows over 450 million under the age of 18 “lived in a conflict zone” as of 2020, and more than 330 million are at risk of recruitment by armed groups. It is clear that while international standards and conventions exist—such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)—these heinous violations of fundamental human rights continue and often go unnoticed.  

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, makes clear the international standards for the treatment of children. It is now the “most widely ratified human rights treaty” and reflects the commitment of countries around the world to recognize children as human beings with fundamental rights that must be protected. 

For democracies, the convention solidified an already firmly held belief that children should be treated with dignity and respect. However, for non-democratic and tyrannical regimes, the UNCRC highlighted a harsh reality. Children, in many corners of the world, face lack of proper education, abuse, forced labor, violence from war, and more. As a result, children are being denied their childhood, a universally understood time of innocence and formative experiences.  

No person is too small or powerless to make an impact when individual rights are at the forefront of governance. In a democracy, everyone has the right to participate and be heard, even the most marginalized and young. On the contrary, when people are oppressed and the most vulnerable are not protected, society fails to reach its full potential and, in cases of armed conflict, strips children of their innocence. Defending the rights of children and youth should be of the utmost importance to societies and governments seeking a more free and democratic future.  

If children are brought up in communities where their voices and very presence are valued, their education is prioritized, and they are protected from the horrors of war, nations will raise a generation filled with people whose creative minds and natural inclination toward peace are unhampered. Even more, they will become the foundation of a strong democracy, embodying free and fair ideals, in the decades to come. In a society plagued by war, this upbringing is denied to the most innocent.  

How children are supported by their families, their educators, and their government from the earliest stages of life will inevitably determine the trajectory of their country. Children don’t wage war. They should never fall victim to it. So, when ‘civilians’ are mentioned on news broadcasts and in tweets, remember the ones in the classrooms filled with soccer balls and stuffed animals.  

Emilia James
Emilia James
Emilia James is a writer and editor at the International Republican Institute (IRI). The opinions in this piece are her own. Twitter: @EmiliaCJames