Children and the Responsibility to Protect Project

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, Banksy


The now-iconic image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey in September sparked a public outcry and turned the world’s attention to the forced migration crisis. The news of the denial of the family’s refugee visa application had an immediate impact on Canadian domestic politics prompting its politicians to speak about a global responsibility to protect children fleeing conflict zones. Yet, a few months later, following reports of widespread sexual assault incidents in Cologne on New Year’s eve, allegedly by migrants, Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, published a cartoon showing Aylan as an adult migrant who turned out to be one of the attackers in Germany. In March 2016, two Syrian nationals were found guilty of human trafficking and the manslaughter of Aylan, his mother, his brother, and two other people in Turkey. Aylan’s story is a vivid reminder that states, societies and cultures are increasingly interconnected and interdependent.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework lays down a responsibility to protect populations from the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Children are at particular risk from these crimes. They represent some of the most marginalized categories of population during armed conflicts and complex emergencies, and are disproportionately affected by violence. Children drowning in the process of crossing the Mediterranean in search of refuge from wars, girls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram, schools attacked in Pakistan, and young adolescents targeted during protests in the West Bank and Kashmir speak volumes about the vulnerabilities of children in time of conflict. And yet to date there has been little study of what R2P has to say about children. This project aims to rectify this by examining a range of questions related to the theme of children and R2P, including:

• How will R2P work in protecting children and preventing violence against them?
• How might R2P standards take into account children’s resilience?
• What is the role of children and young people in creating a world in which mass atrocities are no longer seen as viable means to achieve political ends?
• How do national, regional, and international contexts of protecting children and preventing violence against them interact with the discourse of R2P?
• Are there significant differences in dealing with children’s issues, from institutional, societal, and cultural perspectives, that have to be taken into account for the R2P framework to be effective?
• To what extent is the forced migration debate relevant to R2P and the construction of childhood?
• In what ways can local and global civil society support child-centred peace and justice agenda as part of the process of developing an ethical approach to R2P?
• What are the limits of contemporary application of R2P in protecting children?


This project brings together 18 scholars from around the world to study the theme of Children and R2P, from universities and institutions in Australia, Israel, Japan, Pakistan, and the US.


A special double issue of Global Responsibility to Protect, 10(1-2) 2018: 1-277.

Bina D'Costa

Dr Bina D'Costa

Bina is Senior Fellow/Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations in the Coral Bell School. She is also the school’s Deputy Director - Education.

At the height...

Luke Glanville

Dr Luke Glanville

Luke Glanville is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations. He graduated with his PhD in Political Science at the University of Queensland in 2010 and then worked at Griffith...

Cecilia Jacob

Dr Cecilia Jacob

Cecilia is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School. Her work focuses on civilian protection, mass atrocity prevention, and international human protection...

Dr Jochen Prantl

Jochen Prantl is an Associate Professor in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy and was Deputy Director (International Engagement) for the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs in 2017 to...

Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect

Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect: A New History

Luke Glanville, Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect: A New History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Children and Violence: Politics of Conflict in South Asia

Children and Violence: Politics of Conflict in South Asia

Bina D’Costa, ed., Children and Violence: Politics of Conflict in South Asia, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press India, 2016.

Children and Global Conflict

Children and Global Conflict

Kim Huynh, Bina D’Costa and Katrina Lee-Koo, Children and Global Conflict, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Global Responsibility to Protect, 10(1-2) 2018: 1-277.

Special Issue: Children and R2P
Guest Editors: Bina D’Costa and Luke Glanville

Children and R2P: An introduction

Luke Glanville

This introduction to the special issue on Children and R2P lays out the parallel development of the R2P and Children and Armed Conflict agendas over the last two decades and surveys how key R2P documents developed during this period have engaged with issues of child protection. It then outlines the articles that follow.

Two Agendas: R2P and Children and Armed Conflict

‘Children heard, half-heard?’: A practitioners’ look for children in the Responsibility to Protect and normative agendas on protection in armed conflict

Jeremy Shusterman and Michelle Godwin

For international practitioners in emergency responses, the interaction between the Children and Armed Conflict agenda and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) remains unclear. Although both emerged out of similar concerns for protecting civilians, the link between both concepts should not be overstated. This article argues, from an international practitioner’s perspective, that both concepts should not be understood as always operating at the same level. While the echoes of a child rights agenda can be heard in the conversation around R2P, and while R2P can help frame and drive efforts by child protection practitioners to respond to some of the worst situations children face, R2P is, for the protection agency field officer, an aspirational goal, necessarily out of reach.

