April 2024 Monthly Forecast

Posted 31 March 2024
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Children and Armed Conflict

Expected Council Action

In April, Malta will convene a briefing on children and armed conflict titled “Addressing the consequences of the denial of humanitarian access for children”. Malta, which chairs the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, is organising the meeting as one of the signature events of its Council presidency. The expected briefers are Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Humanitarian Action and Supply Operations Ted Chaiban, and a civil society representative.

Malta plans to prepare a summary of the meeting as an outcome.

Background and Recent Developments

Denial of humanitarian access is one of the six grave violations monitored by the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) on grave violations against children in situations of armed conflict established by resolution 1612 of 26 July 2005. (The six grave violations, as determined by the Security Council, are child recruitment and use; killing and maiming; rape and other forms of sexual violence; attacks on schools and hospitals; abductions; and the denial of humanitarian access.)

The MRM field manual, issued in June 2014, describes denial of humanitarian access as “the intentional deprivation of or impediment to the passage of humanitarian assistance indispensable to children’s survival” by parties to the conflict. This includes “wilfully impeding relief supplies” and “significant impediments to the ability of humanitarian or other relevant actors to access and assist” children in situations of armed conflict. A June 2022 policy note published jointly by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and Fordham University notes that denial of humanitarian access can take several forms, including attacks against relief workers and convoys, bureaucratic and administrative impediments, and suspension or diversion of aid.

For several years, the Secretary-General’s annual reports on children and armed conflict have been warning about a substantial increase in the incidence of denial of humanitarian access. Numbers peaked in 2019 at some 4,400 incidents and have since remained high, with the most recent annual report, which was issued on 5 June 2023, documenting 3,931 verified instances of denial of humanitarian access in 2022, most of which were perpetrated by government forces. The highest numbers of incidents were recorded in Gaza (1,861 cases committed by Israeli forces), Yemen (a total of 901 incidents, including 601 cases committed by the Houthi rebel group, 210 by unidentified perpetrators, and 68 by the Yemen Armed Forces), and Afghanistan (a total of 718 incidents, including 706 committed by the Taliban). The report warns that the situation of humanitarian access is expected to worsen in light of “the adoption of restrictive laws, decrees and regulations increasing control over humanitarian work and workers, notably in Afghanistan, Myanmar and parts of Yemen”.

The Security Council often addresses the issue of humanitarian access in both its thematic and country-specific meetings. It was the focus, for instance, of the Council’s 2022 annual debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, held under the US’ May Council presidency. Humanitarian access has become a prominent issue of concern in the past year in light of severe escalations of violence in places such as Gaza and Sudan. Council members have also frequently expressed concern about the detrimental effects of policies restricting women’s participation in humanitarian efforts, including the Taliban’s decisions to ban Afghan women from working for NGOs and the UN, as well as the Houthis’ enforcement of mahram, requiring Yemeni women aid workers to be accompanied by male guardians. Although the situation of children is frequently raised in such discussions, members rarely frame the denial of humanitarian access as a grave violation that should be addressed through the tools of the children and armed conflict mandate.

Developments in the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict

Since February 2023, when Malta assumed the chairmanship of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, the working group has adopted conclusions on the Secretary-General’s reports on children and armed conflict in South Sudan, Nigeria, and Mali. Between 10 and 13 July 2023, the working group conducted a visiting mission to Nigeria, its first country visit since 2019, when working group members travelled to Mali.

In the past several years, difficult Council dynamics on several country situations have prevented agreement on the conclusions, which require consensus. When Malta assumed the chairmanship in 2023, it inherited five sets of pending conclusions: three (Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Syria) about Secretary-General’s reports that were presented in 2021 and two about reports presented in 2022 (Nigeria and Somalia). Of these five, the working group has only been able to adopt conclusions on Nigeria; it seems that the visit to the country may have reinvigorated the negotiation process. In an unprecedented development, the working group failed to adopt conclusions on the three reports submitted in 2021. In line with the two-year reporting cycle, the Secretary-General recently presented country reports on Afghanistan and Syria, and is soon expected to issue a report on Myanmar. The working group is currently negotiating its conclusions on the new Afghanistan and Syria reports. The proposed draft conclusions apparently include text acknowledging that conclusions were not adopted on the preceding reports.

