Twenty-five years ago, the international community issued an urgent call to protect children affected by armed conflict. Horrified by the findings of Graça Machel’s historic study on the impacts of war on children, the United Nations General Assembly established the Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) mandate in December 1996.
Since then, the CAAC agenda has expanded and become one of the most significant, dynamic, and broadly supported multilateral initiatives within the UN system. It provides international policymakers a unique set of tools for promoting the protection of children in war and addressing grave violations of their rights.
Among these tools is the Secretary-General’s annual report on the situation of children affected by armed conflict (‘annual report’), which has been presented to the Security Council each year since 2000. The main purpose of this report has been to draw the attention of UN Member States to grave violations against children and the perpetrators. With its Resolution 1379 (2001) and subsequent resolutions on children and armed conflict, the Security Council mandated the Secretary-General to include in his annual reports a list of parties to armed conflict that commit the following grave violations against children: recruitment and use; killing and maiming; rape and other forms of sexual violence; attacks on schools and hospitals; and abductions. The Council further strengthened this system in 2005, when it established a unique global Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) to collect and rigorously verify information on the grave violations against children in armed conflict.
The listing mechanism, which draws its evidence base from the MRM, has served as another important tool for the protection of children in armed conflict. It provides a key first step towards accountability by clearly identifying warring parties responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict. The mechanism also serves as a foundation for the UN to dialogue with warring parties, secure concrete commitments to end and prevent violations through UN action plans, and create tangible, positive changes for children affected by war.
Despite the important progress made, children continue to face the devastating impacts of armed conflict. In 2020, the UN documented nearly 24,000 grave violations against children. More children are living in conflict zones than at any time in the previous two decades. The rapid expansion of the global counterterrorism agenda threatens to unravel established laws and norms for protecting children’s rights, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated children’s vulnerability to grave violations and other abuses. Some governments have taken action to evade accountability for committing grave violations against children; this includes exerting political pressure to avoid being listed in the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.
In recent years, civil society organizations and UN Member States have raised concerns about the process for determining which perpetrators are included in the report’s annexes. They have noted that any politicization of the listing decisions threatens to undermine the report’s credibility and weaken its strength as a tool for promoting accountability and compliance with applicable international law. Of particular concern are inconsistencies found between the data on violations that are included in the narrative of the annual report and the parties listed in its annexes, notable non-listing of some parties, listing of parties for only some violations described, and de-listing of parties who have not yet fully met the criteria as specified in 2010. In March 2021, a group of internationally respected child rights experts echoed these concerns after undertaking an independent review of the Secretary-General’s listing and de-listing decisions between 2010 and 2020.
Since 2017, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict (‘Watchlist’) has published an annual policy note with recommendations for the Secretary-General on parties to conflict that have committed grave violations against children and should be listed in the annexes of the forthcoming annual report. Watchlist’s annual policy note also makes recommendations on parties that should be further investigated and country situations that should be included as “other situations of concern” in the Secretary-General’s annual report.
With this sixth edition of its annual policy note, Watchlist reiterates its call to Secretary-General António Guterres to publish a complete list of perpetrators that is evidence-based and accurately reflects data collected and verified by the MRM, applying the 2010 criteria for listing and de-listing without discrimination and consistently across country situations. Watchlist also calls on Secretary-General Guterres to draw the attention of the Security Council to other situations of concern for children affected by armed conflict, by including them in his annual report.
Against the backdrop of the 25th anniversary of the CAAC mandate, Watchlist further urges all stakeholders to redouble their efforts to create a brighter future for all children, especially those affected by war. Specifically, Watchlist calls on the UN, its Member States, and civil society to build on the progress made to protect children in armed conflict by defending and upholding existing protection frameworks, strengthening efforts to prevent conflict, and promoting accountability for and to children.