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Children in the Arab world: fleeing war, barely surviving, and not entirely living. The Right to life from a children’s rights perspective

Uprooted from their homes, fleeing war zones, constantly on the move, often unaccompanied or separated from their families, killed and targeted indiscriminately — these are some of the many situations children from war affected countries in the Arab World are faced with. And instead of finding safety at their displaced or refugee communities, children are often forced into labor, sometimes trafficked, recruited into armed groups, or living in dire conditions that do not meet basic needs to develop and lead a healthy life. What does the right to life for these children look like? Does surviving war mean that their right to life has been intact? Should their right to life be understood as narrow as a right not to be killed, or is to live more, in fact, than just to be alive.

About two decades ago, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights made a significant judgement on a case known as ‘the street children’. This case, which was brought before the regional Court against Guatemala, alleged the state’s responsibility for the kidnapping, torture and death of five children. The children, who were living and working in the streets, were killed by members of the state’s security forces. The judgement, which –among other violations– found Guatemala in violation of the children’s right to life, was particularly significant for the way this right was interpreted. Broader than merely protecting these children from being deprived of life, the Court found that the right to life for children also encompasses minimum conditions for a dignified life. In fact, the Court found the state responsible for double aggression. Firstly, it found that the state did not protect the children from the deprivation of their lives, nor punish those responsible for violating them. But secondly and most significantly, the Court also found that the state did not adopt any measures to prevent the children from living in misery and to ensure the minimum conditions for a dignified life, in which they could be encouraged to develop their personality and their ‘life project’.

Importantly, the Court was interpreting the desired protection measures needed to safeguard children’s right to life based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which all countries of the world (with the notable exception of the United states) are parties of, including all Arab countries. In that vein, one can conclude that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Arab countries bear the same obligations toward children in their territories as Guatemala was found to have towards its own. This raises the question:  are Arab countries adopting enough protective measures that ensure children’s right to life? Or are they failing children by tolerating its constant and multi-layered violation?

While answering this question is a complex undertaking, the signs are certainly not positive. With regard to the protection of children’s right not to be deprived of life, one can observe many symptoms of failure: children sentenced to the death penalty, children recruited into armed forces and armed groups, children killed in attacks on school, hospitals and protected civilian areas, children living in siege where they starve to death, and so on, and so forth.  And with regard to the right of children to grow and suitably develop, the absence of protective measures manifests in issues like child marriage, child labour, unequal access to education and health services, youth radicalization and child trafficking — among other issues. And while the right to life should be protected by both the family and the state, it is considered that the state has a significant role when children live in vulnerable conditions similar to those that refugee children face, often unaccompanied or separated from their families at the same time.

While the question of how children’s right to life can be safeguarded in situations where the government has no effective control over some of its territories is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to emphasize the nature of this right as a fundamental right which governs all other existing rights. Therefore, if this right is not preserved, all other rights need not exist. Aiming to shed light on how the right to life must be preserved in countries affected by armed conflict including countries hosting refugees, in follow-up articles the children’s rights to life will be discussed from the angle of state and non-state actors’ responsibility.