UN Secretary General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

Earlier this week, the  UN Secretary General’s annual report on children and armed conflict was published. The report covered grave violations against children in the period January to December 2015.

The report reports serious challenges in many areas of the world, especially those experiencing protracted armed conflicts such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan. Here is the UN’s summary:-

Emerging and escalating crises had a horrific impact on boys and girls. The situation in Yemen was particularly worrisome with a five-fold increase in the number of children recruited and six times more children killed and maimed compared to 2014. Violations committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continued to have a devastating impact on children, including persistent child recruitment and use and boys featured as child soldiers in social media and in some cases as executioners. In Nigeria, Boko Haram increased suicide attacks, including by using 21 girls as suicide bombers in crowded public spaces. The armed group spread its activities from northeastern Nigeria to neighboring countries, causing a significant number of casualties among civilians and large-scale displacements.

“In several situations of conflict, aerial operations contributed to creating complex environments in which large numbers of children were killed and maimed. State-allied armed groups and militia have also increasingly been used to fight in support of Government forces, in some cases recruiting and using children,” said Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

In Syria, thousands of children have been killed during over five years of war. Afghanistan recorded the highest number of child deaths and injuries since the UN started systematically documenting civilian casualties in 2009. In Somalia, there was a 50% increase in the number of recorded violations against children. In South Sudan, children were victims of gruesome violations, particularly during brutal military offensives against opposition forces.

“I am also gravely concerned by the increasing number of children deprived of liberty for their alleged association with parties to conflict. I call upon Member States to treat these children primarily as victims to ensure the full protection of their human rights and to urgently put in place alternatives to detention and prosecution of children,” declared Leila Zerrougui.

Reducing the impact of violent extremism on children

Again in 2015, children were significantly affected by violent extremism and too often the direct targets of acts intended to cause maximum civilian casualties and terrorize communities. In addition, the response to armed groups perpetrating violent extremism created new challenges for the protection of children.

In the report, the Secretary-General urged Member States to ensure their engagement in hostilities and responses to all threats to peace and security, including in efforts to counter violent extremism, are conducted in full compliance with international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. He added that it is “unacceptable that failure to do so has resulted in numerous violations of children’s rights”.

The report recommended that Member States include specific mitigating measures for the protection of children in their responses, particularly when conducting aerial bombing campaigns or ground operations, and called on all parties to conflict to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, and to consider making a commitment to this effect.

Attacks on schools, hospitals and protected persons

Attacks on schools and hospitals were prevalent in 2015 and documented in 19 out of 20 situations of conflict. The increasing use of airstrikes and explosive weapons in populated areas had a detrimental impact on schools and hospitals. Medical and education personnel continued to be threatened or attacked. In some conflict situations, armed groups particularly targeted girl’s access to education or attacked schools and teachers to impose their own curriculum.


With the adoption of resolution 2225 a year ago, the UN Security Council requested the Secretary-General to list parties to conflict that engage in patterns of abduction of children. As a result, Boko Haram, ISIL, the Lord’s Resistance Army and Al-Shabaab are among six parties listed in the report for this violation.

Children, Not Soldiers

The momentum created by the campaign ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ helped consolidate the emerging consensus that children do not belong in security forces in conflict. In March 2016, the Government of Sudan, the last of the Campaign countries, signed an Action Plan to end and prevent the recruitment of children. All Governments identified by the Secretary-General for the recruitment and use of children in their security forces have now engaged in an Action Plan process and there was notable progress in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar. Despite prior commitments by their Governments, children in Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen faced challenging conflict situations.

Engagement with non-State armed groups

In 2015, there was strong engagement with non-State armed groups, within or outside the framework of peace processes, in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Mali, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sudan and South Sudan, which led to the release of over 8,000 children.

“The recent agreement between the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP to release all children associated with the armed group is historic,” said the Special Representative.

“I am encouraged by the perspective of more constructive engagement with non-state armed groups this year, but, I wish to remind everyone that it is crucial to ensure appropriate resources for the reintegration of all the children released, with special attention given to psycho-social support and the needs of girls,” she concluded.

Response by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict

Watchlist on Children and Armed ConflictWatchlist on Children and Armed Conflict welcomed the release of the report and the fact that it contained several new listings. For example, it commented that some of these perpetrators are listed for abductions following the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2225, including Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Islamic State, and the Taliban.

Others were omitted from the list of perpetrators in the Secretary-General’s report, including armed groups in Thailand, Maoists in India, the Taliban in Pakistan, international forces supporting the Syrian government, and the Israel Defense Forces. The report also makes no reference to the conflict in Ukraine, where hundreds of children were killed and hundreds of schools attacked. The inclusion of these actors would more accurately reflect the plight of children in conflict zones around the world.

Watchlist welcomed the listing of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) in Nigeria for the recruitment and use of children. Since 2014, Watchlist documented and published cases of recruitment and use by the CJTF.

Despite these positive steps for the protection of children in war, Watchlist notes withcontinued disappointment the absence of certain perpetrators from the report’s annex.

For Yemen, until June 6 when the Secretary-General issued a statement temporarily removing it, Watchlist supported the listing of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition for the killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals.

“This listing represented the first time an international military coalition is included among perpetrators in the Secretary-General’s report and indicated a strong stance regarding the large number of violations against children in Yemen and a dire need for accountability. In the first instance, the Secretary-General applied an impartial method in the treatment of parties committing grave violations against children in Yemen. The temporary removal risks harming the credibility of the mechanism and creates a double standard for children, which they and the UN’s children and armed conflict agenda cannot afford,” said Mikavica.

“In 2015, we have received numerous accounts of how the conflict in Ukraine impacts children’s safety and rights. However, the report completely omits the situation of children in Ukraine,” said Mikavica. “Other parties have been mentioned in the report for years for grave violations against children, but have never been included in the list of perpetrators. We call upon the UN to report on all situations of concern and list perpetrators in equal measure.”

Established in 2001, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict (‘Watchlist’) is an international network of human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations striving to end violations against children in armed conflict and to guarantee their rights.


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