In Hindsight: Children and Armed Conflict
The children and armed conflict agenda has had a difficult few years. Increasingly complex crisis have led to a deteriorating situation for children in conflict situations and a rise in violations against them. New challenges have emerged in the form of non-state actors such as ISIL and Boko Haram. In 2015 and 2016, controversial decisions were made by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regarding removal of parties from the annexes in the annual report on children and armed conflict. In our latest research report, “Children and Armed Conflict: Sustaining the Agenda”, we look at recent developments and how the system created to maintain pressure on perpetrators of violations is coping with these challenges.
The children and armed conflict agenda has shown resilience under pressure. In 2016, Secretary-General Ban’s decision to remove the Saudi Arabia-led coalition from the annexes soon after it was listed for violations against children in Yemen, pending a review, raised questions about the politicisation of listing decisions and the credibility of the mechanism set up to gather information and monitor violations against children which is fundamental to this agenda. The decision of Secretary-General António Guterres to list the Saudi Arabia-led coalition this year has helped restore some trust in the listing mechanism, but the system needs to be better equipped to protect the mandate. Maintaining the independence of the mechanism and the credibility of information and listing decisions are essential. The revision of the format of the annual report to include a more preventive aspect could be a potentially useful tool in encouraging progress on the necessary steps to be delisted. To be effective, it requires a refinement of the reporting process, including regular outreach and advocacy between the Office of the Special Representative and the parties listed in order to enhance transparency and provide regular feedback over the year. In addition, ensuring adequate resources for the monitoring and reporting mechanism is critical in maintaining its ability to function properly.
The Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, which began functioning on 23 November 2005, has over the years played a key role by applying pressure on perpetrators through the adoption of conclusions on country-specific reports. In a special section in our report we highlight the role different chairs have played over the years and illustrate how divisions in the Council affected the dynamics of the Working Group. Although at times the politics at the Council level adversely affected the output of the Working Group, it continued to persevere in carrying out its responsibilities, albeit sometimes at a slower pace.
In 2017, the Working Group members appear to be working well together, and under the chairpersonship of Sweden it has adopted four conclusions and at time of writing is close to finalising its fifth. An area that deserves further attention is the follow-up on the implementation of the Working Group’s conclusions. A number of options could be considered. The Working Group could request a short, specific follow-up report to conclusions on a country-specific report. In addition, having a follow-up meeting on recently adopted conclusions with the appropriate representatives of the party concerned would allow the Working Group to gauge the level of implementation of its recommendations. Greater interaction with child protection advisers from the field, to get a better understanding of how the conclusions are being implemented and how they can be made more useful, would also be helpful. The Working Group could also request that the Secretary-General’s reports on situations listed in the annexes include a separate section on follow-up to the implementation of its conclusions. In order to address criticism that it has not been flexible in the face of emerging or deteriorating crisis involving children, the Working Group could request regular updates from the Special Representative on emerging situations where child protection issues have arisen.
The Office of the Special Representative is a crucial element in the children and armed conflict architecture. It prepares for submission the Secretary-General’s reports on children and armed conflict in country-specific situations and the annual report. Together with the child protection advisers of UNICEF and UN peace operations, it works with parties on action plans, which are the first step towards getting off the annexes. Our report looks at the implementation of action plans during the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign which ran from 2014 – 2016, with the aim of getting governments to sign and implement action plans to stop the recruitment and use of children. The report also examines situations that have been delisted over the years to assess the reasons why parties might be motivated to comply with action plans. We find that beyond “naming and shaming” and pressure from the Council, both governments and non-state armed groups are more likely to be spurred into action if the issue of violations against children is placed within the context of their national interest, and a government or armed group has the political will to improve its reputation in the eyes of the international community. The report’s case study on Colombia illustrates how peace talks can provide the right opening for a deeper conversation about protection of children. Other situations where child protection concerns can be raised at the early stages of a peace process should be considered and appropriate mediation expertise put in place. Focused attention from UN country teams, particularly child protection advisers, and the Office of the Special Representative has been key to successful delistings. In addition, getting parties to trust in the process and the monitoring and reporting mechanism are important elements that have allowed for the successful implementation of the action plans.
Children in conflict situations today are facing new challenges beyond those when the issue first came to the Council’s attention over twenty years ago. The “naming and shaming” approach has had success with some parties, given the right political circumstances and sustained attention from the UN. It has been significantly less successful with non-state armed groups. A fresh approach that retains the core of the children and armed conflict mandate while adding new dimensions to address the new challenges is needed. It may be time to explore how the monitoring and reporting mechanism and the annexes can be used as tools for early engagement and prevention of conflict. One possibility is to consider how the wealth of information from the monitoring and reporting mechanism could be used to feed into a more integrated information platform within the UN. Further thinking about the future of the monitoring and reporting mechanism could include a discussion about whether the time is right to add denial of humanitarian access as a trigger that could lead to a party being listed, or if new violations such as detention should be specified for monitoring.
The children and armed conflict mandate appears to be on the brink of entering a new phase. Its architecture needs to be adapted to realise more fully the potential in light of some of the recent developments, and the proper resources need to be available. The support of those committed to this mandate will be all the more crucial in the coming years as it navigates new challenges.