Is it just another perverse display of the self-destructive “human condition” or are there structural requirements which demand “power-over” children and which can—in theory at least—be dismantled? This issue of Peace News takes a look at the experience of children in relation to war and peace. Not just a catalogue of trauma and misery—child soldiers, child labourers, child victims—but also a presentation of children as survivors, as (small) people who are constructing peace in their own communities.
Living with dignity
It has become a “well-known fact”: UNICEF report that more than 4000 children die every month in Iraq— a direct result of the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. (The same United which has called the first decade of this new millennium the “International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the world”.) The statistics may be nauseating, but as Denis Halliday and Kathy Kelly testify (p18-19), children in Iraq are also surviving: still living and learning with dignity, though learning a cruel lesson in international relations. In Colombia children are kidnapped, beaten, tortured and murdered by paramilitary and military forces. Like so many children around the world, most working-class Colombian children are also enduring economic hardship, experiencing poor education and health care, high mortality rates, and, in Colombia, the specific consequences of a lengthy low-intensity conflict. But, as Sara Cameron exposes in her article (p24-26) the children of Colombia are also fighting back. Determined not to continue the seemingly endless cycle of violence within their communities, they are developing a large children's social movement and beginning to experience their own power. As young Colombian peace activist, Juan Elias Uribe, says “We want to live a different kind of life, and to get it we have to be involved in creating it. We will never give up.”
Neither children nor adults
As antimilitarists should we see a distinction between the 16-year-old who volunteers for military service, and the 18-year-old? While this may become an international legal distinction, through the worldwide ban on child soldiers being campaigned for by the Coalition to Stop the use of Child Soldiers, does it have an intrinsic moral value? The issues surely are of coercion and dominant socialisation. Efforts to resist the glorification of militarism are as important as campaigning against forcible recruitment, as shown in Rick Jahnkow's article (p28-29) examining the connections between subtle militarism and high school shootings in the US. No-one should be forced to commit acts of violence, neither adults nor children. Contemporary western ideals of education and work standards for children may seem laughable to the realpolitik of the majority world. The argument between western liberals arguing for an end to child labour and the misinformation of the massive corporations who profit from the sweatshops, is a dead end. Neither children nor adults should be exploited. In the words of child workers from around the world: “We are against exploitation at work, but we are in favour of work with dignity and appropriate hours, so that we have time for education and leisure.” In the meantime the dominant economic hegemony demands their presence in the workplace.
Preparing for obedience?
In an article critiquing their own nonviolence training work in German schools (p30-31), Milan and Andreas Peters ask whether it is really possible for those with a libertarian approach to work in a totalitarian institution such as a school? The international peace movement has placed a lot of emphasis on the value of peace education and surely enabling children to understand how to resolve conflict nonviolently can only be a beneficial life-skill. However, if all we are doing is teaching them that they should be “nicer” and more obedient to authority are we really working towards revolution?
Our hope for the future
In the western world we tend to try to maintain the myth that children are somehow “innocent”. But what do we mean by this? Innocent of what? Of the harsh realities of human life on planet earth? Self-aware young children are not “innocent”. This is particularly true of children who live in the majority world: they know exactly the realities of the world they are growing up in, they experience them every day. That subsequent generations develop the capacity to use such knowledge to radically change their political, social, economic and literal environments can surely be our only hope.