Caught in the Middle: Children in a War Zone

Radhika Coomaraswaymy, special representative of the U.N. secretary general for children in armed conflict, talks about the lives of the children who are caught in the middle of fighting across the Lebanese border.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

As Israel and Hezbollah trade fire across the Lebanese border, the United Nations points to what it calls a callous disregard for the lives of the children who are caught in the middle. Radhika Coomaraswamy is the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict. And she joins us now by phone from her office at the U.N. in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY (United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict): Thank you.

NEARY: You are calling on both sides in the conflict to do more to protect children. What do they need to be doing?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Well, I think there's a great tragedy unfolding - I think both in the Middle East and in some of the other conflicts around the world - which is that the fundamentals of humanitarian law are just being observed in the breach.

The first is, you know, separation of civilians from combat, and now we find, for example, about 300 children have died in Lebanon, far more than the combatants. So it's really civilians who are bearing the brunt of this conflict.

And the second issue, of course, is proportionality. We know the use of force, whether in domestic law or international law is always considered to be - should be proportioned for a military objective. So I think because of not really following these principles, we have enormous civilian casualties, and we are faced with a large number of children who have been affected by this war. They have been killed. There are 400,000 displaced, we estimate at the moment, and quite a few injured.

NEARY: Well obviously, as we've been talking about, there is an effort underway to get a cease-fire agreement. But short of that and not getting into that discussion again, in the meantime, what are you calling on both sides to do with regard to safeguarding the safety of children?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Well, first I think we - at the humanitarian level -we have to be able to get some kind of corridors moving so we can get relief to the children. As you know - at the moment in Lebanon - all the roads and bridges have been bombed, so therefore it's practically impossible to move convoys from either the ports or the airports into the inner part of Lebanon. And so what we are hoping is some kind of humanitarian corridors allowing one to rebuild certain roads and bridges so those humanitarian convoys can move as soon as possible. That's one real need.

But mainly, also to bring enormous pressure to bear on both sides. Hezbollah, as you know, has sent unguided missiles into Israel, and can kill anyone. And as you know, it killed three people in the Arab part of Haifa just last night.

So I think we just have to put pressure that this kind of warfare that -and the Israelis, for example as you know, we have 5,000 - according to Human Rights Watch - 5,000 civilian homes that have been directly attacked, which means, you know, grandparents, grandchildren, nephews, nieces - along with whoever the target is if the target is there.

So this kind of warfare has to stop, and I think - I don't know - I think there should be a lot of voices saying that, perhaps especially the allies of both these parties.

NEARY: Right. And apart from even the terrible injuries and deaths that you've been talking about, there are kids getting caught in the conflict who just can't, you know, go through with the normal routines of childhood and looking forward to the future, dealing with things like schools, nutrition, emotional health for these kids. Are you working on those kinds of issues, as well?

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: Yes, well what you find is especially displaced children don't have any schooling, but also the whole long-term issue of balance and war on children. We're finding children exposed to violence are more likely, we find, to commit violence - 1,000 times more likely than those who have not seen violence being used. And I think these kinds of psycho-social impacts on children is also something that we have to think about.

I mean, if we think about it, each generation in the Middle East gets more violent as we move on.

NEARY: Unfortunately, and that's…

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: And I think it's directly linked to what they see in their predecessors.

NEARY: We're going to have to leave on that note, unfortunately. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. COOMARASWAMY: All right. Okay.

NEARY: Radhika Coomaraswamy is a special representative of the U.N., secretary-general for children and armed conflict. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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