‘The intolerable impact of armed conflict on children’: The United Nations Security Council and the protection of children in armed conflict

Katrina Lee-Koo

The United Nations Security Council’s Children and Armed Conflict agenda is animated by a protection ethic. While the protection of children from violence in armed conflict is entirely appropriate, this article demonstrates that the Council’s singular focus upon protection goes beyond merely appropriate, and borders upon overbearing. The article traces the ways that dominant conceptualisations of children as ‘innocent victims’ has animated an agenda that focuses primarily upon their victimisation that, in turn, reinforces the legitimacy of the protection ethic. It argues that this excludes a nuanced understanding of the lived experiences of children in conflict. In this sense, the agenda is closed to exploring the ways in which children resist, adapt, shape, and survive conflict in ways that position them as agents of their own protection and ‒ in some circumstances – agents of community resilience amidst conflict. Ultimately, this article argues that re-visioning children’s relationship to armed conflict provides a strategy to better ensure children’s rights and reflects their relationship to peace.

R2P and the prevention of mass atrocities: A child-centric approach

Cecilia Jacob

Prevention has taken centrestage in present discussions around both United Nations reform and the R2P implementation agenda. Contemporary humanitarian crises from Myanmar to Yemen reinforce the horrendous atrocities that children face during periods of armed conflict and mass political upheaval to which the prevention agenda is geared. This article considers the atrocity prevention dimension of R2P; it describes changes in both understanding around the dynamics of political violence and strategies for targeting civilians in contemporary conflicts over the past two decades, situates children in the broader social context of mass political violence, and identifies strategies for incorporating a child-centric lens into the existing atrocity prevention toolkit. It argues that while the children and armed conflict agenda strengthens atrocity prevention efforts in relation to children’s specific experiences in violent conflict, it does not serve as an adequate proxy for a child-centric approach to atrocity prevention through both structural and targeted measures.

The politics of norm glocalisation: Limits in applying R2P to protecting children

Jochen Prantl and Ryoko Nakano

Two-thirds of the global child population live in countries affected by violent and high-intensity conflict. International humanitarian law provides broad protection for children in the event of armed conflict. However, as the 2017 report of the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict stresses, the scale and severity of grave violations has increased. This article addresses the central puzzle of why the existing legal and normative frameworks of child protection have achieved so little in addressing the marginalisation and disempowerment of children in armed conflict. We argue that the contemporary application of R2P in protecting children will be limited unless at least two fundamental challenges are met: taming power politics, and squaring inherent contradictions between the global R2P norm and national and regional normative frameworks of child protection. We highlight the case of Japan to illustrate the limits of the contemporary application of R2P in protecting children.

Representing Children

Responsibility to protect the future: Children on the move and the politics of becoming

Jana Tabak and Letícia Carvalho

Protection, development, progress: this is the trilogy of promises carried by the international framework for protecting young people. Based on the analysis of the UNICEF Unfairy Tales project videos, this article aims to unveil the fierce battle over the meaning of children for the international arena. Specifically, how does the compelling claim for an international responsibility to protect children contain a promise of a progressive future to global politics. The focus is on the discursive manoeuvres that articulate the so called ‘children on the move’ as the epitome of vulnerability, positioning them as requiring protection; and, at the same time, as the image of a future at risk, threatened by violence and the prospects of an uncivilised becoming. We discuss how this ambivalent understanding of childhood might produce limits to contemporary application of child protection practices.

R2P and the novel: The trope of the abandoned refugee child in Stella Leventoyannis Harvey’s The Brink of Freedom

Erin Goheen Glanville

The abandoned refugee child is a powerful yet simplistic cultural trope that can inspire intense, sympathetic reactions to asylum seekers but cannot sustain that sympathy in more complex contexts. In contrast, literary novels unpack the intricacies, details, and nuances of refugee children’s experiences, serving as a reliable representation of reality and a winsome pedagogical tool for increasing curiosity and attention to refugee children. As cultural pedagogy, refugee fiction promotes public discussions around the complex situations of vulnerable children, educates readers about sovereignty as responsibility, and thus mobilises and nuances the political will to fulfill a nation’s responsibility to protect. This article uses the example of Stella Leventoyannis Harvey’s Canadian novel The Brink of Freedom, which embeds complex, even contradictory, representations of R2P issues into the concrete, intimate details of a displaced child’s perspective.

