MY TURN, Greenfield Recorder, January 5, 2024


The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement on grave violations of children’s rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory on Oct. 13. “We reiterate that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requires States parties and all actors to respect and to ensure respect for the rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict with regard to children. The Convention also aims to ensure the highest level of protection for children. We call on all actors, including the international community, to act to restore peace and preserve the safety and recovery of children as their immediate priority.”

Thousands and thousands of Palestinian children have been terrorized, killed, maimed and left orphaned since Oct. 12. Their enshrined human rights, and to some extent their future, buried beneath the rubble of home, school, mosque and church.

The CRC is the most widely endorsed human rights document in history (1990). In it world leaders committed to, among other things, “giving high priority to the rights of children, to their survival and to their protection and development. This will also ensure the well-being of all societies.”

The United States is the only country that has not signed on.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been shocked then, when on May 12, 1996 in a rare and bold moment of truth-telling, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright acknowledged the U.S. government knew that hundreds of thousands — as many as half a million — Iraqi children died as a result of U.S.-supported U.N. economic sanctions.

“The price,” she said in her now infamous interview on 60 Minutes, “… we think the price is worth it.” Looking back, I think this might have been the beginning of the end for children around the world. In a brazen public announcement, the U.S. government declared “the child” was not only not entitled to special, protected status, but the welfare and well-being of children was secondary to national and international political and economic goals. And because the U.S. wields enormous military and economic power across the globe, children everywhere were diminished, and worse, doomed.

The special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Graca Machel, sounded the alarm for children shortly after Albright’s admission in August 1996. Machel’s report to the U.N. on the impact of war on children estimated 2 million children had been killed in the previous decade, with three times as many seriously injured or permanently disabled.

“These statistics are shocking enough” she wrote, “but more chilling is the conclusion to be drawn from them: more and more of the world is being sucked into a moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped and maimed … a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink … Whatever the causes of modern-day brutality towards children, the time has come to call a halt.”

Despite the alarming data, despite her passionate call to action, the last decades have been the worst of times for children. And the last weeks, in Gaza and the West Bank of the occupied territory of Palestine, beyond words.

Leaders of that same world who signed on to protect children are watching, in real time, the death and injury, fear and suffering, displacement and orphaning of thousands and thousands of children in Gaza,; watching as everything important to support life— not “just” for a child, but critical to life for any and every human — is denied. And, no one — not the U.N., nor any international convention or government, has had the political will to stop this unfolding genocide.

Everything that needs to be said about war, about children and war, has been said. I have nothing to add. So I’ll give Graca Machel’s moving call to take action from 1996 another chance to be heard.

“The present report is a call to action. It is unconscionable that we so clearly and consistently see children’s rights attacked and that we fail to defend them. … Let us claim children as “zones of peace.” … Children present us with a uniquely compelling motivation for mobilization. … Let us take this opportunity to recapture our instinct to nourish and protect children. Let us transform our moral outrage into concrete action. Our children have a right to peace. Peace is every child’s right.”

Claudia Lefko lives in Northampton.