Children and Armed Conflict: VTC Open Debate
On Monday (28 June), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on children and armed conflict via videoconference (VTC). Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid will chair the meeting and several Council members are expected to be represented at ministerial level. Secretary-General António Guterres will present his annual report on children and armed conflict. The Council will also be briefed by Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF; Forest Whitaker, Advocate for Children Affected by War with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; and Laban Onisimus, an education specialist at Plan International Nigeria. The interventions of the briefers and Council members will be broadcast live, while non-Council member states will submit their statements in writing.
The Secretary-General’s annual report (S/2021/437), which was made public on 21 June, covers the period from January through December 2020, and provides information on the six grave violations against children in situations on the Council’s agenda, 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 26,425 grave violations against children in 21 situations, of which 23,946 were committed in 2020 and 2,479 were committed earlier but only verified in 2020. It notes that the most violations against children took place in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan and Syria—which together constitute 60 percent of violations in 2020.
Council president Estonia has circulated a concept note ahead of the debate to help guide the discussion. Monday’s meeting aims to highlight issues such as the importance of implementing a gendered perspective in child protection activities and mainstreaming child protection in the Security Council’s work. Another key focus of the meeting is the mid-term and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, some Council members may reference pertinent points raised during the 7 May Arria-formula meeting on the impact of the pandemic on children in situations of armed conflict, including on the need to facilitate adequate child protection capacities in peacekeeping operations, special political missions and in UNICEF.
At Monday’s meeting, the briefers and several Council members are likely to discuss trends in violations against children in the past year, as reflected in the Secretary-General’s report, and possible steps to address them. Some speakers may note that despite the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of violations against children was high and remained similar to that committed in previous years.
The report notes that the pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of children in armed conflict situations, with its adverse socioeconomic effects increasing their exposure to recruitment and use, abduction and sexual violence. In 2020, instances of abduction and sexual violence increased by 90 and 70 per cent, respectively, compared to 2019. The report notes that sexual violence remains underreported, in part because of the stigmatisation around this violation. Several Council members, including Ireland and Mexico (the co-chairs of the Informal Expert Group on women, peace and security), as well as Estonia and Norway (the chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict), are likely to note the need to address these alarming trends and highlight the importance of providing support for victims, including through gender-sensitive responses. As noted in the Secretary-General’s report, 98 percent of verified instances of sexual violence were committed against girls.
Another likely focus of Monday’s meeting will be the need to protect children’s rights to education. Several Council members may express concern regarding the increase in attacks against schools, which has been noted in the Secretary-General’s report. Some might call for the adoption and implementation of normative frameworks, such as the Safe Schools Declaration. Some members may underline the situation in the Sahel, where attacks and insecurity led to an increase in the closure of schools. By the end of 2020, 3,864 schools were closed in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and eight million children were out of school. Some members may underline the importance of collecting gender-sensitive data on this violation, as groups such as Boko Haram target girls’ education as an ideological tactic. Council members will be interested in hearing more from Onisimus about this issue and the work of Plan International—a non-profit organisation that promotes girls’ rights—in Nigeria. He may elaborate on the work of the consortium he is leading to promote access to education and financing for gender-responsive education.
As has been the case in previous years, some Council members may express their views on the annexes of this year’s Secretary-General’s annual report. The annexes list parties that have committed grave violations against children (one annex for parties in conflict situations on the Council’s agenda, the other annex on situations not on the Council’s agenda). The annexes are divided into an “A” section, listing parties that have not put in place measures during the reporting period to improve the protection of children, and a “B” section, listing parties that have put in place some such measures.
The Secretary-General’s previous annual report, which was published on 9 June 2020, was criticised by some Council members and civil society organisations because the Saudi Arabia-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen was de-listed for the violation of killing and maiming, despite the annual report reporting that it had committed 222 such violations in 2019. There was also criticism 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 last year’s annual report. That report emphasised that failure by both parties to further reduce violations will result in an automatic re-listing for the relevant violation in the next annual report.
In this year’s annual report, the Tatmadaw has been re-listed in section “B” for the recruitment and use of children, having committed 726 such violations in 2020—more than a three-fold increase compared to 2019. Other changes to the annexes in this year’s report include the de-listing of the Afghan National Police for the violation of recruitment and use and the listing of the Afghan National Army under section “B” for killing and maiming, after committing 708 such violations in 2020—a 44 percent increase compared to 2019.
For the last few years, questions have been raised regarding parties that were listed, de-listed or omitted from the annexes of the annual report. This year, some civil society organisations have criticised the Secretary-General’s decision to not re-list the Saudi Arabia-led Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen, even though the report showed it was responsible for killing and maiming at least 194 children in 2020. 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. At Monday’s meeting, although Council members are unlikely to focus on specific listing or de-listing decisions contained in this year’s report, they may stress the need to maintain the integrity and objectivity of the annexes of the annual report.
The criteria for adding new situations of concern in the Secretary-General’s annual report may be raised by some members. Burkina Faso, Cameroon and the Lake Chad Basin are included as situations of concern for violations against children in this year’s annual report for the first time. Some civil society organisations would have liked the report to address several other emerging situations where there have been reports on violations against children, including in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ukraine. It appears that the UN needs to have verifiable data which points to a trend in violations before it can add a new situation of concern to the report. Council members may seek further information from the briefers on what steps need to be taken to establish a reporting infrastructure to address such situations.