Children and Armed Conflict
Expected Council Action
In July, the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on children and armed conflict. 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 was made public on 27 June. Other speakers are likely to include UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for programmes Omar Abdi and a child civil society briefer.
The Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict is expected to conduct a field mission to Nigeria from 10 to 13 July, its first country visit since 2019, when working group members travelled to Mali.
Key Recent Developments
The Secretary-General’s annual report covers the period from January through December 2022 and provides information on the six grave violations against children 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 report records 27,180 grave violations against children in 24 country situations and one regional situation (the Lake Chad Basin), which represents an increase from 2021 (23,982). It notes that the most violations took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Somalia, Ukraine, and Syria.
The report highlights several worrying trends, such as a 112 percent increase in attacks on schools (1,163) and hospitals (647), mainly in Ukraine, Burkina Faso, Israel and the OPT, Myanmar, Mali, and Afghanistan. It also cites the use of explosive weapons—including those with a wide impact area—in populated areas as among the factors that have had the most severe effect. While in previous years the majority of violations were attributed to non-state armed groups, in 2022 such actors accounted for half of the violations.
This year’s annual report adds Haiti and Niger as situations of concern with immediate effect. Information about violations committed against children in these country situations will be included in the Secretary-General’s future reports. It also removes India as a situation of concern, citing measures taken by the government to better protect children.
As in previous years, the annexes to the Secretary-General’s annual report—which list parties that have committed grave violations against children—have attracted substantial attention. Much of the discussion has centred on listings and omissions relating to Ukraine and Israel and the OPT.
The Secretary-General decided to list the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups for committing attacks on schools and hospitals (480) and the killing of children (136) in Ukraine. This marks the first time that a permanent member of the Security Council is listed in the annual report’s annexes. He also expressed concern about the high number of children killed (80) and maimed (175) and attacks on schools and hospitals (212) by Ukrainian armed forces but did not list them in the report’s annexes. The Secretary-General urged the Ukrainian armed forces immediately to implement measures to protect children and to prevent attacks on schools and hospitals, adding that he will be “particularly attentive to this situation in the preparation of my next report”.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allegations related to the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia have created international controversy and have often been raised at the Security Council. In a 27 June press conference, Gamba noted that while the transfer of children does not constitute a grave violation, she has engaged with Russia on the matter, adding that Moscow has offered to share information with the UN about “children displaced”, including to facilitate reunification of children with their families. Gamba visited Moscow on 18 and 19 May to engage with Russian authorities on preventing and ending violations against children, during which she met with Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova. (On 17 March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin for allegedly committing the war crime of “unlawful deportation” and “unlawful transfer” of children from Ukraine to Russia.) The meeting was criticised by several interlocutors, including civil society organisations and member states, some of which apparently made démarches to the Secretary-General.
Several civil society organisations and member states have criticised the Secretary-General for failing to hold accountable Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups, neither of which were listed in the annual report’s annexes. Several civil society organisations have called for Israel’s listing, with some also calling for the listing of Palestinian armed groups. According to the report, Israeli forces were responsible for killing 42 children and maiming 370 others, while 563 children required medical assistance after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was responsible for killing nine children, while two others were killed by other Palestinian perpetrators. A total of 100 Palestinian children were maimed by the PIJ due to rockets fired in Gaza, while seven Israeli children were injured by Palestinian perpetrators.
In last year’s annual report, the Secretary-General documented a substantial number of airstrikes by Israeli armed forces, which resulted in a “significant increase in the number of cases of violence against children”. He warned that “should the situation repeat itself in 2022, without meaningful improvement, Israel should be listed”. The 2022 report also documented a substantial number of rocket strikes by Palestinian armed groups, which resulted in a “significant increase in the number of cases of violence against children”. The Secretary-General warned that “if the high number of violations against children were to be repeated in 2022, without meaningful improvement, Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades, should be listed”.
