Since the heady post-Cold War years, when many in the Free World were sure that the global tide was moving less toward dictatorship and extremism, and more toward freedom and tolerance, the world has instead shifted dramatically the other way.

As Western governments exhibited moral, military and strategic complacency, ant-democratic regimes and forces gained ground. Today, more, not less, people live under tyrannical and fanatical rule, and rulers are finding more cruel and dystopian ways to oppress them. Children, who have nothing to do with any of this, are caught in the maelstrom. Moreover, children are increasingly targeted with violence and atrocities.

Tragically for children and their persecuted families and communities, in parallel with the serious deterioration in global human rights in recent decades, there has been a significant decline in human rights advocacy. Moreover, Reagan-esque speeches and coherent geopolitical strategies in defense of the democratic way of life have been conspicuously absent.

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Progressives have succumbed to moral relativism that emphasizes “co-existence” with authoritarian, even brutal, regimes; international corporations have overlooked human rights violations for the sake of profit; new-right isolationists have simplistically equated overseas involvement with “endless war.”

Thus, the imperative of standing up for human rights that deeply influenced post-World War II thinking, policies and institutions, has become a niche endeavor, pursued by certain groups and committees, while not seen as a personal or societal obligation.

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Making matters worse, my scan of human rights reports reveals only a marginal and occasional (and declining) focus on children. Save the Children, Justice Rapid Response (JRR) and The Ukraine Conflict Observatory are commendable outliers.

Appalling mistreatment

According to JRR’s Federica Tronchin, “it has become very clear that one of the overlooked components of international justice work is child victims.” Yet children around the world today are enduring heinous, heartbreaking levels and kinds of mistreatment. In Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, North Korea, Tibet, the Xinjang region of China, and many other places, their situation is dire.

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Children are physically, intellectually and emotionally dependent and impressionable relative to adults, and rely on adult protection, assistance and guidance. On the other hand, children are vulnerable to being hidden and silenced by adults who choose to do them harm. Sadly, in places beset by oppression or terror, parents, relatives and mentors can be so persecuted themselves that they cannot, as hard as they try, shield the children from horrors.

In such terrible places, adults in power can get away with physically or sexually assaulting children, abducting or conscripting them, bullying or indoctrinating them. When even loving caretakers are not free enough to save children, it is up to adults in the Free World – policymakers, lawmakers, journalists, academics, NGOs, religious leaders, citizens – to speak and act.

The first and fundamental step is deciding not to look away. Might free peoples be moved to care more about severely oppressed peoples if they looked beyond their nationalities – Syrians, North Koreans, Venezuelans, etc. – and focused more on their personal struggles in the thralls of extremist regimes? And might they especially be moved if they looked at the plight therein of children?

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Overlooking human rights means overlooking children who desperately need a light shone on their tragic reality. It is in dark, invisible places that those who exploit children prefer to reside.

Ukraine

Regarding Ukraine, it should be impossible to support a negotiated settlement that would allow Russia to keep some occupied territories after seeing Russia’s barbarically cruel treatment of children in those territories and throughout Ukraine.

In addition to bombing apartments, schools, hospitals, farms, cultural treasures and critical infrastructure, all the while ravaging, raping and torturing, Russians have abducted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia and Belarus. At least 6,000 of them are held in camps and facilities where they are indoctrinated, a new report shows.

Imagine the unimaginable: the trauma to children and loved ones of being forcibly separated. Russia’s war of aggression has in addition left at least 1,500 Ukrainian children orphaned, and many casualties.

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Ukrainian children have seen things no child should ever see, from soldiers raping or torturing their mothers or relatives to the utter devastation of their homes and towns. Adolescents have been victims of rape and torture and children were not spared the massacre and horrors at Bucha and elsewhere. The psychological scars of enduring relentless bombardment and witnessing terrible atrocities should not be underestimated.

China

The topic of children forcibly separated from parents and homes leads to China, where, too, the cruelty to children defies imagination. As part of its genocidal policies against Uyghurs and Tibetans, Xi Jinping and Chinese Communist Party cadres have created a system of “coercive boarding schools” that isolate millions of children from their families, and indoctrinate and militarize them.

