Children at War - a lecture given at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, London
Wednesday 29th September 2004The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has called for urgent and concerted international action to end the abuse of children as military combatants.
Delivering the annual lecture at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, Dr. Williams spoke of the estimated 300,000 child soldiers round the world. He set their plight in the context of the recent terrorist atrocities in Russia in which hundreds of children were killed:
"The slaughter and violent abuse of children in local conflicts across the world means that the moral equivalent of Beslan is being enacted repeatedly – that is, the conscious, long term exploitation of children in acts of murderous violence, the calculated use of horrific intimidation towards them, the prolongation of their sufferings and the killing of large numbers without compunction,"
" But the use of child soldiers adds a further twist to the picture: the assault is also on their souls, as they are forcibly made partners in acts of terrible violence."
Dr Williams highlighted a range of measures to help end the abuse. These included tougher conditions in trade agreements and curbs on arms sales—especially small arms of the kind borne by children. He also urged the international community to focus more on the ways in which debt and economic failure helped to create conditions for children to be drawn into military conflict, and he called for more resources for protection, reintegration and reconciliation projects involving young combatants.
Dr Williams also drew attention to some wider challenges to the well-being of children and childhood:
"Reflecting on the horrors of child soldiering, we may see more clearly the governing features of diverse sorts of abuse – treating children as instruments for adult ends, imprinting guilt and self-hatred through blaming the victim, pushing children into pseudo-adult roles and experiences prematurely," he said.
The Archbishop went on to set his reflections in the context of the teachings of Christ:
"The world contains poison as well as nourishment; what is offered to the child may be death as well as life. Because we should know this, because we should take seriously Jesus' recognition of the child's receptive capacity, we are the more guilty if we ourselves distort or poison the life of a child or if we tolerate a situation in which this is permitted to happen."
"What kind of community is it that can tolerate the wreckage of children's lives by deceit, by the denial of childhood itself, by violence and co-option into violence? Jesus warns that the fate of the enemy of childhood is worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone round your neck; or, as we might paraphrase, the assault on childhood is an assault on your own life."
A transcript of the Archbishop's lecture follows:
Children at War
Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, London.
Joseph is fifteen. Just over four years ago, he and his brother and six other children from the village were abducted by the rebels; his parents were killed while he watched. The children were taken on the first of a series of long forced marches in the bush – several days with very little food and water for the children. One of them was having difficulty keeping up; she was shot in the stomach and left dying.
Joseph and two of the older children were trained in using small firearms, and in the process were made to feel valued and important members of the group. A few months after the abduction, there was a raid on another village, with more children captured, and Joseph had his first major job, which was to shoot the parents of some of the children. All through the raid and the killings, he'd felt quite strange, as if it were a dream; he realised afterwards that they'd given him a drug before the attack, and after that he would regularly be given it if there was some big event ahead. Once or twice he had to kill some of the other children in the group when they were disobedient or ill.
He got to be a big boy very soon, and the soldiers made sure that he had his share with the women in the villages and the prostitutes in the towns, as well as the girl children among those abducted, who were regularly used by the soldiers. He was a man with men; he knew somewhere in his mind that after what he'd done, there was nowhere else he could be except with the soldiers in the bush, but he'd really stopped thinking or feeling much about that. The drugs helped and the routine and the sort of numb energy that overtook him when there was a raid and he had lots of work to do.
There was a peace agreement somewhere. The soldiers were being disarmed and split up. Joseph found himself in a town he didn't know without his gun and his friends. He wasn't well; when he went to the doctor, the doctor told him that he had a disease and that he'd given it to lots of other people. The doctor was very harsh to him, angry and contemptuous, and said that he was going to die and the sooner the better, because he knew where Joseph must have been for the last few years. There was no money for food or medicine or drugs and nowhere to go.
Joseph sleeps on the streets of the town, with a few hundred boys and girls like him. He has no schooling and no skills except killing. He begs, steals occasionally, sells his body when he can. He doesn't know how ill he is or whether there is any medicine that will help him. He has no family. He has very bad dreams and can't tell them apart from things he thinks he remembers that he did or other people did in the bush.
