School in Nikishine, eastern Ukraine.

© 2015 Yulia Gorbunova

(New York) – The United Nations secretary-general’s new report on children and armed conflict sets a damaging precedent by ignoring or downplaying some countries’ abuses in his annual “list of shame,” Human Rights Watch said today.

In the report, released on June 27, 2018, Secretary-General António Guterres announced that he was removing the Saudi-led coalition from the list of parties that have attacked schools and hospitals. The secretary-general also fails to list Israel, Sudan, Iraq, and parties in Ukraine as responsible for violations against children. UN Security Council members should use the July 9 open debate on this year’s report to highlight the contradictions and double standards in the report and accompanying list, Human Rights Watch said.

“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,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “His decision undermines one of the UN’s most powerful tools to stigmatize human rights violators and hold them to account.”

In Yemen, the UN found that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for attacks on at least 19 schools and five hospitals in 2017. The report says that the secretary-general’s decision to remove the coalition from the list was based on a “significant decrease” in the number of attacks. The 2016 report attributed 28 attacks on schools and 10 attacks on hospitals to the coalition. While the “coalition to restore legitimacy in Yemen” remains listed in the report for its role in killing and maiming children in Yemen, by dropping the charges about attacks on schools and hospitals, the report whitewashes the situation, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN also fails to list Israeli government forces or Palestinian groups as parties responsible for violations against children. In 2017, it found Israel forces killed at least 15 Palestinian children and injured 1,160 children in the West Bank and Gaza. Four schools also suffered damage in Gaza in the context of Israeli airstrikes.

The secretary-general has been subject to political pressure over the report for several years. The previous secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, apparently succumbed to pressure from the Israeli government in 2015 and the Saudi government in 2016 to omit or remove their forces from his list.

For the second year in a row, Secretary-General Guterres divided the list of those responsible for violations against children into two sections: one for parties “that have put in place measures during the reporting period aimed at improving the protection of children” and another for parties that have not.

This year, the Saudi-led coalition was once again given credit for measures aimed at improving the protection of children, even though the secretary-general attributed 670 child casualties to the coalition. In his previous annual report, covering 2016, Guterres found the coalition responsible for 683 child casualties.

In early June, 24 nongovernmental organizations urged Secretary-General Guterres in a letter to move the Saudi-led coalition from the list of parties that have taken measures to protect children to the list of parties that have not, citing continuing violations in Yemen. A UN panel of experts has also found that measures taken by the Saudi-led coalition to minimize child casualties, “if any, remain largely ineffective.”

“The idea that the Saudi-led coalition has taken effective measures to protect children is pure fiction,” Becker said. “The secretary-general has adopted a disturbing double standard that lets some parties off the hook and not others. He should hold all of those responsible for violations against children to account, without favoritism.”

In Sudan, the UN has not verified any child recruitment since 2015, prompting the secretary-general to remove Sudan from his “list of shame” for the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The report says that Sudanese government forces, including the Rapid Support Forces, raped, killed and maimed children and attacked schools. But the secretary-general chose to drop Sudan’s government from his list completely instead of listing Sudan’s forces for these other grave violations.

The secretary-general’s report covers 20 countries, documenting over 21,000 violations against children in armed conflict, a 35 percent increase over 2016. These violations included killing, maiming, rape, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, abduction, attacks against schools and hospitals, and denying children access to lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

While the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC) prepares the factual portions of the report based on reporting from UN country teams around the world, several sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch that final decisions about the list were made by the secretary-general himself.

The secretary-general also fails to include Iraqi government forces on its list of those responsible for violations, even though he found that government forces were responsible for killing and maiming at least 109 children during 2017.

The report is completely silent on Ukraine, where the Ukrainian government and Russia-backed armed groups are engaged in conflict. At least 740 schools have been damaged or destroyed since the conflict began in 2014.

The secretary-general included Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, on the list of shame for their recruitment and use of child soldiers since 2003. This year, he added killing and maiming and sexual violence against children as additional reasons for designating the Tatmadaw, based on its violations in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States.

For the first time, the secretary-general listed Al-Shabab in Somalia for their rape of children and attacks on schools and hospitals.

South Sudan government forces were listed for the first time for their responsibility for attacks on schools and hospitals.

The secretary-general found that Afghanistan continues to be one of the deadliest places for children, with 3,179 documented cases of children killed or maimed by air attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance, suicide bombings, and other attacks.

In total, the UN found that warring parties killed or maimed at least 9,512 children in 2017, with over half the cases in just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. 

Over 9,500 children were recruited as soldiers, the UN found, an increase of 26 percent over the previous year, while 10,000 children were demobilized from armed forces and armed groups. Just four countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan – accounted for over half of all child recruitment cases.

In Somalia, Al-Shabab stepped up its recruitment of children, abducting at least 1,600 and using detention, violence, and threats to force family members, teachers, and elders to hand over their children. In Nigeria, Boko Haram deployed children as suicide bombers in nearly 150 attacks, contributing to over half of all child casualties in the conflict.

The secretary-general also reported some areas of progress. Child casualties in Thailand fell to their lowest level in 14 years, and attacks by armed groups in Pakistan have steadily decreased over the last 10 years. The number of attacks on schools dropped in several countries, including Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan, and Yemen. The FARC armed group in Colombia was removed from the “list of shame” entirely following its release of all remaining child soldiers from its forces.

“Progress on ending the use of child soldiers has stalled, with almost as many new children recruited into armed forces and groups as those coming out,” Becker said. “The Security Council should raise the cost for child recruitment by applying targeted sanctions against those responsible.”