In response to questions posed during the 27 June press conference, Gamba said that Israel and the Palestinian armed groups were not listed in this year’s annual report because the number of airstrikes and rocket strikes in 2022 decreased compared to 2021. She added that Israel, Hamas, and the PIJ have engaged with her—including during her visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza (12-15 December 2022)—and that all parties have exchanged letters with her that identify measures aimed at preventing and ending violations against children. Prior to the publication of this year’s annual report, Israel had reportedly challenged the data presented in the report. In a 5 June interview, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, Gilad Erdan, suggested that Israel may cease cooperation with some UN agencies if its forces were listed in the report.
Developments in the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict
Since February, when Malta assumed the chairmanship of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, the group has held three formal meetings and four informal meetings. On 27 June, it agreed on conclusions on the Secretary-General’s report on children and armed conflict in South Sudan. The working group is currently negotiating conclusions on the Secretary-General’s report on children and armed conflict in Mali.
Five sets of conclusions remain pending: on three Secretary-General’s reports that were presented in 2021 (Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Syria) and two that were presented in 2022 (Nigeria and Somalia). In line with the two-year reporting cycle, the Secretary-General is expected soon to present another report on Myanmar, as his latest report on the country covers the period from 1 September 2018 to 30 June 2020. Difficult dynamics on these country situations have prevented agreement on the conclusions, which require consensus.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council is to ensure the effectiveness of the tools that support the implementation of the children and armed conflict agenda. In this regard, the conclusions issued by the working group play an important role in promoting accountability and encouraging conflict parties to take concrete action aimed at preventing and ending violations against children. The working group’s inability to adopt conclusions on some country situations for nearly two years is a matter of concern, as it hampers its ability to respond to developments on the ground in a timely manner.
Enhancing the transparency and visibility of the work carried out by the working group may assist in this regard. An option would be to request the chair to provide the Security Council a periodic report on developments related to the working group, similar to periodic briefings provided by chairs of sanctions committees. Such briefings could indicate which conclusions are pending agreement. The working group could also seek to keep the Security Council updated more regularly on developments in the children and armed conflict agenda, including through briefings by the chair following field visits or the adoption of conclusions. Members could also consider utilising suggestions from the 2006 toolkit, proposed by then-chair France, which provides options for the working group, such as convening press conferences to highlight specific issues related to the children and armed conflict agenda. Council members have often chosen to convene press conferences on other thematic issues—such as women, peace and security (WPS) and climate and security—ahead of Council meetings on various country files.
Concerns have been raised that if parties that commit a substantial number of violations are not listed or if parties that appear not 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. 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.
There is strong support overall for the children and armed conflict agenda among Council members. However, political sensitivities in the Council are also evident at the subsidiary body level, resulting in protracted negotiations before consensus can be reached on some conclusions in the working group. It seems that in the past two years, agreement on some of the conclusions on African country situations has been delayed, including because of concerns raised by the African members of the Council (Gabon, Ghana, and former Council member Kenya) about references to the relevant countries’ governments. Mozambique, which succeeded Kenya in the African seat and is included as a situation of concern in the Secretary-General’s report, has also taken a strong position against the inclusion of such references.
The difficult dynamics on Ukraine have also coloured the Council’s work on children and armed conflict. Council members have at times used Arria-formula meetings to promote differing narratives about the conflict’s effects on children. On 5 April, Russia organised an Arria-formula meeting which featured a controversial briefing by Lvova-Belova. Representatives of several Council members—including Albania, Malta, the UK, and the US—walked out of the conference room when she took the floor. On 28 April, Albania, France, and the US, together with non-Council member Ukraine, convened an Arria-formula meeting on the abduction and deportation of children during armed conflict, which mainly focused on Ukraine. (For more, see our What’s in Blue stories of 4 April and 28 April.) It remains to be seen whether Russia’s listing in the annexes of Secretary-General’s report may increase Council divisiveness and further complicate the working group’s ability to carry out its work.
UN DOCUMENTS ON CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT
|5 June 2023S/2023/363
|This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.