Stop Killing the Children

By Desmond Tutu, in the Washington Post, 24 November, 1996, p. C07

It is the mission of priests of all religions, everywhere, to help their followers seek good and shun evil. Ever since I was a parish priest, I have tried to do this and in the process have learned quite a lot about both good and evil. But never as a young man could I have imagined that one day I would find myself pleading with world leaders to stop the killing of children. Killing children? Why would any sane person kill children? And yet it is happening as never before.

Some 2 million children have died in dozens of wars during the past decade according to a new study that has just been presented to the United Nations. By comparison, American friends tell me, this is more than three times the number of battlefield deaths of American soldiers in all their wars since 1776. Few civilians, let alone children, died in those wars. Today, civilians account for more than 90 percent of war casualties. The reasons for this terrible toll are, first, a fundamental change in the kind of wars being fought and, second, a chilling international indifference to the obscenity of killing innocent non-combatants, mostly the powerless who have no champions in the centers of world power.

For most of modern history, armies fought armies along battle lines that divided nations. Today, wars are fought for territory and dominance within countries, neighbor against neighbor, the bitterest kind of aggression. Outsiders find these complex conflicts unfathomable. It is easy for many, far from Zaire or Cambodia or Bosnia, to dismiss the deaths and trauma of civilians and children as an inevitable side effect of war.

That argument is not only false, it is profoundly immoral. The U.N. "Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children" is the result of a two-year investigation carried out by the former Mozambican minister for education, Ms. Graca Machel. It not only details the devastating effects of war on children, it also recommends practical steps for us to face our moral responsibility and end these far from inevitable atrocities.

The report's proposals will be considered by the General Assembly in December. They are simple and direct, such as banning military recruitment of anyone under 18 and the immediate demobilization of child soldiers, prohibiting shipment of weapons to conflict zones and prosecuting rape and sexual torture as war crimes. If implemented, they would go a long way toward strengthening the force of existing treaties, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions and the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women -- all of them inadequately enforced. I particularly like the recommendation to require companies and countries that profit from the manufacture and export of land mines to contribute to mine awareness programs for children and efforts to clear the world's 110 million mines.

I am incensed when I hear these common-sense proposals called "hopelessly idealistic" or "impractical." That is defeatist nonsense. What we need today is an upsurge of international courage, moral indignation and human solidarity to demand action to end the crimes being committed against the innocent in war. Just such public pressure succeeded in banning the use of poison gas and is behind the progress toward nuclear disarmament. The proposals in the Machel report are just as achievable.

In democracies, we, the people, have the power to shape national and international policy -- to seek the good and shun evil, if you will. I would like to call on my fellow priests in all religions to take this clear-cut issue of right and wrong to their hearts and to galvanize their followers. If an aroused public insists, governments will respond. The job now is to spread the word and inspire public confidence that the good we want can prevail. If we will it, we can end the crimes of targeting children for death and involving them in war's bloodshed. To have this power and fail to use it makes us accomplices of the killers.