Children and Armed Conflict
Expected Council Action
As Council president in September, Niger is planning to convene an open videoconference (VTC) debate on “attacks against schools: a grave violation of children’s rights” with a focus on the Sahel region. The meeting will coincide with the first “International Day to Protect Education from Attack”, which will take place on 9 September, in line with General Assembly resolution 74/275 adopted on 12 May. The anticipated briefers are Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba and a representative from the Global Coalition for the Protection of Education from Attack (GCPEA). UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, and a child civil society representative may also brief.
Niger and Belgium, the chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, are co-authoring a draft presidential statement on attacks against schools that may be adopted ahead of the debate.
Attacks against schools and hospitals are one of the six grave violations included in the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) for violations against children established by resolution 1612 in 2005. Resolution 1998, adopted in 2011, designated these attacks as a grave violation that could trigger a listing of parties in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict. In 2014, the Council further addressed this issue by adopting resolution 2143 on the military use of schools, which urged parties to conflict to respect the civilian character of schools and encouraged member states to consider measures to deter the use of schools by armed forces and non-state armed groups.
Council members held a focused discussion on the issue of attacks against schools in an October 2017 Arria-formula meeting organised by France, Italy, Sweden, and Uruguay. The briefers at the meeting were Gamba; Joy Bishara, a student kidnapped by the rebel group Boko Haram in 2014; and Zama Neff, co-chair of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Bishara provided a first-hand account of the impact of attacks on schools, and member states shared experiences about their efforts to protect schools from military use.
Key Recent Developments
Threats to children’s rights to education remain a major concern as attacks against schools in many conflict areas around the world persisted in 2019. These difficulties were significantly compounded in 2020 by the closure of schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, issued on 9 June, the UN verified 494 attacks on schools and 433 attacks on hospitals in 2019. It said that the highest numbers of verified attacks on schools and hospitals were in the Syrian Arab Republic, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Afghanistan, and Somalia, noting that such attacks by state actors had nearly doubled globally. The report mentioned two new situations of concern—Burkina Faso and Cameroon —which will be included in the next annual Secretary-General’s report. In both countries, the grave violations against children included attacks on schools.
In 2019, the Sahel region experienced a sharp increase in attacks against schools. UNICEF reported that by the end of the year violence had caused more than 3,300 schools in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to close or become non-operational, affecting 650,000 children and 16,000 teachers. The number of school closures in 2019 constituted a six-fold increase since April 2017. A UN policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on education, issued on 5 August, noted that nationwide school closures in the Sahel region brought about by the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges to children’s access to education.
On 23 June, the Security Council convened an open VTC meeting on children and armed conflict. Gamba presented the Secretary-General’s annual report, and the Council was also briefed by UNICEF’s Fore and Mariam, a child civil society briefer who was only addressed by her first name for security reasons. Following the meeting, members of the Security Council issued a press statement that noted the occasion of the 15-year anniversary of resolution 1612, which established the MRM and the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. They welcomed the achievements made by both mechanisms since their establishment, including the demobilisation and reintegration of more than 150,000 children, and condemned the scale of violations against children affected by conflict.
The Secretary-General’s annual report provides information on the six grave violations against children committed in situations on the agenda of the Council, as well as in other situations of concern. The six grave violations are child recruitment and use; killing and maiming; abductions; rape and other forms of sexual violence; attacks on schools and hospitals; and the denial of humanitarian access. The latest Secretary-General’s report generated criticism from some members of the Security Council and civil society organisations because of the de-listing of certain parties from the annexes of the report, which list parties that have committed grave violations against children. One focus of the criticism was the decision by the Secretary-General to de-list the Saudi Arabia-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen for the violation of killing and maiming, despite the fact that the annual report showed that it had committed 222 such violations in 2019. Another criticism was of the decision to de-list the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, for the violation of recruitment and use, although they were responsible for eight cases of new recruitment and 197 cases of use in 2019, according to the findings of the annual report.
The report explained the removal of the Saudi Arabia–led coalition as the result of a “sustained significant decrease in killing and maiming due to air strikes” and the signing and implementation of a memorandum aimed at reducing violations against children. The decision to remove the Tatmadaw was made “following a continued significant decrease in recruitment, ongoing prosecutions and an agreement to continue to trace and release cases that were identified in previous years”. The report emphasised that both entities will remain under UN monitoring and that failure to further reduce violations will result in an automatic re-listing for the relevant violation in the next annual report.
