“Lullay lullay. Thou little tiny child”, the opening words of the Coventry carol composed in the 16th century and sung by millions over the ages. The carol is as much a lament as a lullaby: a mother’s goodbye to a baby to be killed in the net cast around Bethlehem by King Herod, the Romans’ puppet ruler of Judea, in an attempt to kill the baby predicted to become King of the Jews. Holy Innocents day is commemorated on 28 December by the western Christian Churches. This year it falls during the full rigour of government anti-COVID measures. But it’s also a date when Christians – and others too - might turn their thoughts to the rights of children around the world.
Whether in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic or Myanmar – to name only a few of the worst cases -we have become accustomed to children dying or being maimed in wars or as a result of dictatorial regimes’ State terrorism. And in a few African countries militias routinely recruit child soldiers by force. Sometimes the savagery of the war means civilians are deliberately targeted. More often their deaths are described as ‘collateral damage’. Even more frequently children die because war has reduced their families to starvation, flight from home, freezing temperatures, and the breakdown of anything that might be described as a health or education service, or law and order, putting whole populations at the mercy of disease, hunger, warplanes, landmines and militias.
Civilian deaths, the deaths of children are not just some phenomenon of the Global South. The Nazis and the Japanese militarists were defeated in the Second World War. But their strategy of total war won. The Allies appropriated the practice of total war, bombing German cities and dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Korea, the blanket bombing of Eastern Cambodia and massacres in Vietnam are only the best known of the conflicts that have perpetuated the civilian death toll in war into the 1960s. The establishment of international courts, scrutiny by human rights organisations and TV coverage raised the political risks in flouting ethical restrictions on the conduct of war. Today in the western world conformity with strict legal and ethical standards is expected in the conduct of targeting, and in the treatment of civilians, even if these expectations are not always fulfilled. Where there is no accountability as in Syria and Yemen such restraints are generally ignored.
The 2015 movie Eye in the Sky dramatizes the tension between the expedients of war and the demands of ethics, international conventions and law. Colonel Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, must decide whether to execute the firing of a Hellfire missile at a house in Kenya where three key terrorists are preparing a suicide bombing. If the missile is fired, a little girl, Alia, who lives next door and sells bread outside her home will almost certainly die in the blast. We the viewers watch the scene on the ground via surveillance footage from a USAF MQ-9 reaper drone. Should Powell, shouldn’t she, tell the Nevada air-force base to make the strike? When she does the child dies and so do the parents in a second strike aimed at a surviving terrorist. It is gripping cinema. The dilemma, viewers understand, is real and not without precedent. Over recent decades, in the bombings of civilian areas in war torn countries which we undertake or support, or are carried out with weapons supplied by our armaments industry, are we really to believe that ‘due diligence’ is scrupulously observed? Or, when it comes to the big spenders such as Saudi Arabia, isn’t ‘due diligence’ an ethical fig-leaf?
Jus in bello, the ethical constraints that should determine conduct of war once begun, is a key part of just war theory, that common pool of mediaeval ideas and debates largely shared by Christians and Muslims and whose principles inform the Geneva Conventions. The first topic in Shari’a law is who has the authority to declare war, the why, when, and how of jihad. In both faiths the protection of innocents and non-combatants is a fundamental principle of military action. Naming the killing of civilians ‘collateral damage’ is too often the thin edge of a wedge of worse human rights violations to come. Vacuous religious extremist arguments justify terrorist atrocities against democracies by denying any category of innocents amongst ‘the enemies of God’, a case of perversity beyond casuistry.
Whether it is courageous war correspondents filming mutilated children brought into bombed hospitals by the White Helmets in Syria, or Da‘esh videos of children bombed in Afghan villages, the emotional charge of children’s suffering is enormous and evokes empathy. Yet, pilots of different nations continue to unload their ordinance from a safe height and drop their barrel bombs on fleeing refugees. In those Middle East conflicts covered by television, every last vestige of acceptable conduct in war seems to have been abandoned. The consequences are brought into our living rooms. We know that worse horrors take place unseen. Worse, we become accustomed to them.
In November last year on the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See had this to say:
“While the importance of the Convention is unquestionable and its thirtieth anniversary should indeed be celebrated, the Holy See also welcomes the fact that this celebration does not shy away from the reality that despite the near universal ratification of the Convention, many children are not respected nor protected around the world. That any child suffers violence, abuse, exploitation and that any child’s rights are violated, rejected or ignored is unacceptable and among the gravest of injustices.”
Sadly the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors over decades in the Catholic Church saps the moral force of these admirable words.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is celebrated on 20 November. Holy Innocents on 28 December is not just a day when we begin to emerge from the fairy lights into the grey winter dawn of reality. Or if we live in London and the South East don’t emerge at all. It is, though, also an opportunity for Christian Churches to intensify their work for peace, just government and the most basic of all the Rights of the Child: the right to life.
See TheArticle 22/12/20