Children and Armed Conflict
Expected Council Action
In July, the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on children and armed conflict. Brazilian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Fernando Simas Magalhães is expected to chair the meeting. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba is expected to present the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, which is due in early July. Other speakers are likely to include Executive Director of UNICEF Catherine Russell and a civil society briefer.
Brazil, as Council president in July, has outlined three themes for this year’s annual open debate: children who are refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and stateless; abduction of children, including the different effects on girls and boys; and reintegration of children formerly associated with armed forces and groups, with a focus on the possible contribution of reintegration to peacebuilding efforts.
Background and Key Recent Developments
In 2022, as the children and armed conflict mandate marked its 25th anniversary, worrying trends of grave violations committed against children globally demonstrated the mandate’s continued relevance. On 18 January, the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict issued a study to mark the 25th anniversary of this mandate. The study notes that since the mandate’s inception, over 170,000 children have been released from armed forces and armed groups and reintegrated into society and hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from improved protection. It further says that the signing of joint action plans between the UN and parties to conflict has “critically, although not quantifiably, prevented violence against children in situations of armed conflict in multiple contexts”. To date, 39 such action plans have been signed, the most recent of which was signed on 18 April with the Houthi rebel group in Yemen.
The situation of children in Afghanistan and Ukraine, among other places, has gripped international attention since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban announced on 23 March that girls’ high schools would be closed, thereby preventing girls above the sixth grade from attending school. The announcement was an abrupt reversal of the Taliban’s 21 March decision to reopen all schools at the beginning of the spring semester. On 27 March, Council members issued a press statement that expressed deep concern regarding this decision and called on the Taliban to “respect the right to education and adhere to their commitments to reopen schools for all female students without further delay”, among other matters. The Taliban has not reversed its decision.
With regard to Ukraine, as at 27 June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed that at least 330 children have been killed and 489 injured since Russia invaded the country. In a 1 June statement, UNICEF said that almost two out of every three children had been displaced by fighting in Ukraine. Three million children inside Ukraine and 2.2 million children who have fled to neighbouring countries are in need of humanitarian assistance.
While Ukraine is not on the children and armed conflict agenda and information about the situation is not included in the Secretary-General’s annual report, some Council members have sought to remain abreast of the effects of the war on children by calling for dedicated Council meetings on the issue on 11 April and 12 May. (For background, see our 10 April and 11 May What’s in Blue stories.) An issue underlined in these meetings has been the vulnerability of children in the context of the war, including the increased risks of sexual violence and human trafficking faced by children fleeing the war. Speakers also warned about the effects of attacks on civilian infrastructure on which children depend, such as schools and hospitals.
The briefers and some Council members in these meetings underscored the applicability of the recently adopted resolution 2601 of 29 October 2021 on the protection of education in conflict, which urges all parties to cease attacks and threats of attacks against schools. This resolution, which is the first to focus on the link between education and peace and security, also calls on member states to facilitate the access to education of refugee and displaced children and emphasises the need to facilitate the continuation of education in situations of armed conflict, including through distance learning and use of digital technology.
At the 12 May meeting, several Council members (Albania, France, Ireland, Mexico, and the US) called on the Secretary-General to include Ukraine as a situation of concern in his 2022 annual report on children and armed conflict. If the Secretary-General chooses to do so, his future reports will include information on the situation in Ukraine in the narrative of the report under “other situations of concern”. Further investigation can then be undertaken by the Secretary-General and his special representative to determine which parties are responsible for committing grave violations and whether they should be listed in the annexes of his reports. The annexes list parties that have committed grave violations against children (their recruitment and use, killing and maiming, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and attacks on schools and hospitals).
Even prior to the invasion in February, civil society organisations had called on the Secretary-General to include Ukraine as a situation of concern in his annual report. Since 2014, the fighting between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in the two breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine has led to violations being committed against children, including killing and maiming and attacks against schools. In a report published in April, the organisation Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict called on the Secretary-General to add Ukraine as a situation of concern in his upcoming report, along with Ethiopia, Mozambique and Niger.
The Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict has held four formal meetings and 11 informal meetings in 2022. On 5 May, the working group adopted conclusions on the Secretary-General’s report on Yemen. Negotiations on conclusions on several other country situations—including Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Syria—are ongoing and have been difficult. In the case of Myanmar, it appears that some Council members have suggested that the conclusions on Myanmar should reflect the situation of children since the 1 February 2021 takeover of the government by the Myanmar Armed Forces (also known as the Tatmadaw), although they are beyond the scope of the 30 June 2020 cut-off date of the Secretary-General’s Myanmar report.
Key Issues and Options
A key 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.
Concerns have been raised that if parties that do not appear to have stopped committing violations against children are nonetheless taken off the annexes, the credibility of the Secretary-General’s report may be called into question.
This became an issue of serious concern for some Council members and civil society organisations following the Secretary-General’s decision in his 2020 annual report 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—and to de-list 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. In the 2021 annual report, the Tatmadaw were re-listed for the recruitment and use of children. The Saudi-led coalition was not re-listed, even though the report showed it was responsible for killing and maiming at least 194 children in 2020.
Council members could call for the consistent and transparent 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.
Another issue is how to sustain continued attention by the Council and the wider UN membership to the children and armed conflict agenda. While the situation of children in country-specific situations and cross-cutting trends in the agenda are consistently discussed by the working group on children and armed conflict throughout the year, the Council as a whole and the wider UN membership usually address the issue only once a year, during the annual open debate. Members may consider ways to incorporate systematically opportunities to discuss the issue throughout the year.
An option is to adopt working methods commitments, such as those adopted by several Council members on women, peace and security. Such commitments can include:
- holding at least one additional meeting a year, besides the annual open debate, which addresses a cross-cutting issue relating to the children and armed conflict agenda (such as prevention of grave violations, reintegration of children, trends in specific grave violations);
- identifying Council meetings on country-specific or cross-cutting issues that can benefit from a perspective on the situation of children and inviting relevant briefers (such as the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict or a UNICEF representative);
- incorporating a focus on children and armed conflict in Council statements at meetings on country-specific situations; and
- committing to systematically seek first-hand accounts from children regarding the situation in their countries.
On this last point, Council members have on several occasions benefitted from interventions by child briefers, such as during the annual open debate held in 2020 during France’s June presidency. Inviting children to brief the Council, whether in person or virtually, is a challenging issue in light of security concerns. As such, other ways to receive these inputs can be explored, such as playing a recorded video message at Council meetings.
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 Myanmar and Syria have filtered down to the subsidiary body level, resulting in protracted negotiations before consensus can be reached on some conclusions in the working group.
The direct involvement of some members in conflict situations has also complicated the working group’s activities. For example, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, several members have expressed a wish to receive a briefing from the Special Representative for Children and Armed on the situation of children in Ukraine during formal and informal meetings of the working group. However, Russia has opposed the request on several occasions, before eventually agreeing to such a briefing during a 5 May meeting. In addition, it seems that dynamics around the working group’s conclusions on Yemen were difficult, in part due to objections raised by the United Arab Emirates regarding references to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
Ambassador Mona Juul (Norway) chairs the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.
UN DOCUMENTS ON CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 October 2021S/RES/2601||This resolution condemned attacks and threats of attack against schools, educational facilities and civilians connected with schools. It further emphasised the need to facilitate the continuation of education in situations of armed conflict. It was co-sponsored by 99 member states.|
|6 May 2021S/2021/437||This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.|
|Security Council Letters|
|1 July 2022S/2021/617||This letter contained the statements made at the annual open debate on children and armed conflict, which was held virtually on 28 June 2021.|