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Speech

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds addresses National Centenary Event in Canberra
25 November 2019

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. 

This Memorial carries the names of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who – in an era of discrimination and exclusion - fought for this country with equal bravery and equal commitment. 

And yet too many of their children and grandchildren are still denied their equal right to a good job, a safe community, justice in the courts and a long and healthy life.

Ensuring the children of the world’s oldest living culture are healthy and happy and empowered to fulfil their potential will always be a priority for our organisation. 

Like Karen (Middleton), I would like to welcome the many distinguished guests here this evening. 

I would especially like to thank the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel, the Hon. Darren Chester MP for being here.

As well as the Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy MP.

We’re incredibly privileged to have Dr Susan Neuhaus speaking to us this evening, and our own Sonia Khush of course. 

We meet tonight in a sacred place. 

A memorial commissioned by a shattered nation in the wake of what so many prayed would be the war to end all wars, and then opened in the middle of a second, even deadlier global conflict. 

When Prime Minister John Curtin opened the Australian War Memorial he called it a ‘treasure house’ for the national memory, a tribute from a grateful country to the memory of its brave sons and daughters.

Then – and now – there was no talk of triumph, or victory, no tales of desperate glory. 

Instead this memorial was conceived as the physical expression of a promise Australia had made to the fallen a century ago - that “at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”. 

And in that spirit this building has its siblings all around the country: humble monuments in country towns, honour-rolls in local halls where the surnames come in twos and threes, brothers who never came home. 

But of course, this Memorial also fulfils another purpose, it stands here in Canberra – in the sight of our national parliament – to remind the decision-makers in that building of the sacrifices that preserved our democracy.  

And to remind our politicians of the indelible, irretrievable damage war inflicts on countries, families and lives. 

For a hundred years, Save the Children has sought to carry that same message to parliaments around the world.  

Our organisation was born out of the same trauma and devastation, the same sense of grief and shock and loss that commissioned this memorial a century ago. 

And just as this Memorial commemorates the service and sacrifice of the past…

…our mission demands that all of us at Save the Children continue to tell the hard, harsh and unforgiving truth about the horrors of the present. 

One hundred years ago, two English sisters, Eglantyne Jebb and Dorothy Buxton, set out to tell the world about children starving in Berlin and Vienna as a result of the continuing Allied Blockade. 

In a Britain exhausted, nearly broken, by war, this was a hard truth to tell. 

Eglantyne was arrested for distributing leaflets in Trafalgar Square. 

Tried, found guilty and fined 5 pounds. 

Yet her compassion and her passion were so powerful that the Crown’s prosecuting counsel himself donated 5 pounds to her cause. 

It would have been easy for those sisters to say “charity begins at home”, to turn away from the difficult arguments of helping children in nations who had – bare months before – been England’s sworn enemy. 

Yet they chose the hard truth, the steep and rocky road of true humanity – and we have followed in their footsteps ever since. 

It is easy for us to say ‘Lest We Forget’. It is easy to buy a poppy, wear a badge and observe a moment of silence twice a year.

But if we truly want to honour the memory of generations who fought and died in the cause of peace – then we must do more to help those who always endure the worst, suffer the most and can do the least to defend themselves – children. 

1.1 million visitors pass through the doors of this place every year. 

145,000 of those are school students. 

For those young Australians, this is as close as they will come to the horror of war: the artefacts of history, the names of the honoured dead. 

But for children the same age – in Syria, in Myanmar, in Afghanistan, in Yemen…

…for the 1 in 5 children who live in conflict zones around the world…

...war is not confined to dioramas and displays, war is the terrifying, traumatizing centre of daily life.

For 1 in 5 children, war still means starvation and malnutrition. 

Around the world, war still denies 1 in 5 children the opportunity of an education, the right to decent health care, clean water and basic sanitation. 

In Syria, one in three schools has either been damaged or destroyed. 

2.1 million Syrian children are out of school and 1.3 million are close to dropping out.

War still denies 1 in 5 children the chance to grow up free from trauma.

After 8 years in the grip of crisis, half of all children in Syria have grown up knowing nothing but war. 

