• Refugees primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan crossing the border on foot from Sid in Serbia to Croatia. (Plan International/Jodi Hilton)Source: Plan International/Jodi Hilton
As photos flood the internet of Syrian children suffocating after a gas attack, Plan International's deputy CEO, Susanne Legena, urges us to harness our anger and demand change.
Susanne Legena, deputy CEO of Plan International Australia

5 Apr 2017 - 5:43 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2017 - 10:00 AM

There are pivotal moments in history that represent a turning of the tide for human compassion and inspire us to fight for what is right. There is power in an image that words cannot capture.

A grainy photograph of a terrified girl, the Napalm-poisoned landscape ablaze behind her, running from a war she had no part in but will forever be associated with as a symbol of the end of US-occupation of Vietnam.

The achingly silent image of a lifeless child lying facedown on a Turkish beach, that inspired our government to open the door to 12,000 refugees fleeing the same war. 

And today, those of Syria’s children suffocating, choking, gasping for air while their panic-stricken parents carry them to medical professionals that can do little to save them.  Eleven – perhaps more – of these children died.

Widespread condemnation of chemical attack in Idlib, Syria
A chemical attack has killed at least 58 people, many of them children, in north-west Syria.  

Every morning I sit on the tram, scouring Twitter and Facebook for global development news. Although it is my job, I tend to avoid the items with a graphic content warning. But today I could not scroll past these photos.

I have a four-year-old daughter with asthma. There have been many times when I’ve sat up all night to watch her breathe. As a parent, it is dreadful to watch your child struggle for air. These images are my worst fears realised.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to see your child die in front of you, choking on a chemical released by a truly evil force.

I understand that Syria is complicated, but when children are dying from illegal chemical weapons, you have to question how world leaders can allow this to happen.

How much longer must the people of Syria endure the intolerable cruelty of watching their children die in their arms?

Today our own Government has responded with the threat of further sanctions. But after six years of war, what difference can that make?  

Syria’s children don’t need a promise of sanctions. What they need is action. They need a plan and a commitment from the world to protect them.  

As I write, members of the European Union are meeting in Brussels to support the Syrian peace process and United Nations representatives will meet to demand accountability. But the truth is that as negotiations enter their seventh year and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates 17,000 children are dead, none of it has made much difference.

Why? Because there has been a consistent failure of regional and global powers to agree on how to end this.

Yesterday’s heinous attack is clearly a breach of multiple United Nations Conventions, including the Geneva Protocol which prohibits the use of gas in warfare and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, article 38, which states governments must do everything they can to protect and care for children affected by war.

Yet to date, no one has been brought to account. What kind of a world do we live in where perpetrators can just use chemicals to kill children with no culpability whatsoever?

Children deserve safety and to be protected from the worst of humanity. How much longer must the people of Syria endure the intolerable cruelty of watching their children die in their arms?

As a leader working in a child rights organisation that provides direct assistance to Syrian refugee children, I am more empowered than most, but I still feel helpless. This crisis needs a political solution. And politicians only listen when people put pressure on governments to act.

Perhaps it’s time for people like you and I to take it upon ourselves to increase the pressure for politicians to do more?

We do have power, every one of us. We can give money to any one of dozens of humanitarian agencies working on the ground in Syria to protect children.  

An image can change the world, but only if we stop to really look at it.

We can write to our MPs and demand they do more to end this.

We can share these terrible stories and encourage our friends and family to overcome clicktivism-numbness so that they too understand that these are real people, who are suffering right now.

It’s been 45 years since AP photographer Nick Ut photographed a terrified little girl in Vietnam. The world has changed, yet our instinctive sense of shared humanity hasn’t.

An image can change the world, but only if we stop to really look at it.

I hope one positive will emerge from this horror. Let it be that pivotal moment that brings about a change that compels more of us to harness our anger and demand justice for Syria’s children.  

Find out more about Plan International’s work in Syria on their website.

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