The killing of civilians in wartime has always been a controversial subject, and our increasing ability to acquire targets from long distance and launch attacks remotely has only exacerbate the problem. Many aspects of war affect children. Children suffer the direct effects of war when they lose their homes and family members to the conflict, or when they are wounded themselves. In many parts of the world, children are recruited as soldiers or otherwise involved in the conflict directly. Children are also wounded or killed by the secondary effects of war. The use of land mines, for example, has resulted in enough civilian deaths (including children’s deaths) to inspire a 1997 anti-landmines convention, often called the Ottowa Convention. Radiological fallout from the atomic weapons used in World War II and from depleted uranium used in Iraq have harmed civilians by causing short-term and long-term health problems. Children find themselves displaced and end up in refugee camps. Many recent African immigrants to the Denver area lived their entire lives in refugee camps before coming to the United States.
Airstrikes have made it even more possible for a military to target enemy objectives with few losses by the attacking force and without direct combat. World War II saw the use of atomic bombs but also an intense fire-bombing campaign that destroyed Dresden. The NATO campaign in the former Yugoslavia brought public attention to the use of airstrikes again after several civilian targets were hit. In 1999 the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit in an attack that the United States maintains was accidental and some sources believe was intentional. Two weeks later, an airstrike overshot and hit a Belgrade hospital. The recent U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has been marred by civilian casualties, including on airstrike last Tuesday in which nine children died.
Because of the nature of armed conflict, collateral damage is inevitable and expected. The increasing use of predator drones and other remote weaponry has modified, but not fundamentally changed the debate. This year’s Jessup international moot court competition problem involves a hypothetical case in which one country uses predator drones to target terrorists within a neighboring country. The Jessup problem allows law students from around the world to debate the legal and political ramifications of international issues.
Under international law, although states generally have an obligation to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible, there is no obligation to decline to hit a military target because of possible or even probable civilian casualties. Predator drones in particular are used in conflict because they minimize losses to the attacking force, as they are unmanned weapons that can be launched remotely. They are generally considered fairly sophisticated in their targeting and navigational abilities, making them more accurate than some of the alternative weapons. They also make possible attacks in rural, mountainous terrain where it would be very difficult to send infantry. On the other hand, the fact that the drones are unmanned makes operators more reliant on technology to make last-minute adjustments and decisions. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has called for an open debate on the use of predator drones in Afghanistan.
Regardless of which tactic is used, children invariably suffer in times of war and conflict. The International Red Cross has a special resource section dedicated to the laws of war as they relate to children. UNICEF published “The State of the World’s Children” to mark its 50th anniversary; the report includes an extensive section on the effects of war on children. There are countless documentaries and organizations addressing the effects of war on children. Unfortunately, the problems seem to be getting worse, not better.