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The UN’s Timid Responses to War Crimes Against Children

State Perpetrators in Syria, Yemen Go Unnamed

Children attending class on the first day of school. An airstrike damaged the school during fighting between Saudi-led coalition-backed Yemeni government forces and Houthi forces, Taizz, Yemen, September 3, 2019. © 2019 Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded in an April 8 report that Syria’s air force had carried out three chemical weapons attacks against its own people, including children, on the orders of senior military commanders. The European Union demanded that the Syrian officials responsible “be held accountable” and said it is considering “restrictive measures” against them.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, was far more equivocal. Later that day, his spokesperson said that the secretary-general “took note” of the report and condemned the use of chemical weapons, but declined to say if he condemned the Syrian perpetrators.

It’s not the first time Guterres has been reluctant to identify perpetrators. On April 6, he published a summary of an investigation into seven attacks on civilian facilities in Syria – where the joint Russian-Syrian military coalition has repeatedly attacked schools and killed children – that failed to mention Russia’s involvement in a single incident.

The summary found it “highly probable that the Government of Syria and/or its allies” bombed a school in Qalaat al-Madiq in April 2019 but lacked enough evidence “to reach a conclusive finding.” Yet last December, the New York Times used flight logs, witness statements, and cockpit recordings to pin the attack on a Russian warplane.

Last June, Guterres rightly identified the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as responsible for the majority of child casualties and unlawful attacks on schools and hospitals in the armed conflict in Yemen. But, inexplicably, the secretary-general’s annual “list of shame” for grave violations against children included the coalition on a sub-list of violators supposedly improving.

The UN secretariat isn’t the only UN body seemingly reluctant to name names of abusers. Also on April 8, the Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict published a statement that rightly condemned Yemen’s Houthis for abuses but declined to mention Saudi Arabia or the UAE at all. Instead, the working group called on the coalition to investigate its own violations, whatever those might be – none were cited. Past investigations by the coalition have been a whitewash.

It’s a mistake to tiptoe around the truth about war crimes against children. By refusing to name perpetrators, important international bodies undermine chances to protect the vulnerable, advance justice for atrocious crimes, and prevent their recurrence.

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