Scholarly research (especially by Dr. Adrian Zenz) and leaked videos expose the CCP’s dystopian surveillance-police state in Xinjang and Tibet: not only the extreme torture and abuse of adults in camps and forced labor facilities, but also the sadistic intimidation of young children by overpowering males in locked “boarding schools.” One particularly heartbreaking video shows little boys trying hard not to cry to avoid punishment. 

North Korea

The subject of camps, in turn, leads to North Korea, where horrific atrocities continue, but regarding which the Free World is numbingly silent. While the government relies on an entrenched system of camps, I have argued the country itself is like a camp, wherein the people endure ubiquitous, omnipresent repression and indoctrination. Children are brainwashed from an early age and family members are expected to spy on each other.

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Highlighting a 2016 report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Marcus Noland showed that North Korean Christians are especially vulnerable: “Christians are routinely sent to the kwanliso or political prison camps. There they are subjected to torture including beatings, being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges, trampled underfoot, and used as test subjects for medical training and experimentation.”

Since then, gruesome torture of Christians, including young children, in “re-education camps” has actually increased. Christian persecution is at crisis levels across the world yet is mostly ignored. Following North Korea and Afghanistan, which are the very worst, countries with the worst Christian persecution are Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India. Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, too, face religious persecution along with smothering socialist repression.

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Syria

Syria is another country whose people are mostly forgotten, in spite of the endless hostilities and atrocities, including against children, committed by Bashar al Assad and allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

In a recent article, I highlighted the suffering and the increasing indifference of the “international community,” and the regional fallout. A 2020 UN report showed children experiencing devastating hardship, abuse and trauma. Children were being killed and maimed in a war that included pro-government forces’ use of cluster munitions, thermobaric bombs and chemical weapons.

Children “suffer(ed) from disabilities as well as devastating psychological and development issues.” Children as well as adults have been subjected to detention, physical and sexual violence, torture and mass displacement, and still endure a reign of terror. The dire humanitarian and refugee crisis cry for our attention.

Middle East and Africa

In Iran, the regime brutalized young protestors who demonstrated in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the hands of the “morality police.” Protestors as young as 12 were raped and violated. The brave Iranian people want release from a regime that deploys detentions, torture and executions against free speech and expression, persecutes ethnic minorities, women and adolescents, and endorses child marriages.

In Afghanistan, the precipitous withdrawal of US forces and ascendancy of the Taliban have meant children live with terror, homelessness, hunger, extreme misogyny, child labor, child marriage, child trafficking, sexual abuse and lack of decent education. The scourge of child trafficking for sexual exploitation or forced labor has metastasized across the globe and, because it’s become a serious problem in the US, is finally garnering our serious attention.

The number of children living in conflict zones and/or displaced has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. Many conflicts, such as in Yemen, Myanmar, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Somalia,  include Islamist terror, murder of civilians, and child soldiers whose ranks have grown steadily in recent decades.

Child soldiers are all too often kidnapped, physically or sexually assaulted, plied with drugs, brainwashed and threatened into participating in attacks. Children in Palestine and elsewhere are indoctrinated toward jihad, and Gazan children are tragic victims in the current war. The world saw some of the worst atrocities it had ever seen in Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack against Israeli families and teenagers. Israeli hostages, including adolescents and children, have suffered the cruelest inhumanity, including repeated rape of young women. Meanwhile, antisemitism is growing alarmingly worldwide.

Time to act

Clearly, democracies’ languid deterrence, flimsy penalties on atrocity committers and frequent willingness to overlook human rights did not buy the longed-for post-Cold War repose. Perhaps recognition of our own lethargy and apathy will compel us to face the consequences for the world’s children?

On the other hand, perhaps recognition of the abuse, targeting and traumatization of children will open hearts and minds to broader concerns of human rights; analysts arguing against appeasement of the world’s worst dictators and aggressors would do well to highlight their mistreatment of children.

Voice of America-type programs should be invigorated and should include specialized focus on children in the hands of extremist groups and regimes. The US Congress could use the Magnitsky Act as a model for imposing sanctions and financial penalties on authoritarian officials responsible for “crimes against children.”

Western entities and companies that abet the abusers should be exposed.

With both impassioned pleas for liberty and brutal crackdowns on civil society intensifying, free people should show they care about the freedom of others, especially the most innocent and vulnerable. Who better to be alert to the worldwide suffering of children, and to the terrible predicament of their parents and loved ones, than policymakers, journalists and citizens who are free to speak and act. The time to remain silent and indifferent has passed.

 

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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