Sarah M. Field (Oxford Human Rights Hub, 8th January 2014)
The possibility of peace in Syria may seem more like an international force (pun intended) than a beacon of hope. History though tells us to ‘believe…’.* The form of the conflict’s resolution is simply unimagined — as yet. Dig deeper though and history also tells us another story: the transformation of conflict is likely to be partial — children, particularly, are likely to be invisible within decision-making towards peace agreements. To date, the Syrian peace process substantiates this: there is no reference to children — 43% of the population — within Geneva Communiqué I and just one reference within the Communiqué of the London 11.
And herein lies the paradox. From the Central African Republic to Syria (and beyond), no one can be unaware of the impact of conflict on children. Though politicians recurrently invoke this — the children hurt and harmed by conflict — as a call to action (whether towards military action or advancing peace), they seldom raise the subject of children and their rights within decision-making towards agreements. A cynic might reason the confluence of interests is missing; without any broader political gain, principled commitments to children are insufficient to ensure the child question is raised and prioritised. Certainly there is some truth to this reasoning. However, it is also likely the politicking towards — and subsequently within — the peace trajectory spaces subsumes consideration of children.
Simply, there is nobody to raise, and prioritise, the subject of children and their rights. There is nothing new about this: all it does is re-affirm why rights are important, the right to be heard particularly. Or in other words an intimate connection to the right — as that of the right holder — is key to asking the child question, influencing the process and impacting on the outcomes (the peace agreements). The question then is how: how to ensure children’s rights ‘in’ and ‘through’ the process. To an extent the answer to this is simple: fulfilling those promises our representatives made to children over twenty-four years ago — legal obligations almost all jurisdictions have committed to by virtue of ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child including the Syrian Arab Republic. Two are of particular relevance: ensuring the best interests of the child and assuring respect for children’s views within decision-making affecting them.
Of course, applying these legal obligations to peace processes is complicated. However, contrary to our imaginings, peace processes also present possibilities. First, the staged and elongated character provides space for asking the child question. Second, the hybrid legal form ensures engagement with international law including within decision-making about how to constitute the space. Third, there is often an interface between political commitments to international human rights law and political imperatives — asking the human rights question (transforming inequalities within the process and outcomes) contributes towards advancing the peace momentum. Fourth, the creativity that propels peace processes forward as they fracture and stall opens space for dreaming ‘…things that never were…’.*
Framed by over 1,000 days of conflict in Syria, the political challenges of securing a peaceful solution are immense. History tells us though within (and between) these challenges there are possibilities for securing a peace inclusive of children. A possible beginning is to appoint a legal representative to the space with a mandate to ask the child question — raise the subject of children and their rights. Without such a structural response, there is no certainty the child question will be asked as the peace trajectory edges falteringly forward. If the child question remains unasked, the possibility of outcomes for the children of Syria is reduced — now and into the future.
14 days until Geneva II, now, is the time to ensure children are part of the conversation.
*These are quotations from respectively Seamus Heaney (‘The Cure at Troy’) and George Bernard Shaw (‘Back to Methuselah’).
Sarah M. Field is a Human Rights Practitioner with global experience supporting the rights-based development of the rule of law, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Law, University College Cork, Ireland and the founder of a developing legal advocacy project asking the child question. This posting is part of a series probing the paradoxes and consequences of children’s invisibility within peace processes and the challenges and possibilities for more inclusive processes.