“The only international language in the world,” wrote Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, “is the cry of a child.” That was in the aftermath of the First World War. Germany’s children were suffering in a famine compounded by a punitive British blockade on aid. Awareness of the suffering of innocent children would, Jebb believed, remind a public gripped by the rage of war, revenge, and nationalism of their shared humanity and common values.
You can’t help wondering what she would make of the horror now unfolding in Gaza. Palestinian children are crying loud and clear. Yet the world is turning a deaf ear. Instead of providing the protection demanded by our shared humanity, the international community is paralyzed by diplomatic calculation, a failure to uphold humanitarian law and — let’s speak plainly — double-standards on Palestinian human rights.
What is happening in Gaza is another devastating chapter in a wider failure to protect children trapped in wars. But this is not a moment for hand wringing. It is a time to draw a line in the sand, to enforce humanitarian laws in Gaza, and to strengthen a system that is failing to protect children.
The murderous nihilism unleashed by Hamas on innocent Israelis has no defense. Murdering, torturing, and abducting civilians, including children, and holding hostages are crimes for which the perpetrators must be held to account through the International Criminal Court (ICC) — the body created to investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. They, and not Gaza’s children, should pay the price for the crimes they have committed.
However heinous and depraved those crimes may be, they do not provide Israel with a free pass on the rules of war. Enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute underpinning the ICC, those rules were forged out of some of humanity’s darkest episodes. Failure to uphold them in Gaza will weaken the international rule of law everywhere, with devastating consequences for children.
The impact of hostilities in Gaza on children stands in plain view. Heart-rending images of children dug out of rubble, grieving parents, and tiny body bags tell their own story. As I write, some 3,400 children have been killed in bombing raids — around 40% of all casualties. Those numbers are rising by over 400 every day.
Cutting Gaza’s humanitarian aid lifelines for food, water, fuel, and shelter has had devastating consequences for children. As needs surge with every bombing raid, a pre-war flow of humanitarian support delivered by over 500 trucks daily has been reduced to a trickle. Hospitals have been left without the basic medicines and equipment needed to treat children with traumatic injuries, including anesthetics.
The WHO has warned that Gaza faces an imminent public health catastrophe. Water and sanitation infrastructure has all but collapsed, exposing children weakened by malnutrition to the risk of dehydration and water-borne diseases. While unclean water may not be as visible as bomb damage, may not be a visible as bomb damage, it poses a lethal threat to Gaza’s children.
The psychological scars now being inflicted may never heal. Buildings can be rebuilt. But in a society already marked by some of the world’s worst reported levels of conflict-related trauma among children, the toxic stress that comes with fear, anxiety, and grief will inevitably deepen mental health pressures for years to come.
Documenting the impact of war on Gaza’s children is not enough. Thirty years ago, the former Mozambican education minister, Graca Machel, submitted to the U.N. General Assembly a landmark report on the impact of the wars on children. Cataloging the unregulated terror inflicted on children, she concluded, in words that retain a chilling resonance: “There are few further depths to which humanity can sink.”
Following her report, the U.N. created a new architecture for protecting children. It included a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) through which actors responsible for grave violations of the right of children to protection — including killing, abduction, and humanitarian blockades -would be named in a ‘watch-list’ reported to the Security Council, with the prospect of sanctions.
That system bears all the hallmarks of a human rights Maginot Line. In 2022, the U.N. documented over 27,000 grave violations of child rights, from Afghanistan to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
At the heart of that culture is a political failure to put universal human rights before diplomatic realpolitik. Double-standards abound. In 2020 Saudi Arabia was removed from the MRM “watch-list” despite the devastating impact of its humanitarian blockade on children in Yemen, while its western allies looked-on with studied indifference. Governments in the U.N. General Assembly endorse MRM reports and then collude in the failure to bring to justice those responsible for failing to protect children.
Nowhere are the double-standards as painfully evident as in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Earlier this year, an Independent Commission appointed by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council documented potential Israel Defense Force complicity in an array of possible war crimes and wider violations of humanitarian law involving Palestinian children. In a searingly understated criticism of the U.N. and Security Council, it expressed astonishment that Israel had never once been included on the watch list of states failing to protect children in conflict.
It is time for the international community to show Palestinian children that their rights carry equal weight. The starting point must be a ceasefire, access for humanitarian aid, the creation of safe humanitarian spaces. The immediate and unconditional release of hostages by Hamas must be part of the ceasefire agreement
Continued Security Council prevarication on this issue will be a death sentence for many children in Gaza. The U.S. and the U.K. cite Israel’s “right to self-defense” as grounds for opposing a ceasefire, while calling for compliance with the rule of war. That position combines moral bankruptcy with intellectual dishonesty. The rules of war explicitly prohibit collective punishment and humanitarian blockades. And what form of self-defense involves leaving vulnerable children without clean water?
As the one international body with a remit to deliver impartial justice, the ICC should also play a greater role. When Russia invaded Ukraine, its Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan, swiftly announced a full investigation of its actions, with the backing of the United States (which is not a member of the Court). ICC members should now demand an investigation of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by all parties in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including evidence of crimes against children.
Gaza’s war is a deadly reminder of the urgent need for a two-state political solution. Making progress towards that goal will take healing, new leadership, and time. Gaza’s children don’t have time on their side. They need us to hear their cry for human solidarity — and they need us to act like we are listening.
Kevin Watkins is Visiting Professor of Practice at the Firoz Lalji Institute, London School of Economics, and former Chief Executive of Save The Children UK