(New York) – The United Nations secretary-general removed the Saudi-led coalition from his latest “list of shame” despite continued grave violations against children in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. He also ignored violations by other powerful countries, including Russia, the United States, and Israel, by omitting them from his list.
In his annual report on children and armed conflict, released on June 15, 2020, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reported that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 222 child casualties and 4 attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen in 2019, yet removed it from his list of parties responsible for grave violations against children. He also removed Myanmar’s armed forces for the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and failed to list Russian forces in Syria, US forces in Afghanistan, or Israeli forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, despite abuses that have been well-documented by the UN and others.
“The secretary-general has brought shame on the UN by removing the Saudi-led coalition from his ‘list of shame’ even as it continues to kill and injure children in Yemen,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “He has repeatedly and inexcusably left powerful countries off his list despite overwhelming UN evidence of grave violations against children.”
Annexes to the report list over 60 parties to armed conflict responsible for grave violations against children during 2019, including killing and maiming, child recruitment, sexual violence, abduction, attacks against schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access.
The previous secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, succumbed to pressure from the Saudi government in 2016 and removed their forces from his list. To his credit, he publicly denounced Saudi Arabia’s effective blackmailing of the UN by threatening to defund UN programs for Palestinian refugees, among others.
Guterres returned the Saudi-led coalition to the list in 2017, attributing 683 child casualties and 38 attacks against schools and hospitals to the coalition, but placed it in a new category of parties credited with taking steps “aimed at improving the protection of children.” In 2018, he removed the coalition from his list for attacks against schools and hospitals, despite 19 UN-documented attacks on schools during the previous year.
The secretary-general’s approach to the list is at odds with his “Call to Action on Human Rights” that he announced earlier this year, Human Rights Watch said. In that appeal, he said that, “International humanitarian law and human rights law must be respected.” But his decision to delist or omit states responsible for grave violations of the rights of children raises questions about his commitment to holding states publicly accountable for repeated abuses.
The secretary-general reported that in 2019, parties to Syria’s conflict killed or maimed 1454 children. Although his list of violators includes Syrian government forces and anti-government groups, it omits Russian forces, which have been involved in the conflict since 2015. In 2019, investigations by the UN Commission of Inquiry and the New York Times expanded on earlier investigations by Human Rights Watch and found direct evidence of Russian airstrikes that indiscriminately attacked civilians and killed children.
In Afghanistan, the secretary-general attributed 610 child casualties to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and 248 child casualties to “international military forces.” The US is the only non-Afghan party involved in the conflict, but neither the US nor the Afghan security forces were included in the secretary-general’s list of serious violators. Similarly, the secretary-general found Israeli forces responsible for 29 deaths of Palestinian children and 1496 injuries but did not list Israel.
The secretary-general also removed Myanmar from his list of parties responsible for the recruitment and use of child soldiers, despite documentation that Myanmar continues this practice. In 2018, the secretary-general attributed 71 cases of child recruitment or use to Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw. His own stated criteria for removing parties from the list is the party’s full implementation of a UN action plan to end violations and UN-verified information that the party has ceased all violations for a period of at least one reporting cycle—which Myanmar has not demonstrated.
Parties included in the “list of shame” may be subject to Security Council sanctions for their violations and must sign and implement a UN action plan to end their violations in order to be removed from the list.
The report states that it will include Burkina Faso as a situation of concern in the SG’s report next year, but provides no details regarding violations in 2019. In Burkina Faso, armed Islamist groups have committed targeted attacks against civilians since 2016. Human Rights Watch has documented 126 attacks and armed threats against education professionals, students, and schools in Burkina Faso, with more than half the attacks in 2019. Before schools closed nationwide in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2,500 schools had already closed due to attacks or insecurity.
The Ukraine conflict, now in its sixth year, has never appeared in the report. Since the conflict began in 2014, over 750 education facilities have been damaged or destroyed, and over 13,000 people have been killed.
“Despite his stated commitment to human rights, Secretary-General Guterres has ignored repeated calls to issue an evidence-based ‘list of shame’ and continues to coddle powerful countries,” Becker said. “The Security Council should insist on a clear and rigorous process to ensure that this list accurately reflects the UN’s evidence of violations.”