The grave rights violations allegedly being committed against children by Russian troops in Ukraine in the last year merits listing in the upcoming annual report on children and armed conflict by the United Nations secretary-general, says a new study by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. The nongovernmental network, based in New York City, provides annual recommendations to the UN’s own yearly Children and Armed Conflict report — a naming and shaming list — produced by António Guterres as mandated by the Security Council.
It is unclear whether Guterres will highlight Russia’s deadly effects on children in its illegal invasion in Ukraine in his report, which is due out by the end of June. Several sources close to the discussions told PassBlue that putting Russia on the naming and shaming list will be unprecedented — Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council — and could expose the country to more international sanctions. The country’s armed forces should also be listed, Watchlist says, for “killing and maiming” children in Syria.
As to Russia, Watchlist advises that government and “affiliated forces” be listed for killing and maiming and attacks on schools and hospitals in Ukraine; it also suggests “further investigation” of Russian forces to determine whether listing is merited for sexual violence. From February 2022 to January 2023, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “recorded the killing of a total of 429 children, and the injury of 808 children,” according to Watchlist.
Another effect of Russia potentially being listed could mean a ban from participating in UN peacekeeping operations, although that role is minimal. Apparently, Russia has been communicating with the UN Children and Armed Conflict office, run by Virginia Gamba, about decisions on Russia’s status in Guterres’s upcoming report. Her spokesperson, Fabienne Vinet, told PassBlue that the office doesn’t comment on “unpublished reports” or on “listing/delisting,” which is the “prerogative of the Secretary-General.” Gamba, she added, is traveling to Ukraine from May 10-13 to talk to the government on how the war is affecting children and “how to enhance the protection of children in Ukraine and prevent grave violations.”
The spokesperson for the Russian mission to the UN did not respond to a request for comment.
Besides Ukraine, the Watchlist report highlights that the secretary-general should “further investigate which parties are responsible for committing grave violations” in Cameroon, Colombia, Ethiopia, Israel/Palestine, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen, some of which have never been listed. The new eruption in fighting in Sudan is not included in Watchlist’s report because it covers last year’s events. The UN said recently that 860,000 people have fled the country in the last few weeks.
The year 2022 hardly saw a slowdown in the continuing violations being inflicted against children across the world. Watchlist recommends that 19 parties in 12 countries be added to the annexes of the UN’s 2023 report, either for additional violations or to be investigated for possible listing.
Overall, Watchlist blames the rights abuses on the rapid expansion of the global counterterrorism agenda, which threatens the very laws and norms created to protect children’s rights. The Covid-19 pandemic has also increased the chances of children being subjected to serious violations and atrocities. The organization’s recommendations are meant to draw further attention to the grave violations that end up in Guterres’s report. However, the yearly rite by the UN has become prone to manipulation and politicization by member states over the past decade.
Globally, the UN documented nearly 24,000 grave violations against children in 2021, including killings, maiming, recruitment and use of child soldiers, sexual violence, abductions and attacks on schools and hospitals — all war crimes.
Although the secretary-general’s report in 2022 — covering the period from January through December 2021 — did not explicitly mention Russian forces as violators in its reference to the “situation of concern” over the “ongoing war in Ukraine,” it said that Russia’s actions would be included in the “next report.” The Watchlist recommendations last year noted that since 2021, the “armed conflict” in Ukraine entered its eighth year, with children suffering from “grave violations of their rights.”
In 2022, after Russia’s full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24, “the situation dramatically deteriorated,” Watchlist said last year, with deadly violence spreading from the contested region of the Donbas, in the east, to the entire country. “The use of explosive weapons with wide area effect and indiscriminate weapons, such as cluster munitions, has caused mass destruction, with severe consequences for Ukraine’s 7.5 million children.”
In 2014, Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. The seizure happened soon after the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity occurred, when protests led to the ouster of the country’s Russian-propped President Viktor Yanukovych. Eight years after the annexation, President Vladimir Putin announced the launching of a “special military operation” for the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of the entire Ukraine. (On May 9, Russian Victory Day, Putin accused the West and Ukraine for “pursuing the dissolution and the destruction of our country.”)
Since the inception of Russia’s assault 15 months ago, it has been accused of committing wide-ranging war crimes in Ukraine, according to documentation done by human-rights experts inside and outside the country. The crimes include deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure, torture and rape of women, indiscriminate attacks against children and massacres of civilians. Children in Ukraine have also been subjected to forced transfers and abductions by Russian officials, who openly admit to taking youngsters to so-called “camps” in occupied Ukrainian territories or to Russia itself to ostensibly protect them in the war.