Ultimate tests: Children, rights, and the politics of protection

J. Marshall Beier

Whether in the rhetorical strategies of the campaign to ban landmines, appeals for famine relief, or the present historical apex of mass refugee migration, deployed images of abject childhood are central to the visual economies of humanitarian crisis. As the quintessential innocents deemed in need of protection, children are constructed outside of meaningful subjecthood and objectified as the evocative ‘scenery’ of the politics of protection. As such, children’s place in these visual economies together with their relative voicelessness are particularly revealing of how the concept of protection is beset by a paradox it cannot resolve: simultaneously imperative in consequence of diminished political subjecthood and itself demeaning of that same subjecthood. Tracing the problematique of children’s agency and subjecthood through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and applicable aspects of legal regimes in Canada both beholden to the Convention and charged with care and protection of children, this article offers insights relevant to, but perhaps less immediately apparent, in the context of the R2P regarding the tricky and fraught intersections of childhood, subjecthood, and protection.

Case Studies

Children on the front lines: Responsibility to Protect in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

Timea Spitka

Children are disproportionately affected in violent conflict, are vulnerable to exploitation, and lack protection when a state is failing in its responsibility to protect. In the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, children, particularly those living in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and parts of the West Bank are not only vulnerable during escalations but are subject to exploitation, detentions, and severe security measures. Divisions over culpability have made the local representatives and the international community incapable or unwilling to take collective action to protect this most vulnerable population. Given the divisive international context, are there R2P tools that can be used effectively to enhance protection for children and teenagers in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The focus on the protection of children demonstrates first, the need to closely analyse current protection tools particularly under Pillar III of R2P; second, the importance to eradicate unintended effects of protection efforts, and third, the potential contribution of focus on children towards reaching a consensus on a protection regime.

Post-war stigma, violence, and ‘Kony children’: The Responsibility to Protect children born in Lord’s Resistance Army captivity in northern Uganda

Myriam Denov and Atim Angela Lakor

This article explores the role and framework of R2P in relation to children born of conflict-related sexual violence in northern Uganda, a population largely overlooked in the post-war period. Drawing upon the direct experiences and perspectives of a sample of 60 children born in Lord’s Resistance Army captivity, the article highlights the significant stigma and violence that these children continue to face in the post-war context. The post-war lives of these children not only demonstrate the multiple hardships they face as a result of the fallout of war, but also highlight the situation of these children as secondary and inter-generational victims of war that would benefit from the protection of the R2P framework and subsequent support.

Prevent to protect: Early warning, child soldiers, and the case of Syria

Dustin Johnson, Shelly Whitman, Hannah Sparwasser Soroka

The war currently raging in Syria is without a doubt the most serious failure of the R2P paradigm. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been brutally killed while the world has looked on, largely unable to affect events on the ground. The use of child soldiers by all sides in the conflict has been well documented, and the authors’ previous work has demonstrated the importance of the recruitment and use of child soldiers as an early warning indicator. Yet, the world has consistently failed to act preventatively, and this is most notable in the case of Syria. This article takes the Syrian war as a case study to examine how the recruitment and use of child soldiers can serve as an early warning indicator of mass atrocities and be used to help prevent conflict escalation.

Conclusion: Of responsibilities, protection, and rights: Children’s lives in conflict zones

Bina D’Costa

The endorsement of R2P by the UNGA and the UNSC does not give the doctrine legal status, however, such broad acceptance in the international community gives the concept some normative force. Although the UNGA formulation of R2P can be considered to be the most authoritative, as demonstrated by the articles in this special issue, the doctrine could be further advanced in relation to children in conflict zones. This article provides some reflections about recent UNICEF emergency response experiences in dealing with the Rohingya displacement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Funding for Project

Dr Luke Glanville and Dr Bina d’Costa from the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs have secured funding through the Asia-Pacific Innovation Program (APIP) to develop new research on “Children and the Responsibility to Protect” – a framework which will be used to protect populations (particularly children) from the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.


The Children and the Responsibility to Protect Project is located in the Hedley Bull Building situated on the corner of Liversidge St and Garran Road on the ANU campus.

Postal address

Department of International Relations
Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs
Hedley Bull Building
130 Garran Road
The Australian National University Acton ACT 2601 Australia

Telephone and fax

T +61 (0)2 6125 4451
F +61 (0)2 6125 8010


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