Joseph's story is put together from countless stories of child soldiers in Africa. Every one of the features of this record could be duplicated over and over again; some of the stories are worse, some not so serious, but this represents something of an average. The calculation is that at present there are something like 300,000 child soldiers in the world – a large proportion in Africa, but many also in Asia (Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar) and Latin America. Some are 'volunteers', but most, certainly in Africa, are abductees; some are abducted by government forces, as has been reported in Myanmar, most by insurgents of one sort or another.
We are here because we value children, and believe that the best is owed to them. And this institution exists because of an awareness that the suffering of children needs special – and specialist – skill and attention from the adult world. In our society, we have recognised, belatedly perhaps but once and for all, that the sensitivity, the receptivity, of children means that we must attend very closely indeed to the risks of trauma and deep damage that may be associated with pain and shock in childhood. As we shall see later, the particular valuation of children that is such a central part of Christ's teaching is closely bound up with this recognition. And this means that commitment to the welfare of children is indivisible: what I have been describing is something that challenges us here precisely because we know what excellent and resourceful care for children actually looks like.
At the beginning of this month, the world was shaken and appalled by the events in Beslan; how could anyone react otherwise? Yet the unspeakable violence there committed against children is in fact not as unique as we might like to think. The slaughter and violent abuse of children in local conflicts across the world means that the moral equivalent of Beslan is being enacted repeatedly – that is, the conscious, long term exploitation of children in acts of murderous violence, the calculated use of horrific intimidation towards them, the prolongation of their sufferings and the killing of large numbers without compunction. But the use of child soldiers adds a further twist to the picture: the assault is also on their souls, as they are forcibly made partners in acts of terrible violence. It is as if there has developed in recent decades a new pathology in self-styled revolutionary movements, for which children's sufferings are a legitimate tool of conflict. It is, God knows, appalling enough that two million children are estimated to have died in local conflicts between 1986 and 1996, or that twenty-two million children are displaced because of war. That they should be forced to be agents in war, though, seems like the final refinements of atrocity in such situations.
Why and how has this happened? There are two factors that immediately present themselves as casting light on why and how children in particular are sucked into the machinery of war, though there will be wider issues to think about later in this lecture. First, failing societies are regularly caught in a spiral of conflict and poverty, which affects young people especially acutely. Traditional social units are broken up by war, as village populations are displaced; the sanctions of local communities are severely weakened. What little there may have been in terms of education or health care will have been disrupted; and economic pressures on such societies normally mean in any case that these programmes will be early casualties of economic rationalisation. Young people, males in particular, are likely to be alienated and under-socialised. They are easy recruits to groups that offer the chance of some kind of power – sometimes also of revenge for the murder of family by other military groups. Mary John, in her study of the subject (Children's Rights and Power), observes, on the basis of field research by others, that the powerless child or young person gets a sense of control through violence in a group. For them then to co-opt other even younger children, male and female, is a natural development in a brutalised environment.
Second, what some have described as 'the changing face of war' means that developing countries with no strong institutions of civil society and no tradition of coherent central government are deeply vulnerable to each other: there are strong disincentives against old-fashioned interstate conflicts, but every incentive to systematic destabilising of neighbour states with coveted resources and raw materials by the covert sponsoring of more or less random 'bush wars', essentially campaigns of rural terrorism with occasional eruptions into urban life. This is the story of Sierra Leone and its neighbours, of Congo, Northern Uganda and a good many other cases. It becomes ever harder to discover who holds the strings, whom to negotiate with. And a population of confused and disaffected people, especially young people, is a perfect training ground for campaigns of random and extreme brutality with no intelligible political goals.
In this climate, there are attractions in conscripting children: their minds and behaviour can be shaped quite rapidly; their moral inhibitions can be drilled out of them and they can very easily be manipulated by supplies of drugs. They are highly effective instruments of terror as well as victims because they can be conditioned into unselfconscious and fearless engagement in extreme behaviour. And even if the conditioning is less than perfect, the fact that they have joined in atrocities becomes another weapon of control: they will never be accepted by anyone now except the group, so they have to conform or die - whether at the hands of the group or of their former society. Those who have experience in counselling survivors of child sexual abuse will know only too well the way in which silence and conformity can be secured by persuading a child that they are already complicit in an evil action: this is a kind of vastly intensified version of the same technique of abuse.
