Almost a century after the first declaration of the universal rights of children, Gaza is witnessing infants dying in numbers unseen since the Second World War — a failure which betrays the weaknesses of the original declaration itself.

A wounded Palestinian child at Al-Shifa Hospital on October 10, 2023 in Gaza City. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

For the last two months, I’ve been witnessing a genocide unfolding on my phone, above the heads of my sleeping children. Two nights ago, another mother — also cradling a toddler — arrived on my Instagram feed. Her child had been killed and, with disbelief, she said, ‘but I had 520 injections to have him’. How can the lives of children, which in the modern world we understand to be so precious that we endure even the most invasive of fertility treatments to create, be so completely dispensable? How can premature babies, for whom every advantage of medical technology was mobilised, end up in a tin foil cradle in a hospital under siege? We live in a world where even the most vulnerable of children can be saved, the most improbable of lives can be created, and yet we are witnessing infants dying in numbers unseen since the Second World War.

This disregard for children’s lives seems to belong in a distant past. It’s been almost 100 years since the needs of children were embedded at the heart of international order. In 1924, the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child was formally adopted by the League of Nations. Written by a coalition of white, left-wing British feminists, and promoted by Save the Children, it was the very first declaration of international civilian rights to be formally adopted by an intergovernmental organisation and — in that way — a forerunner to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration argued that children were the first to suffer in war or times of hardship and that they should be the first to receive help. Every Child had a right to care, and to ‘normal development, both psychically and spiritually.’ The Declaration was meant to apply to all children ‘regardless of race, nationality or creed’. But it betrayed the prejudices of the white feminists who authored it. The value of children wasn’t seen as inherent or innate, but instead was based upon what the child might grow up to give to society. All children had a right to work and training, and, the declaration stated, must be brought up ‘in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.’ A child was only valuable insofar as is could ‘give back’ to society in the future.

In 1937 Nazi bombs razed the Spanish city of Guernica to the ground. Inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, indomitable aid worker Fritzi Small imagined that protecting children must now involve moving them away from this new, deadly and indiscriminate aerial bombardment. In Spain, she relayed messages between generals on both sides, even securing an audience with General Franco, to ensure the mass evacuation of Spanish children. These evacuations became a model for the mass evacuations of children across the U.K. during the Blitz, just a few years later.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child inspired the mass evacuations that limited the number of child casualties in the Second World War. But as the horrors of fascism unfolded across Europe, child rights did not equally protect all children.

The white feminist authors of the child rights declaration had always been unsure of the position of disabled children (who might not give back to society) and refugee children (who had no national society to give back to). These feminist humanitarians flirted with eugenic ideas to describe what they termed ‘the limits of child rights’. Because children’s value wasn’t inherent or innate, which children fell beyond their limits was for individual states to decide. Jewish children in occupied Europe, stripped of citizenship, were not imagined by their society to be valuable, so what then?

The authors of the child rights declaration never tried to solve this puzzle. They looked away from the fate of Jewish children in Nazi Germany. In 1924, one Save the Children worker had not solved, but at least pre-empted the puzzle, when a copy of the Declaration was posted to him in a refugee camp in Salonika, Greece. Looking out across a sea of tents and a community of people that no nation would claim as their own, he said, it is ‘impossible’ to see how child rights could work for the stateless.

After the United Nations ratified the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Hannah Arendt was similarly sceptical. The new Human Rights that people were assured of — freedom, privacy, work, family — could only be upheld by nation-states. There was a ‘right to have rights’ that could only be conferred by citizenship. In the seventy-five years since she observed this, humanitarian agencies and the United Nations have tried to plug these gaps — providing education in refugee camps, for example — for people who do not have the ‘right to have rights’ conferred by statehood. In rare cases, the International Criminal Courts have prosecuted human rights violations, and the European Court of Human Rights provided a mechanism for people to claim human rights they were being denied by their own states. It’s never been enough.

Where Human Rights have failed, humanitarian organisations have promoted an image of children as somehow more human, more valuable, than other victims. Calling on a colonial tradition of paternalism, aid organisations asked donors to imagine themselves not in an equal relationship to the suffering child, but a parental one. The child could more easily be imagined as kin than another adult, over whom your authority would not be automatic. Because children’s selfhood, culture, ideas, or opinions did not have to be reckoned with, aid organisations could value them based on who they might become. Unlike the adults in their community — polluted by poverty or politics — they might grow up in the image of their Western saviours.

I think every day of a five-year-old boy named Iyad, who, in the image released by his family, was doing the same ‘thumbs up’ photo pose currently favoured by my four-year-old son. Is my grief for him merely a projection of my love for my son, or myself? Is his too-short life, ended by a bomb in his home in the Jabalia refugee camp, tragic because of the things he might have become? This is the way that media reportage often calls on our sympathies for the children who might have been doctors, teachers, or lawyers. They often focus on what children might become. But Iyad should have had the right to simply be. His being, not his becoming, has to be enough.

Ninety-nine years ago, the first group of women who proclaimed the rights of children, who strove to protect children from war, were only interested in children’s becoming. Children were the future, and children whose future they could not envisage were abandoned to their fate. It feels like we’ve learned nothing. Seas are rising, entire communities are being wiped out. In Britain, we have abandoned public health precautions in favour of convince and leave the old, disabled, and unwell to their fates in a pandemic that is still ongoing. In some of the world’s wealthiest nations, children are starving. More children are living under bombs and blockades than at any time since 1945. Despite advanced medical care, fertility treatments, humanitarian appeals that spotlight the pain of war-torn childhoods, perhaps we have begun to value children less.

The rights of children in Gaza must be upheld neither because they are more worthy than adults nor because of the worthy adults they might become. The rights of children in Gaza matter not because they might be like us, but because we are like them: fragile, human and dependant on each other to protect our right to be.

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