Working in Latin America, we saw that many who suffered human rights abuses were unknown and often apolitical civilians – families, whole villages, targeted as a strategy of war. We committed ourselves to their protection – a controversial choice to a human rights movement concerned at the time with the peacetime protection of often-prominent political prisoners and dissidents. Controversial as well was our decision to break from the human rights movement’s exclusive focus on governments, and to address atrocities that rebel forces commit. We saw these steps as necessary to protect those most vulnerable to harm.
Classic international human rights law does not address how warring parties behave. When we enlarged our focus, therefore, we turned to international humanitarian law – particularly the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their protocols. These laws define what the right to life means in an armed conflict, and seek to spare civilians the hazards of war. They apply to all warring parties, whether governmental or not.
We defended the victims of wartime abuse not only in Central America, but also in such places as Angola, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Case by documented case, our investigations helped to give life to such principles as the duty of fighters not to target civilians and the responsibility of commanders to rein in abusive forces. Ultimately, these standards for addressing the perils that civilians face in wartime have become central to the human rights cause.

Human Rights Watch continues to pursue ways to reduce the human costs of war. We remain the only human rights organization with a division devoted to denying abusive forces the weapons of abuse and stigmatizing governments that supply these arms. We succeeded, for example, in exposing France’s role in arming Rwandan forces responsible for the 1994 genocide, which spurred the United Nations to establish the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda), with a mandate to investigate violations of a UN arms embargo imposed on Rwanda at the genocide’s height.
We are also working to end a particularly odious wartime abuse – the use of children as soldiers. Children, horribly, make “good” soldiers: they are physically vulnerable and easily manipulated, unable to resist efforts to draw them into violence or to appreciate its consequences. Building on our previous studies in Liberia, Burma and Sudan, we recently investigated a rebel group in Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children to act as soldiers, porters, or fighters’ “wives.” Children who try to escape or cannot keep up with the others are killed, sometimes by other children forced to beat their comrades to death.
To address the global problem – the estimated quarter of a million child soldiers around the world – we helped to form a coalition seeking an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which would make 18 the minimum age for participating in armed conflict. Although the U.S. government stands with Somalia as the only nations in the world not to have signed the Convention, it has nevertheless blocked everyone else from adopting this protocol. Standing against this force are such individuals as Angelina Atyam Acheng, the mother of a 14-year-old girl abducted by the LRA, and a human rights defender whom we honored at our annual dinner in 1997. The group of parents of abducted children to which she belongs demonstrates the resilience of citizens in defending their human rights – whether the terror that threatens them comes from a recognized government or an armed rebel force. In 1998 we also arranged and attended a meeting between Angelina Atyam and First Lady Hillary Clinton just weeks before the Clintons’ historic visit to Africa. During her visit to Uganda, the First Lady paid special attention to the issue of child soldiers and spoke out strongly against the LRA’s abduction of children.