It seems that some members are increasingly interested in formalising the working practices of the working group that have hitherto been informal, such as conducting videoconference (VTC) meetings with UN country task forces on monitoring and reporting on grave violations against children (CTFMRs). The working group began conducting such VTC meetings in 2017, under Sweden’s chairmanship, and it has become a recurring practice since Belgium’s 2019-2020 chairmanship. Formalising its practices could, however, curtail the working group’s flexibility to adapt its working methods to address evolving circumstances.

Key Issues and Options

Malta has circulated a concept note (S/2024/265) ahead of April’s meeting, which notes that the briefing will allow Council members to examine the key issue of the impact of the denial of humanitarian access on children and to propose solutions to facilitate humanitarian access to all those in need. Another key issue highlighted in the concept note is how MRM data on denial of humanitarian access could inform the Council’s approach to this issue.

An overarching priority for the Council is to make full use of the tools of the children and armed conflict agenda to end and prevent the denial of humanitarian access. A crucial issue in this regard is the working group issuing conclusions in a timely manner, as they play an important role in promoting accountability and encouraging conflict parties to take specific actions to prevent and end violations against children. Enhancing the transparency 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 the chairs of sanctions committees. Such briefings could indicate which conclusions are pending agreement. (For more options, see the brief on children and armed conflict in our July 2023 Monthly Forecast.)

Denial of humanitarian access is the only grave violation that does not trigger a listing in the annexes to the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict. There appears to be little appetite among Council members for a resolution that would make denial of humanitarian access a trigger violation, particularly as some permanent Council members have sensitivities about some country situations where this violation is prevalent. In light of the difficult dynamics within the working group, and in the Council in general, members do not appear to see this as an opportune moment to pursue such a product.

Civil society organisations, including those providing humanitarian assistance, do not have a unified position on whether denial of humanitarian access should become a trigger violation. The joint Watchlist/Fordham University June 2022 policy note outlines several risks and opportunities in this regard. It also notes that there are some challenges to monitoring and reporting on the denial of humanitarian access that should be addressed before this question can be examined. Notably, it says that the current definition of this violation is too broad, resulting in “varying and inconsistent interpretations on which incidents of denial of humanitarian access should be reported through the MRM”. In October 2023, the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict began developing a guidance note on the denial of humanitarian access in cooperation with several stakeholders, including UNICEF, and will continue this work in 2024.

Council members could seek to bring more visibility to the issue of denial of humanitarian assistance. One option would be to organise an Arria-formula meeting to discuss the guidance note on the issue once it is published. Members could also highlight in their statements in country-specific meetings the effects on children of denial of humanitarian access, while emphasising that this constitutes a grave violation. Regular VTC meetings with CTFMRs could also help the working group to better understand the challenges in monitoring and reporting on the denial of humanitarian assistance.

Council Dynamics

The children and armed conflict agenda, including its robust normative framework established through 13 thematic resolutions adopted over the years, enjoys broad general support among Council members. The fact that the first resolution that the Council was able to adopt on the war between Israel and Hamas after several failed attempts—resolution 2712 of 15 November 2023—references child protection issues throughout, attests to the importance that members attach to the issue. (For more on resolution 2712, which was authored by Malta, see our What’s in Blue story of 15 November 2023.)

However, political sensitivities in the Council on files such as Syria and Myanmar are also evident at the subsidiary body level, resulting in protracted negotiations before consensus can be reached on some conclusions in the working group. There have also been disagreements during these negotiations regarding references to the “UN guiding principles” of humanitarian assistance. China and Russia have increasingly sought to include this formulation, which is viewed as giving greater weight to state sovereignty and the consent of the country concerned. Other Council members prefer references to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in accordance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

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Secretary-General’s Reports
5 June 2023S/2023/363 This was the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.

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