At its Forty-eighth Session, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 48/157 entitled, “Protection of children affected by armed conflicts,” in which it urged all Member States, “…to continue seeking comprehensive improvement in the situation with appropriate and concrete measures…” (UN, 1993). In the same resolution, it requested the Secretary General to appoint an expert, working in collaboration with the Centre For Human Rights and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to undertake a comprehensive study of this question.
Issues to be studied under this programme included: the participation of children in armed conflict, the relevance and adequacy of existing standards of international humanitarian and human rights laws, and the ways and means of preventing children from being affected by such conflicts. The programme was to examine measures to ensure effective protection as well as ways to best promote the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of children affected by armed conflicts, in particular through proper medical and nutritional care (UN, 1995).
The investigators were to make recommendations to the General Assembly for the amelioration of the grave situation of children affected by armed conflicts. The Food and Nutrition Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has prepared this report on the impact of armed conflict on the nutritional situation of the children as a part of the broader United Nations study.
The general framework for the study is based on the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention emphasizes that children need special care and protection, and it is the primary responsibility of the family to provide such an environment. The Articles 24 and 27 of the UN Convention call upon state parties to combat disease and malnutrition through provisions of adequate food and nutrition and clean drinking water. They should recognise “… the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, spiritual and social development” (UN, 1989).
Most armed conflicts are occurring in developing countries where the food and nutritional situation, especially those of children, is far from satisfactory even in normal times. In order to be able to determine the impact of armed conflict on children's nutritional status, it is important to collect information on their nutritional situation prior to the conflict. It is imperative to assess the impact of armed conflict on the nutritional situation of children within the context of their family as it is the breakdown of this unit that most seriously impedes the provision of food, nutrition and care for children.
Agriculture is the mainstay of people's livelihood in most of the countries affected by armed conflicts, especially in Africa. Often in these situations household food security is unsatisfactory and malnutrition is widespread. Any serious disruption of agriculture and access to food due to armed conflict is likely to have a devastating negative impact on the nutritional status of the affected population, particularly mothers and children.
In order to develop practical and concrete recommendations, it is important that nutritional outcomes of armed conflicts be considered within the broad multifaceted context of agricultural disruption and inadequate household food security; inadequate health, sanitation and environment; inadequate family care, socioeconomic and nutritional vulnerability. The coping strategies which are available and employed by the affected families during conflict situations need to be taken into account. The present study was designed taking all of these factors into consideration.
While this report examines the many conditions that influence the nutritional well-being of children separately, it should be borne in mind that all of these factors interact and that malnutrition and death are often caused by a combination of events.
The study focuses on children and the impact of armed conflict on their nutritional status. The definition contained in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child was used in this study, “(A child is) a human being below the age of 18 years unless the law applicable to child majority is attained earlier (UN, 1989). Discussions on nutritional situations are largely based on younger children because more information is available on their nutritional status. However, the study attempts to highlight the impact of armed conflict on the nutritional situation of older children as well.
The number of armed conflicts is increasing throughout the world. They are not restricted to the South but are also erupting in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Many of the armed conflicts during 1995 were internal - for instance, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan - and most were occurring in Africa. Therefore, the study mainly examined the nutritional situation of children in the internal conflicts in Africa. The countries described are experiencing complex emergencies, which the UN defines as, “… a major humanitarian crisis of multi-causal nature that requires a system-wide response in which commonly a long term combination of political, conflict and peacekeeping factors is also involved” (Duffield, 1994).
The study was conducted in two parts: the first part included the collection and review of existing information on the nutritional situation of children affected by armed conflicts, and the second was comprised of field visits in October-November 1995 to Liberia and southern Sudan to collect on the spot information for making an in-depth situation analysis.
1.3.1 Collection and review of existing information
In addition to a literature search, an information sheet was prepared (Annex 1) requesting information from different concerned organizations and from selected FAO offices working in countries with armed conflicts. Consultation meetings were held with international organizations including UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a number of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It should be noted that the organizations were consulted because of their expertise on emergencies, nutrition and children, and it was not possible to interview the parties involved in the conflicts.
Review of the responses led to the conclusion that the period of three months and the resources available to the study would not allow coverage of more than one continent, therefore, it was decided, following consultation with the UN research study group, to focus on Africa because a large proportion of the internal conflicts occurring worldwide in 1995 were in that region. In addition, the economic situation was worse in many African countries in conflict than in countries experiencing conflict in other areas of the world. Therefore, the impact of armed conflict on the nutritional status of children was likely to be more pronounced in African countries.
1.3.2 Field visits
It was decided that field visits should be made to two African countries with contrasting scenarios to augment existing information. Liberia and southern Sudan were selected for field visits on the grounds that a range of comparisons could be made between the two countries. This allowed issues to be examined such as:
The impact of conflict on different population groups, such as urban residents versus rural population groups, and agricultural and agro-pastoral populations;
Various responses by the population in several different types of displacement situations;
Different patterns of malnutrition, Liberia showing high rates of kwashiorkor, whereas in southern Sudan most malnutrition tended to be marasmus (Annex 2).
At the time of this study, both countries were reasonably accessible. The field visits were made to Liberia between 1 to 22 October 1995, and to southern Sudan between 31 October to 19 November 1995. Activities during field visits included: interviews with key informants among the NGO and UN staff, as well as local officials; household interviews with displaced people, youth, children and the resident population; visits to feeding programmes and a general distribution centre; discussions with women leaders and participation in meetings on fish production as it related to the food economy as well as a workshop on the rehabilitation of agriculture for Western Equatoria, southern Sudan.
In addition, reference is made to several other countries such as Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Afghanistan to highlight issues that should be considered when looking at the impact of armed conflict on the nutritional status of children.