A New Tool for Influencing Policy: The Children and Armed Conflict App

A 14-year old girl was shot in the head in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last week in retaliation for speaking out against the Taliban’s ban on girl’s education. It now seems Malala Yousafzai will survive, but the story of her attack provoked outrage around the world. How can such a despicable attack be condemned using the “ammunition” of international law? What relevant UN resolutions apply in this case? And how does this compare to previous Taliban actions against girls in Pakistan?

For policymakers, journalists, and human rights advocates seeking answers to these questions, there may be an app for them.  A new Children and Armed Conflict smartphone app, created by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict in collaboration with Liechtenstein’s mission to the UN, focuses on tools for influencing UN policymakers in particular.

While this latest atrocity by the Taliban may seem unprecedented in its brazenness, the Children and Armed Conflict app quickly dispels this myth. In the Country Situation section, it provides information on grave violations committed against children in Pakistan extracted from the UN Secretary-General’s latest report on children and armed conflict. According to the report, children have consistently been victims of indiscriminate attacks in Pakistan, and schools and school buses have been directly targeted by armed groups. In an ominous precursor to last week’s attack, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for a double attack on a government primary school in December 2011, reportedly acting in opposition to secular and girls’ education. Similar language was used by the armed group this time around when they claimed responsibility for shooting Yousafzai and said they singled her out for her role in preaching secularism.

In fact, the report counted 152 incidents last year of partial or complete destruction of school facilities in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Swat is located, and the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It’s not clear how many children and civilian deaths resulted from these attacks on educational facilities, but 57 children were killed in an array of bombings, shellings, and targeted attacks over the course of the year.

The app’s Legal Framework section shows which legislation establishes all children’s right to an education and which sources make attacks on schools and school facilities during conflict illegal. Relevant UN resolutions are displayed by topic and by number.

So what are the policy implications? After just a few minutes spent tapping the smartphone screen, it became clear that last week’s shooting was a dramatic event in a systematic campaign against children and education in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. And Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for such attacks before. Targeted attacks on children are sadly not unprecedented, and effective child-protection measures appear to be lacking.

The Secretary-General’s report mentioned the establishment of a child protection policy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in January 2012. So further action may be needed to support and implement this policy, and a similar one may be needed in neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province if it doesn’t already exist. The Legal Framework section also highlighted a mechanism established by Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005) for monitoring and reporting grave violations that include killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools.

Of course, the app provides a limited amount of information, and any substantive case would require much more research, not least on the ground. In addition, its functionality could be improved. For example, after reading the news articles, it’s difficult to return to the application; more generally, navigation buttons to return to the previous page or the main menu aren’t always there when you need them. And at present, the app is only available for Apple products.

But there’s no doubt that making key documents and language on child-protection issues more readily available to policymakers, practitioners, and reporters who need to react quickly is a positive step. A Women, Peace and Security app has also gathered relevant UN resolutions in one place to this end, although its large text and sometimes cumbersome design could be more user-friendly.

Despite the calls for leveraging new technologies to help address pressing concerns in security, development, and human rights, issue-driven apps like these are still few and far between. They are small but potentially powerful tools when put to good use. And girls like Yousafzai—a National Peace Award winner who had been blogging about the Taliban’s actions against girl’s education, according to the app’s newsfeed—need all the help they can get.

Marie O’Reilly is the Publications Officer at the International Peace Institute. She tweets at Marie_O_R.