Most recently, on April 28, at least 21 people were killed in an attack on Ukraine by Russia, including three children. The assault took place while people were sleeping and was reportedly the deadliest instance in the war this year so far. Russia repeatedly denies intentionally targeting civilians, including public statements made in UN meetings by Russia’s envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, and his top deputy, Dmitry Polyanskiy. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court indicted Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the mass abduction of Ukrainian children. Most of them were apparently social orphans with relatives who were unable to care for them.
[Update, May 21: Gamba’s office confirmed that she recently went to Moscow, where she met with Lvova-Belova, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a deputy foreign minister and a deputy defense minister to discuss “how to enhance the protection of children in Ukraine and prevent grave violations. She also visited Ukraine days before her trip to Russia, with the same objective. In Russia, the officials agreed to develop a plan “to prevent grave violations against children, including measures for the handover and release of children affected by conflict, military command orders, training on the prevention of grave violations against children and the correct procedures to be followed for the urgent tracing and reunification of children displaced, transferred and or deported during the conflict, including through the establishment of a functioning mechanism of tracing family links and prioritizing family reunification according to the rights and best interests of children.]
According to Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s UN ambassador, while condemning the forced deportation of Ukranian children, “more than 19,500 children have been seized from their families and orphanages since the start of the conflict.”
Farther afield, in the Mideast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a complex, enduring battle, with children on both sides constantly exposed to violence and human-rights abuses. Like last year, Watchlist recommends that both parties be included in the new UN report. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, Israel killed at least 40 children in just three weeks in 2022. Watchlist says that Israeli government forces should be listed for killing and maiming and attacks on schools and hospitals. Palestinian armed groups are also recommended for “investigation in determining whether they should be listed” for killing and maiming Palestinian and Israeli children.
Defense for Children International recently released a report revealing that Israel has launched four wars on the occupied Palestinian territory since 2008, resulting in the deaths of almost 4,000 people, a quarter of them children. The report also highlighted that more than 2,200 children have been killed by Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine. One of the latest victims was 16-year-old Jana Zakarneh, who was shot in the head by Israeli forces during a military operation on Dec. 11, 2022, while standing on the roof of her home.
After Zakarneh’s death, Mohammad Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, called on the UN to add Israel to its “blacklist” of nations committing serious crimes against children in armed conflict. The UN’s naming and shaming list has yet to include Israel, but Watchlist has recommended that the country be listed for killing and maiming and attacking schools and hospitals. Guterres stated last year that if the records of Israel and Palestine on children’s rights did not significantly improve — without detailing how that would be measured — they should be listed in 2022.
On May 7, demolition by Israeli authorities of a European Union-funded Palestinian primary school for the children of Jubbet adh Dhib village, east of Bethlehem, in Area C of the West Bank, directly affected the education of at least 40 children, the UN’s special envoy for the Middle East peace process, Tor Wennesland, said on May 8. Currently, 58 schools, serving 6,500 children, face the threat of demolition due to a lack of building permits that are almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain, Wennesland added. (On May 9, media reported that Israel struck Gaza, killing 13 people, including Islamic jihadist leaders and four children.)
Watchlist also recommended last year that Sudan be listed for violations by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), Sudan national police and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), who for years have been vying against each other for control of the country. In Guterres’s report in 2022, five militias and government security forces were listed for committing grave violations against children. According to the UN, children in Sudan have been trafficked and subjected to forced labor and forced marriage as well as recruited as soldiers long before the outbreak of the extreme violence that began last month.
On April 15, the two generals of the SAF and RSF ferociously started attacking each other in warfare that has not let up despite repeated attempts at cease-fires and international and UN mediation. A May 4 statement from Unicef said that at least 190 children have been killed and 1,700 wounded in the bloodbath. A new Unicef report noted that the “hostilities have resulted in displacement and have further exposed children to potential grave violations, including recruitment and use by armed groups, as well as sexual violence.”
In advocating for the protection of children in war, Watchlist suggested that Guterres list other parties that are committing grave violations against children. These include Retour, réclamation et réhabilitation (3R; Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation) in the Central African Republic for rape and other sexual violence; and the Mai-Mai Biloze Bishambuke in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The organization advises further investigation into certain parties regarding their possible inclusion in the UN report. These include the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Ethiopia for attacks on schools and hospitals and sexual violence; and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for killing and maiming in Yemen.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.