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NATO conference is a chance to reaffirm the Alliance’s values

NATO conference is a chance to reaffirm the Alliance’s values

Baroness Helic | Save the Children

4 min read Partner content

With the UN Security Council increasingly gridlocked, and international institutions under increasing strain, there is an opportunity for Britain to step up and lead the way – delivering domestic and global change to protect children in conflict whilst defending and promoting Britain’s values, says Baroness Helic. 

As the leaders of NATO meet in London there is a lot to discuss on and off the agenda. There is no doubt that the Alliance is facing the most complex and unpredictable security environment since the Cold War. Technological change, and disruptive cyber and hybrid threats, are rapidly transforming the way wars are fought and the nature of threats to our security.

 Exacerbating this unsettling reality are the tensions caused by President Trump’s justified call for the European countries to match the NATO defence spending of 2 per cent, President Erdogan’s damaging flirtation with President Putin’s Russia, and President Macron’s opportunistic labelling of the alliance as “brain dead” - pointing to more EU, less NATO. Furthermore, there is uncertainty over Britain’s positioning in the Brexit era. 

As I walked past the flags of the NATO member states hoisted on The Mall this week I wondered how much of the leaders’ discussion will reach the hearts and minds of those whom the Alliance is supposed to protect: the citizens on whose behalf it is supposed to act as it safeguards, “freedom, common heritage and civilisation” and upholds “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”, in the words of the NATO Treaty. I asked myself how many of these principles have been damaged and blurred in the constant, but necessary, race to face our current and future adversaries. 

Debates are needed and improvements are absolutely necessary, but in the process of improving our capability, we must not lose the sight of the centrality of our values – in particular, the protection of civilians.

The nature of today’s security threats is changing. But so too is the nature of conflict. Rapid urbanisation, the proliferation of non-state armed groups and rising use of explosive weapons make 21st century warfare more protracted, complex, and fought amongst civilian populations. Today’s trenches and battlefields are civilian streets and homes.   

Save the Children’s 2019 report Stop the War on Children found that more children than ever – at least 420 million globally – are now living in areas affected by conflict. Of these, 142 million children live in high-intensity conflict zones – vulnerable to being killed, maimed, denied humanitarian assistance, sexually abused, recruited, abducted or having their schools and hospitals barrel-bombed.

From Myanmar and Syria, to South Sudan and Yemen, the impact of conflict on children and their families is devastating. Every child in Afghanistan has now been born into war. Attacks targeting girls are increasing. Female students and educators suffer horrific acts of violence within their schools and universities, including rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery.

To be clear, these crimes are not committed by NATO member states. But NATO plays an important role in training and advising the forces of other nations and it has a unique ability to reach the places others cannot. 

In 2015 the North Atlantic Council approved NATO’s policy “Protection of Children in the Armed Conflict - the Way Forward”. The policy identified the ways to ensure that child protection practices in NATO - led missions and operations are respected and adhered to. 

NATO’s Allied Command Transformation own study has concluded that it is crucial that child protection is at the heart of the planning and conduct of operations and missions; that the protection of children receives the expertise and resources necessary to fulfil the policy; and that NATO and the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on children and armed conflict work hand in hand on compliance with International Humanitarian Law and International human rights law. 

Our country is in a unique position to champion the protection of children in conflict: as a global leader in humanitarian response, soft power and military capability, and given our vocal support for adherence to international humanitarian law.

The UK was crucial to the creation of the United Nations and to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Our leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and global campaigns on issues like cluster munitions or landmines, changes in policy, practice and global norms have had a positive impact of limiting attacks that harm civilians and civilian infrastructure. Most recently, when Britain endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, other states followed, making schools across the world safer places for children. The UK will soon be publishing its updated cross-government Protection of Civilians Strategy, helping to raise the NATO standard.

With the UN Security Council increasingly gridlocked and international institutions under increasing strain, there is an opportunity for Britain to lead the way.

The NATO Leader’s conference is not only a time to agree a collective response to the most pressing global security challenges, but a moment to reaffirm the Alliance’s values - the values that each country represented by each flag on The Mall should defend.

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