The abuse – like all abuse – does not stop with the immediate effects at any one point. Nor do these effects impact only on the children themselves. The abducted child is already traumatised by abduction itself; but the trauma is compounded by being forced into performing atrocities and by the techniques – psychological and drug-related – that suppress the primary trauma. Following on from that, we have in many countries a cohort of young adults with experience of abduction or at least of traumatic involvement in violence, devoid of training and ordinary socialisation, frequently suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases of varying levels of seriousness and themselves sources of infection. And we have disadvantaged societies with few medical and psychological resources faced with the challenge of reintegrating people like this, overcoming not only trauma but stigma (as we saw with the doctor who examined Joseph). In Sierra Leone, 'adults sometimes begged government soldiers to kill rather than rehabilitate escaped abductees'(MJ 170). We know something of the immediate material effect of prolonged civil conflict in the shape of landmines and environmental devastation and the wreckage of infrastructure. But what we are confronting here is the wreckage of moral community – intensely damaged people, parentless families, a brutalised or numbed mentality. The numbers of children involved do not of course account for anything like a majority of a country's children, even in the most severely affected settings; but the depth of disruption is more than numbers alone might suggest.
In 2003, there was a UN report on the situation which laid down some good principles and priorities for rehabilitation, insisting, for example, that all peace agreements and peacekeeping missions in the wake of internal conflicts should deal with children's concerns and that states should ratify the protocol of the International Criminal Court declaring the use of child soldiers a war crime, and proceed to act on this. This ICC decision is one of the more hopeful signs in recent years of international recognition of the problem. But the analysis of the root causes for such an intolerable situation remains slight; and concrete, enforceable schemes for rehabilitation, as well as financial for this work, have still to be worked out in proper detail. Both these things, however, are urgent. Without a better understanding of the roots of this form of child abuse, we shall be dealing only with symptoms. Without tangible and co-ordinated plans to deal with the social impact, as already outlined, there is a time-bomb planted in post-conflict societies.
We have already looked briefly at some of the factors that draw children into conflicts. But there are also questions about the roots of these conflicts, particularly in respect of the well-documented links between poverty, militarisation and insurgent violence. We have already noted the way in which corrupt and opportunistic regimes undermine the stability of neighbours in a region; frequently they are also responsible for badly controlled and rapacious military forces at large in their own territory. But these situations need to be seen also in an international context. Crises fuelled by debt repayment may result in plummeting wages and spiralling prices for basic goods; resources may be diverted to a swollen security operation to contain unrest. But then, underpaid or unpaid soldiers are likely to run out of control in the very process of intensifying government repression of protest, and there is an upward spiral also of violent exchanges. Or a reduction in education programmes leaves children stranded, without any prospect of completing education or moving into anything beyond a subsistence economy. If they live in a context where they are already displaced, there is not even a local subsistence economy to accommodate them. Research by Paul Richards on the profiles of child soldiers in Sierra Leone concludes that child volunteers 'were often the casualties of an education system that had collapsed when teachers had given up, having been unpaid for long periods of time' (MJ 172-3).
Where there is slightly more information technology available, there is, Richards bluntly concludes, ample evidence of the impact of casual violence represented in the news and entertainment media. The internationalising of media culture has a generally malign effect in deeply unstable contexts, where, as we have seen, traditional values and controls have been eroded. But there is also, more concretely, the effect of developments in arms trading. The sophistication of small arms technology now means that some weapons are extraordinarily cheap - weapons of the kind that are immensely effective in local, small-scale, terror-based conflicts, and that are light enough to be carried and used by children. In an environment such as that which prevails in the sort of rebel movements we have been considering (not to mention the government tactics that mirror their philosophy in many places), naked terror is the only strategy; for this, the simplest weapons suffice, small arms and edged weapons. There have to be questions about the small arms market, questions which, as the UN report indicates, need addressing by regional coalitions of governments.
In her challenging reflection on media representation of atrocities, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag observes that 'Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers' (p.90). She is, in fact, critical of assuming that eliciting sympathy is or should be regarded as good thing in itself, since sympathy, by making us feel we are in no way complicit in the suffering, can get in the way of understanding what links us to the causes of suffering and so what we can do to alleviate it by our decisions. In the time remaining, I want to summarise a few of the opportunities for action that are before us – but also to think about some broader implications of the situation I have been outlining for our world and our culture.
