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Opinion The rules of war are under attack – and so are our children

David Morley is the president and CEO of Unicef Canada.

The nature of warfare may be changing, but the rules that govern it must not. As armies, militias and rebel groups worldwide abandon their expensive, big battalion-based tactics of the past, in favour of smaller, cheaper and more technologically savvy tactics of today, it's more important than ever to safeguard the rights of children in conflict.

Around the world, the rules of war are under attack – and so are millions of children.

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We've long witnessed the indirect price of conflict on children by way of malnutrition, disease and trauma. But today's children are no longer mere casualties of war or innocent victims caught in the crossfire. Today's children are coming under direct attack. They're being deliberately targeted, maimed and killed as pawns in an adult's game. They're being used as messengers of manifestos that they never signed on to.

Forty-eight million children today are living in countries affected by humanitarian emergencies – many of them front-line targets in conflict. In places such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria, children continue to be raped, abducted, attacked in hospitals and used as human shields. Attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure have been used as siege tactics to deny children access to safe water and force them into areas without. Deliberate attacks on schools have been used to not only kill students, but to destroy entire education systems. In South Sudan, more than 2,300 children have been killed or injured since the conflict first erupted in 2013. In Yemen, 1,000 days of fighting left at least 5,000 children dead or injured. The tolls continue to rise.

Imagine the fear, uncertainty and insecurity that grip these children as they wait for help to come. With aid organizations stretched to capacity trying to respond, many continue to suffer in silence. We could not fault them if they were to lose faith in the world.

Yet we have the global framework in place to protect them. International humanitarian law states clearly that parties to conflict have a duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians. They have a duty to avoid attacks causing disproportionate harm to civilians. And, they have an explicit duty to protect children. So why is it that children continue to pay the ultimate price?

UNICEF has just launched a $3.6-billion (U.S.) appeal to reach children living through conflict, natural disaster and emergencies in 2018. Almost 84 per cent ($3.015-billion) of the appeal is for children caught in violence and conflict. In times of crisis, UNICEF works with partners to quickly provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation and hygiene services to prevent the spread of disease. This paves the way for other essential services like health clinics, vaccination programs, nutrition support and emergency education.

Humanitarian needs are at critical levels. But it will take more than humanitarian aid to help. It will take a concerted global effort to protect and defend the rules of war and to hold accountable those who blatantly disregard them. In this current era of protracted crises, which only continue to deepen in complexity, bring new waves of violence and further disrupt children's lives, it's especially necessary to apply internationally accepted standards to conflict. To do otherwise would be to prolong the unacceptable consequences for children.

The world may be more divided now than ever, but as history shows, our differences will always persist. What we must stand united on is how we resolve them. Will we continue to throw the burden on our most vulnerable? Or will we uphold the limits we've set for ourselves, because we've seen the consequences of the alternative – and they're horrific.

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An attack on the rules of war is an attack on anyone who believes in human rights and in the possibility of a better, more peaceful world. And if you don't believe in that, then what are you fighting for?

Anishinaabe comedian and writer Ryan McMahon joins Dakshana Bascaramurty, Hannah Sung and Robyn Doolittle of The Globe to explore the meaning of the term "cultural appropriation." The Globe and Mail
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