Two years ago, 400,000 Rohingya children fled with their families from their homes in Myanmar, driven out by brutal and systematic discrimination and violence. 

In overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, children are growing up with the barest of education and no sense of home, self or identity. 

125,000 more children are still trapped in Myanmar, just as likely to starve to death as learn to read. 
The Australian Government can be proud of the contribution it has made, and continues to make, to alleviate the tragic toll that war has on the lives of children. 

We have been a generous humanitarian donor to all of these conflicts and more…

Yet– 100 years after our founders first told the hard truth about the toll of war on children – we have to confront the fact that things are getting worse. 

New research from Save the Children has found that more children are being exposed to armed violence than at any time in the last 20 years.

420 million children worldwide are living in a conflict zone -and that number has grown by 30 million in the past three years alone.

And while war denies children the right to healthcare and education and a safe place to live, war also denies children the most basic right of all, the right to grow up. 

For every fighter killed in conflict between 2013 and 2017, five children have died.

And for brutal regimes around the world, children are not just collateral damage – they are weapons.

Child soldiers. 

Suicide bombers. 

And instruments of propaganda. 

Children are deliberately and disproportionately targeted to strike fear into the population at large.

Their deaths intended as bloody, gruesome proof that one side will stop at nothing to crush the other. 

Think of the school bus bombed in Yemen.

40 children dead. Dozens more injured.

Every month more than 37 children are killed by foreign-made bombs in Yemen.

Through four long years of fighting, basic international standards of conduct have been openly ignored by a sickening worldview that sees children as just another ready weapon in wartime. 

Of course, it’s human nature to recoil from such horror. 

And it’s perhaps understandable that when we hear of atrocities on such a scale as this, we wonder to ourselves if there’s anything we in Australia can do, or any point in even trying. 

But I put it to you tonight, that kind of thinking is a betrayal of the people whom this building remembers. 
That kind of attitude disrespects the sacrifice of all those who fought and died - not just in defence of this nation but for the cause of freedom. 

And in the spirit of telling the hard truth, Australia does not have the luxury of pretending we are not already involved. 

Australia has been an exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, prime combatants in the war in Yemen…
A war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian emergency. Right now, there are dozens of Australian children languishing in refugee camps in North-East Syria. 

Our citizens. 

Kids who should be riding their bikes in our streets, playing football and cricket in our suburbs, learning in our classrooms, making friends in our playgrounds.

Instead, they’ve living on the edge of humanity and experienced the kind of violence that no child should. 

A place where over 400 children have already died, and a harsh winter approaches. 

No one is defending the actions of their parents, who must face justice. But we must defend the rights of every child to live, to be protected and to be educated. 

Australia has the power to repatriate these children and support their recovery; their reintegration into our society. 

A society that values them and protects them from harm. 

A society which stands for the rule of law and defends the rights and freedoms of every individual, no matter how young. 

Punishing these children for the crimes of their parents only risks traumatising and radicalising another generation. 

This is why we’re going to keep speaking out.  

 ‘The children are always innocent’. 

Our founders believed that, with every fibre of their being. 

And that principle – the innocence of children – matters more than opinion polls. 

There is more Australia can do, more Australia must do. 

As a wealthy and generous nation, we can and must commit more funds to assist the recovery of children from the physical harm and psychological damage inflicted by war
As a leader in our region, we can and must continue to use our influence – as the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne has done…

To ensure perpetrators of atrocities against children, such as those which took place against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar are brought to justice.

And as we seek to uphold basic human rights abroad, we will always be mindful of inequality and injustice here in our own nation. 

Tonight, we commemorate the bravery of our founders, we celebrate the dedication of all those who have kept the torch burning this last 100 years. 

And we promise to each other that we will continue to tell the hard truths, confront the worst of humanity and stand up in defence of those who need us most.

As ever, our mission is as complex as difficult and as vital as our name. 

Because there is nothing that matters more, than to Save the Children.

ENDS

For media inquiries contact Kimberley Gardiner on 0437 435 777.

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