As I have indicated, there has not been a complete silence at the international level. The UN has been stirred to define some goals, the ICC has been clear about the criminality of the abuses described; and there is now also a Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which, in addition to collecting information and making it available, is pressing the UN Security Council for concerted action to bring all parties involved in the abuse to account. They have particularly stressed the needs of girls and women who have been abducted, an issue that has not featured very prominently thus far in recommendations for reintegration. So there are simple channels of pressure that can be used to keep government aware of the scope of the scandal, and information is readily to be had from the Coalition's website. But the pressure should not only be about urging government to support condemnations of the practices in question. As I have said, there is a cluster of further issues around arms trading and financial support, where government can in turn bring pressure on – for example – other Commonwealth nations, or trade partners. Tighter conditionality in general trade agreements which specify measures to end practices that collude in child-involving violence, measures like specific controls on arms trading - this is a tool that can be pressed on the leaders of any democratic state.
It is equally important to keep up pressure in relation to international debt and trade justice. I have noted how the roots of the crisis so often involve economic upheaval or disruption caused by adjustments to do with debt repayment. We can continue to urge both government and the international financial institutions to factor in the risk to children in their thinking about regimes for financial efficiency. At the very least, educated self-interest should suggest that the long-term costs of rapid and drastic reform which interrupts education or health care outweigh the advantages of some strategies for short-term 'liberalisation' or rationalisation in an economy. And mention of international financial institutions raises a further possibility: the current leadership at the World Bank has shown a welcome interest in constructive engagement in disadvantaged countries in relation to HIV/AIDS, for example: here is a field in which fresh initiatives are specially welcome, with the Bank partnering local and transnational organisations, including religious bodies, in rehabilitative work on a larger scale than has hitherto been possible. Demobilisation programmes are already receiving support in the Great Lakes region. Much of value is being done by such groups as World Vision, as well as by local church-based coalitions and Mothers' Unions; the Anglican Church in Uganda has recently set up a Unit for Children's Ministry which is still seeking ways into the war zone to offer help. But all this is a drop in the ocean, and we must continue to urge wider co-operation and partnership.
We should be thinking hard about other initiatives. Direct sponsorship of children in the form of actual adoption by individuals or groups is a strategy that has some moral and practical complexities, though it is encouraged by one significant agency in Northern Uganda (Action Aid). Others have stressed the importance of helping to create and encourage local support systems. It is worth asking about what middle way might be possible, encouraging forms of sponsorship that do not entail legal process or physical removal from the area. Supporting a specific campaign such as those of the Church Mission Society, Christian Aid or the Noah's Ark Children's Ministry in Northern Uganda means helping with provision for basic shelters, medical and counselling care and assistance in helping families and communities accept returning child soldiers. CMS and Oxfam also run night shelters for children who run away to the cities overnight to escape the risk of abduction. World Vision (in Uganda and elsewhere) concentrates on psychosocial support for such children. The resourcing of rehabilitation, materially and psychologically, is a huge challenge, and merely local resources will not meet it adequately.
I have concentrated in this lecture on an issue that may seem remote from the concerns most immediate to this hospital and its friends. But I do so in the belief that, as I put it earlier, commitment to children's welfare is indivisible. The magnificent work done here for so many years and the constantly improving standards not only of medical care for children but of what may be called pastoral care for children within medical institutions reflect – or should reflect – a global attitude to the welfare of the young. What we believe is owed to our children we must surely believe is owed to all children. To mention once again the terrible events in Ossetia, the agony of someone else's children in its most extreme form is at once recognisable to us and immediate to us; for once, distance does not seem to make it easier to bear or contemplate. There is a charity in South Wales helping orphans suffering from HIV/AIDS in Romania; its title is simply, 'Everyone's Child'. I suspect we can all recognise the sentiment behind that name.
