Children and armed conflict: legal framework

“War violates every right of a child — the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, the right to the development of the personality, and the right to be nurtured and protected.”[1]

Technological developments gave a new dimension to the twentieth century warfare. Introduction of new weapons dramatically increased the number of causalities. In addition, new patterns of fighting that characterize today’s armed conflicts blurred the distinction between military and civilian arenas. Wars are no longer fought between states, but within them. Consequently, number and proportion of civilian causalities has leaped from 5% at the beginning of a century, to 90% at the end of it.[2] Approximately half of the victims of modern armed conflicts are children.[3] According to UNICEF, over one billion of girls and boys live in countries or territories affected by armed conflict, and around 300 million of them are under five years old.[4]

Protection and well-being of children in times of conflict, in recent decades, has come to occupy an important place in the political agenda of the international community. As a result, there is a considerable body of norms and standards, contained principally in international humanitarian and human rights law that serve as a normative framework for protection of children in context of armed conflict.[5]

In times of conflict, all civilians, including children, enjoy equal protection under international humanitarian law. In addition to it, because of their vulnerability and developmental needs, children are entitled to certain special protection. Some of the guarantees found in international instruments have become part of customary law.

The following are some of the key legal instruments providing basis for the protection of children in situations of armed conflict:

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (2000), the Geneva Convention (1949), and the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Convention (1977), the International Labour Office (ILO) Convention 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999), the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002), number of Security Council resolutions adopted between 1999 and 2009.[6]

The body of treaties, protocols, and other soft law instruments continues to expand and provide guidance on how to advance protection and respect for children’s rights in times of conflict; however, effective implementation of standards set out in these instruments remains a major challenge in many parts of the world.

Despite the rules deriving from international law, rights of millions of children around the world continued to be violated. States have the primary responsibility to put an end to this situation. Therefore, national laws are an important part of legal structure that aims at protecting children in conflict zones. In some cases, these laws may be more protective than international ones, while in others, they provide a lower level of protection.

The overwhelming statistics on the vulnerabilities of children during an armed conflict, however, should not make one forget that children themselves are capable beings, which together with their families and communities play an active role in their own protection.


[1]GraçaMachel, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, UN report “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children”, 1996, available at:

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4]UNICEF, “Progress for Children”, New York, 2009, p 20, available at:

[5]International Bureau for Children’s Rights, A Guide on International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law on Children in Armed Conflict, 2010, available at:

[6]Children and Armed Conflict, International Standards for Action, 2003, available at: