The carefully crafted agenda of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to protect children during armed conflicts has been praised for being an effective accountability tool, not least because it is relatively unpolitical. The UN Secretary General’s (UNSG) annual report lists perpetrators responsible for grave violations against children, stigmatizes and creates pressure on parties who are in violent conflict to comply with international law. In recent years, UN Member States have successfully exercised political pressure to be taken off those lists. UN Secretary General António Guterres is currently preparing the 2017 annual report on the situation of children in armed conflicts. The new UNSG has the opportunity to restore the credibility of the reporting mechanism by ensuring that the protection of children is put up front political power games and that any party that commits documented, verified patterns of grave violations against children ends up on a verified, impartial, non-politicized list.
Name and Shame
Two decades have passed since Graça Marchel presented a report on the impact of armed conflict on children to the UN General Assembly. The report provided the first comprehensive and systematic insight into the multiple ways that children are abused and brutalized during armed conflict. The UN has since created comprehensive structures and accountability mechanisms to alleviate the suffering of children in wartime. The Security Council, once averse to deal with human rights issues has, since 1999, accepted three cross-cutting thematic mandates for situations of armed conflicts: children, sexual violence, and the protection of civilians. In its resolution 1261 (1999), the UNSC recognized the harmful impact of armed conflict on children and the consequences it has on durable peace, security, and development. As Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Special Representative of the Secretary General on Children and armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC), phrased it: “Of all the concerns before the international community, no other issues pierce the veil of state sovereignty as much as the issues concerning women and children.”
Since 1999, eleven resolutions of the Security Council on children and armed conflict were adopted (all but one adopted unanimously) which form the foundation of the global child protection architecture. These resolutions establish a field-based monitoring and reporting mechanism (MRM), and put child protection concerns at the heart of UN peace operations.
To improve the accountability of perpetrators, the Secretary-General annually reports to the UNSC regarding the state of children in armed conflicts. Each report includes an updated ‘list of shame’ of conflicting parties that “(…) recruit or use children, kill or maim children, commit rape and other forms of sexual violence against children, or engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals, or abduct children in situations of armed conflict”. In the latest report covering the year 2015, 59 parties in 14 countries appear on that list. The list is not only a naming and shaming tool, but it also facilitates UN engagement with the parties aimed at ending these violations. UN-monitored and verified compliance with international law ultimately leads to “de-listing”, i.e. for the party to be deleted from the list in the UNSG report. The listing process obtains its legitimacy and authority by being inclusive of all parties that commit violations against children, regardless of their legal status or political power.
Shame or Sham?
Yet, in both 2015 and 2016, the ‘list of shame’ was altered under political pressure. Following the war in Gaza in 2014, which left more than 500 children dead and thousands injured or without shelter, UN officials backed away from mentioning the Israeli Defense Forces on the list, although patterns of Grave Violations had been documented. One year later, in what he called “one of the most painful and difficult decisions I have had to make” and facing the threat of countries defunding UN programs, former UNSG Ban Ki-moon removed a coalition led by Saudi Arabia from the list. The respective states had been listed for killing and maiming children and for carrying out attacks against schools and hospitals in Yemen. With powerful or wealthy members of the UN continuously succeeding to put pressure on the Secretary General or bullying their way out of the consequences of the mechanism, the credibility of the mechanism as a whole is threatened.
Reported considerations of António Guterres to hold any addition of warring parties committing grave violations against children to his 2017 annual report have triggered criticism. Civil society organizations claim that changing the rules of the game and allowing perpetrators extra time to accept commitments would set a dangerous precedent and ultimately undermine efforts to achieve accountability for violations. A ‘freeze’ of the list could indeed impress on conflict parties that committing grave violations against children has no consequences. Yet, the focus of the UNSG has to be a mechanism that is credible and firmly rooted in an impartial, evidence-based list of perpetrators. Under no circumstances should the UN risk the publication of a list that is publically disputed for the third time in a row. Evidently, an updated, verified, impartial, non-politicized list that includes all perpetrators would be ideal. If there is any doubt that this can be achieved, freezing the list and allowing the new UNSG and his equally new Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, more time to engage with parties that are listed or are at risk of being listed should be the chosen course of action.
The publication of an annual list is not an end in itself; it is a tool that aims at changing the behavior of conflicting parties. A freeze of the list, announced for a defined, finite period, is less damaging to the authority and effectiveness of this tool than an incomplete or challenged annual report. Hopefully the UNSG and his SRSG will reaffirm the UN’s commitment to an impartial list, which includes all perpetrators and is based on documented, verified evidence of patterns of grave violations against children, not politics – and act accordingly.
About the author
Bernadette Knauder has worked internationally as researcher and trainer at the nexus of human rights, peace, and development for GIZ, FRA, and the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR). She has designed and implemented over 30 training courses for various target audiences on civilian aspects of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. In 2016, Bernadette joined the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (UNI-ETC) at the University of Graz where she is engaged in various research and educational projects and writes her PhD on the protection of children in armed conflicts. She holds Master’s degrees in Political Science and Communication Science from the University of Vienna and a European Master’s Degree in human rights and democratization from EIUC Venice.