UN Seeks To Strengthen Child Protections In Armed Conflict, Ignores Violations Of Various Parties

The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2427 on July 9, aimed at strengthening and mainstreaming the protections for children in conflict zones. The resolution strongly condemns the use of children in armed conflict, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access to children. Secretary-General António Guterres recently reported that grave child rights violations had increased from 15,500 in 2016 to 21,000 in 2017, prompting UN members to reaffirm their commitment to protect children around the world and to urge that all conflict parties follow international law. Guterres’ report on children and armed conflict listed Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen as the deadliest countries for children, accounting for more than half of the total documented violations.

In spite of UN attempts to highlight the serious violations against children in conflict zones around the world, the Humans Rights Watch has criticized the secretary-general for downplaying the role of certain countries for political reasons. This year Guterres removed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from the list of violators, citing the preventative measures they have taken to decrease military attacks on hospitals and schools. In 2017, the coalition was responsible for at least 19 attacks on schools and five on hospitals, a drop from 2016, when 28 schools and 10 hospitals were attacked. This year, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen found that if the coalition made any efforts to minimize child casualties, they were “largely ineffective.” The report also omits Israeli forces, despite finding them responsible for the deaths of at least 15 Palestinian children, the injuries of 1,160 in the West Bank and Gaza and the bombing of four Gaza schools. The list also fails to include the Iraqi government forces, responsible for killing at least 109 children, Ukraine, where 48 schools were damaged or destroyed during fighting, and the Sudanese government, dropped from the list for ending child recruitment practices in 2017, but still responsible for child killings, rapes and attacks on schools. The children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch reported “the voluminous evidence in the report on violations against children in Yemen, Sudan, and Palestine show that the secretary-general’s ‘list of shame’ is tainted by completely unjustified omissions,” and that his decision undermines the UN’s attempts to hold parties that violate human rights accountable.

In June 2016, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon confirmed that he was pressured into removing the Saudi-led coalition from the blacklist. He said that Saudi Arabia threatened to break relations with the UN and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Calling his decision a painful one, he reasoned that he needed to consider the suffering that millions of children would suffer if the countries decided to defund UN programs. In 2017, Guterres put the Saudi coalition back on the blacklist, but put them under a new category that indicated that they have put measures in place to protect children. In March 2018 Saudi Arabia and the UAE donated US$930 million to the Yemen Humanitarian fund during a meeting between the Saudi Crown Prince and Guterres, and did not appear on the list this year. Foreign Policy also reported that the Obama administration pressured Ban Ki-moon to drop Israel from the 2015 report on children in conflict, hoping to show solidarity towards Israel during the Iran nuclear negotiations.

The UN’s report on children and armed conflict is one of its most powerful tools to shame countries into improving their human rights records.  If the UN is to remain credible, it must show that it is willing to treat all parties equally, no matter the political ramifications. As it is, those who violate UN resolutions and are reprimanded for it often seek to delegitimize the institution by pointing out biases and hypocrisies within it. The UN gives credence to such claims when it bows to pressure from large contributors and softens their condemnations.