At the 23 June debate, several Council members emphasised the importance of upholding the impartiality and integrity of the listing and de-listing mechanism of the annexes of the annual report. Some Council members, including Belgium and the Dominican Republic, talked about the premature de-listing of parties, with the former noting that such a practice could remove the leverage of the listing mechanisms on offending parties. Germany said that it was crucial that the findings of the report correspond to the listing and de-listing of parties and asked the Secretary-General to clarify his approach to the annexes. Estonia and the UK emphasised the need for a consistent application of the criteria for listing and de-listing parties, which were set out in the Secretary-General’s 2010 annual report. That report said that a party would be de-listed if the UN had verified that it “has ceased commission of all the said grave violations” for which it was listed.
Member states, including several Council members, also made direct demarches to the Secretary-General, expressing concern regarding discrepancies between the violations described in the annual report and the listing of the parties in the annexes. On 22 June, three Security Council members met with the Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary-General and Gamba on the matter. In addition, the Group of Friends of Children and Armed Conflict, an informal network of 45 member states representing the five regional groups of the UN, sent a letter to the Secretary-General expressing its concern that an uneven application of the listing and de-listing criteria might call into question the credibility of the monitoring and reporting mechanism and undermine the tools at the UN’s disposal to address violations against children. In addition, 24 NGOs sent an open letter to the Secretary-General in which they called for greater transparency in the listing and de-listing process and for a due diligence procedure which will guarantee that the annexes to the annual report reflect the information collected by the MRM.
Developments in the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict
Since June, the Working Group held six closed VTC meetings for briefings, the introduction of country-specific reports on children and armed conflict, and a discussion of conclusions adopted by written procedure. The Working Group adopted conclusions on the Secretary-General’s reports on children and armed conflict in Colombia, Iraq and Somalia. To date, the Working Group has adopted eight sets of conclusions since Belgium assumed the chairmanship of the Working Group in January 2019.
Key Issues and Options
The persistently high number of attacks against schools in the Sahel region and globally is a key concern for the Security Council. Secretary-General’s reports on children and armed conflict in countries in the Sahel region have demonstrated that there are instances of spillover of armed groups’ activities which affect other countries, including cross-border attacks on schools. Members may call for enhanced monitoring and reporting on the impact of regional and subregional dynamics on violations committed against children in the Secretary-General’s country reports on children and armed conflict, with the aim of obtaining data that could help tailor better protection solutions. Council members may also call on states to ratify and implement normative frameworks, such as the Safe Schools Declaration. The declaration, a voluntary political commitment from governments not to use schools for military purposes and to protect them during military operations, was opened for endorsement in 2015. As of 2020, 104 states had endorsed the declaration. While many view the declaration as a possibly useful tool in obtaining greater commitment from governments to address ways of protecting children and their right to education, several Council members—including China, Russia and the US—have not endorsed it.
A crucial issue for the Council is having the Secretary-General’s annual reports serve as an effective tool in supporting the implementation of the children and armed conflict agenda. As such, addressing the concerns about the perceived discrepancies between the information contained in the report and the de-listing of parties from the annexes is paramount. In addition to calling for the consistent application of the de-listing criteria contained in the 2010 Secretary-General’s report, Council members could also ask for an independent review of the listing and de-listing process.
There is strong support overall for the children and armed conflict agenda among Council members. However, political sensitivities in the Council over issues such as Syria and Myanmar have filtered down to the subsidiary body level, resulting in protracted negotiations before consensus could be reached on some conclusions.
The advent of working remotely has meant that the Working Group has not been able to hold face-to-face negotiations. Over the years, members of the Working Group have developed strong ties because of their regular contacts, which have been useful in reaching agreement on outcomes. The negotiations on the anticipated draft presidential statement are likely to provide a clearer picture of how meeting and negotiating remotely has affected the dynamics among Working Group members.
Ambassador Philippe Kridelka (Belgium) chairs the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.
UN DOCUMENTS ON CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT
|9 June 2020S/2020/525||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.|
|Security Council Letters|
|26 June 2020S/2020/594||This letter contained a record of the statements made at the open debate on children and armed conflict, held on 23 June 2020.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|23 June 2020SC/14224||This was a press statement condemning the scale of violations against children in armed conflict and expressing concern regarding the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on children.|