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Children and Armed Conflict: Briefing on the Denial of Humanitarian Access

Tomorrow morning (3 April) at 11 am EST, the Security Council will hold a briefing on children and armed conflict that will focus on “addressing the consequences of the denial of humanitarian access for children”. 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, the chair of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, is convening the meeting as one of the signature events of its April Council presidency. It plans to prepare a summary of the briefing as an outcome of the meeting.

Tomorrow’s meetings will focus on the denial of humanitarian access, 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. Acts that amount to this violation include, but are not limited to, attacks against relief workers and convoys, attacks on critical infrastructure such as water and sanitation facilities, bureaucratic and administrative impediments, and suspension or diversion of aid.

Malta has circulated a concept note ahead of tomorrow’s meeting, which says that verified instances of the denial of humanitarian access have been increasing since 2005, peaking in 2019 at some 4,400 incidents, and have since remained high. The Secretary-General’s most recent annual report on children and armed conflict, which was issued on 5 June 2023, documented 3,931 verified instances of denial of humanitarian access in 2022, most of which were perpetrated by government forces. The concept note points out that data for 2023 and 2024 indicates that there will be a further increase in instances of denial of humanitarian access.

According to the concept note, tomorrow’s meeting aims to provide Council members with an opportunity to examine the overall impact of the denial of humanitarian access on children and to propose solutions to facilitate humanitarian access to all those requiring assistance. Another objective of the briefing is to discuss modalities to assess and report on the denial of humanitarian access and to consider how MRM data on the denial of humanitarian access could inform the Council’s approach to this issue.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Gamba is expected to provide an overview of the trends in the denial of humanitarian access and describe the multiple effects of this violation on children in armed conflict situations. She might note that children can be affected by denial of humanitarian access not only on the battlefield, but also in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) and where children are deprived of liberty. Gamba may echo key messages from her 9 January 2023 report to the General Assembly, in which she stressed that the denial of humanitarian access is often linked to increases in other grave violations against children, such as recruitment and use and sexual violence, adding that this violation “has long-lasting effects on children’s well-being and development and may lead to the violation of their basic human rights, including the right to life, education and the highest attainable standard of health”.

Chaiban is expected to outline steps that conflict parties should take to protect children in conflict, urging them to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and to issue military orders that would facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to children. He may also call on Council members to take decisive action to compel conflict parties to stop denying humanitarian access and call on them to support humanitarian organisations’ efforts to reach children in need, including through resource allocation.

The briefers and Council members are likely to reference several situations where children’s access to humanitarian aid has become a prominent issue of concern, including due to the eruption or escalation of conflict. In Sudan, for instance, fighting that started almost a year ago between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has left 14 million children in urgent need of humanitarian support, 3.7 million of whom are projected to be acutely malnourished in 2024. According to UNICEF, more than four million children have been displaced by the violence, making Sudan the largest child displacement crisis in the world.

The military campaign launched by Israel in Gaza following the 7 October 2023 large-scale attacks against Israel led by Hamas has displaced 1.7 million people across the Gaza Strip, the majority of them multiple times. On 18 February, the Global Nutrition Cluster reported that approximately 15 percent of children under two years of age in northern Gaza are acutely malnourished, three percent of whom are experiencing wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition. A UNICEF press statement on the report noted that in the southern city of Rafah, where aid has been more available, five percent of children in this age group are malnourished, demonstrating “that access to humanitarian aid is needed and can help prevent the worst outcomes”.

The Security Council has demanded immediate ceasefires during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—which will end around 9 April—in both Sudan and Gaza through the adoption of resolution 2724 of 8 March and resolution 2728 of 25 March, respectively. At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to call on the relevant parties to implement these resolutions. Some members may emphasise the need to protect humanitarian personnel, mentioning in this regard today’s (2 April) incident, in which seven aid workers from the non-governmental organisation World Central Kitchen were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. There may also be reference to a draft Security Council resolution circulated by Switzerland on the protection of humanitarian and UN personnel in conflict zones, which is currently being negotiated by Council members.

The Secretary-General’s most recent annual report on children and armed conflict also warned 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”. Tomorrow, members may call on the relevant parties to reverse such decrees, including those preventing women from participating in humanitarian efforts.

References to particular country situations may prove contentious with some members at tomorrow’s meeting. Russia has often accused the US of prolonging the crisis in Gaza by preventing effective Council action. The US and the Council’s European members may reference the situation of children in Ukraine, calling on Russia to allow humanitarian access in areas under its control in the country.

Although Council members often discuss the issue of humanitarian access in their country-specific meetings, they 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. Tomorrow, speakers may reference some of these tools, such as the adoption of conclusions by the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. Members may underscore the need for timely adoption of such conclusions, which can influence conflict parties’ behaviour, including by encouraging them to sign and implement action plans to end and prevent violations against children. In the past two years, difficult Council dynamics around some country situations have prevented agreement on several sets of conclusions, which require consensus.

Denial of humanitarian access is the only grave violation as determined by the Security Council that does not trigger a listing in the annexes to the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict. Some members may express their position on the matter at tomorrow’s meeting. There appears to be little appetite among many 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. (For more information, see the brief on children and armed conflict in our April 2024 Monthly Forecast.)

Tomorrow, the briefers and Council members are also likely to address some of the themes outlined in the concept note prepared by Malta. One such issue is the need to consider and address the gendered implications of the denial of humanitarian access. For instance, difficult humanitarian conditions can make girls more susceptible to negative coping strategies such as early or forced marriage, whereas boys can face an increased risk of recruitment and use. The concept note also highlights that counter-terrorism measures and sanctions regimes can often complicate children’s access to humanitarian assistance. Speakers may reference resolution 2664 of 9 December 2022—which established a cross-cutting humanitarian exemption to the asset freeze measures imposed by UN sanctions regimes—as an important tool in efforts to mitigate such unintended effects.

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