So there is a clear connection between commitment to the work of this institution and commitment to the issues I have been outlining. Yet there is a further dimension to this. The dramatic, sustained abuse of child soldiering and abduction is a sort of enlarged and simplified picture of the varied patterns of violence towards children that we find in many contexts across the globe, not least on our own doorsteps. Reflecting on the horrors of child soldiering, we may see more clearly the governing features of diverse sorts of abuse – treating children as instruments for adult ends, imprinting guilt and self-hatred through blaming the victim, pushing children into pseudo-adult roles and experiences prematurely. And also, as Mary John suggests in the book of hers already referred to, reactions to child soldiers such as that referred to earlier from Sierra Leone, reveal a fear of unsocialised, 'feral' children which rings some bells with attitudes nearer home. We are not very good – in Sierra Leone or the UK – at handling children in moral crisis or breakdown: we panic about the murderers of James Bulger, we tolerate extraordinary numbers of children in custody, we worry helplessly about those urban children described by some community workers as having deep 'emotional deficit'. The controversial and pioneering work of Camila Batmanghelidjh in South London, for example, has identified emotional privation and dysfunction, the lack of empathetic responses, as the major challenge facing those who work with children who live in material and cultural poverty.
Violence against children, wherever and however it happens, is the mark of a culture of despair. Pope John Paul II famously spoke of a 'culture of death' taking over aspects of our contemporary civilisation; we need also to identify what builds a culture of despair that in effect attacks a society's own future by attacking children. And we must also confront our panic and impotence when faced with children who have been drawn into violence; instead of assuming that there is no way back for them into ordinary society, we have to ask how some of the emotional deficit can be met. At one level, developmental psychology tells us that emotional privation in formative years can never be fully made up; a measure of the appalling seriousness of violence against children. But there are ways of healing some of the memories, assisting traumatised children to make an intelligible story of their lives and come to terms with terrible things done by them and to them. Every possible resource should be put at the service of this task if we are not to face the reproach of rejecting our future.
Christians have often puzzled over why exactly Jesus so forcefully commended the attitude of the child as an example for the believer. Since his words are never characterised by naivety or sentimentality, we can hardly suppose that he is commending an immature or passive spirit. I wonder if we can get some illumination from the fact that his commendation follows soon after the most severe warning about deceiving and distorting the mind of the child ('causing them to stumble')? We must receive God's kingdom like children (Mark 10.15); what is commended is the wholehearted response of the child to a gift. Without suspicion or reserve, the child welcomes what is given. So, faced with the invitation to forgiveness and life, we must receive without suspicion or reserve, unselfconsciously glad to be fed and embraced. And it is precisely this unselfconscious welcome that makes the child vulnerable. The world contains poison as well as nourishment; what is offered to the child may be death as well as life. Because we should know this, because we should take seriously Jesus' recognition of the child's receptive capacity, we are the more guilty if we ourselves distort or poison the life of a child or if we tolerate a situation in which this is permitted to happen. What an adult gives to a child is of immeasurably greater significance than what is given to another adult: it is taken in more deeply, and in ways that the adult is unlikely ever to understand fully. We are right to approach the child with reverence, hesitating to give in a way that will damage or deceive. Once again, our developing practice of healthcare for children has made it clearer than ever that we must give even what we know is thoroughly good in a way that is respectful and caring of the child's felt needs; those who remember the children's wards of an earlier age will recognise ruefully the well-meaning but inept disciplines that could make hospital stays in those days something of a trauma.
What the adult contributes to the formation of a child's mind and soul is all the more important because of the child's receptivity. Jesus' words make us face the risks of that level of receptivity; we are to share something of the child's fragility and trust. But, knowing that, we shall also have all the more respect for the vulnerability of the actual child. That the churches have at times so shamefully failed in this is no secret, though that does not make it any easier to live with. But whether the Church says it to itself or to the world around or both, the challenge and the judgement are the same. What kind of community is it that can tolerate the wreckage of children's lives by deceit, by the denial of childhood itself, by violence and co-option into violence? Jesus warns that the fate of the enemy of childhood is worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone round your neck; or, as we might paraphrase, the assault on childhood is an assault on your own life.
The assault on childhood represented by the appalling practices I have been discussing – like those other assaults through child prostitution or the slaughter of street children in some Latin American cities – is the mark of a community or culture in terminal and suicidal despair, recognised or unrecognised. But, as I have implied, it would be a mistake to see this as a problem that simply exited at a distance. We have to face the echoes in our own culture; we have to ask about what it is that we take for granted in our economic and political environment helps to make possible the situation elsewhere. And above all, we have to ask what we can now do. Remember Susan Sontag's words once more, 'Compassion is an unstable emotion'; I hope that what I have said may begin to point beyond compassion alone and stir some questions about aid and about change.
© Rowan Williams 2004