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Essay: The UN has a “list of shame” for those who harm children in war – but who is missing?

In an article first published on The Conversation, SAMANTHA HOLMES, a research associate at the University of New York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, looks at the “glaring omissions” from the UN list…

Children are the primary victims of war. They are routinely recruited, abducted, raped and buried under rubble. For children lucky enough to survive, the effects of war vibrate throughout their life long after the bombs stop falling.

The UN holds perpetrators of harm against children during war accountable through its annual “list of shame”, publicly naming armed parties to conflict alongside the violations they are responsible for.


A boy looks on as Palestinians prepare to flee Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the southern Gaza city, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on 12th May, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Hatem Khaled

Last year, 66 armed parties were denounced for violating children’s rights in war through their inclusion on the list. These included the Myanmar military for its violence against those resisting its coup, and the Russian armed forces for its war in Ukraine.

Ordinarily, evidence of a pattern of “grave violations” against children – namely recruiting, using, killing, seriously injuring, sexually assaulting or abducting children, or attacking schools and hospitals – would cement a spot on the list. However, there have been some glaring omissions.

“Ordinarily, evidence of a pattern of “grave violations” against children – namely recruiting, using, killing, seriously injuring, sexually assaulting or abducting children, or attacking schools and hospitals – would cement a spot on the list. However, there have been some glaring omissions.”

For instance, despite evidence of enduring patterns of violations against children’s rights since 2005, Israeli Government forces have never appeared on the UN’s list. Similarly, the Qassam Brigades (the armed wing of Hamas) and the Al-Quds Brigade of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement have been erroneously absent, notwithstanding their repeated attacks on children.

Some parties have also enjoyed premature removal from the list, contrary to the evidence of their continued harm of children. These parties include the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the Myanmar military.

These erroneous listing and de-listing decisions appear to reflect deeper cracks in the impartiality and credibility of the list itself. More broadly, they reveal the power politics at play within the UN. Governments have been documented exerting political and financial pressure to avoid their own listing, or that of their allies.

Political influences have fanned Israel’s perpetuating impunity for its crimes against children. In 2015, senior Israeli officials reportedly threatened UN officials in Jerusalem with “serious consequences” if Israel was listed, successfully blocking Israel’s inclusion on the list that year. An independent, expert review of the UN’s listing mechanism also reported accusations of the US shielding Israel from accountability.

Financial incentives have been leveraged to influence the listing process too. In 2016, the UN retracted the Saudi-led coalition from the list following threats from Riyadh that it would withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars of UN funding.

Evidently, the list is not immune to global politics of power. All perpetrators of grave violations ought to be held to the same standard, regardless of how powerful they are.

Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of organisations that advocate for the protection of children in war zones, recently published a policy paper entitled, A Credible List. It includes new evidence exposing armed parties who repeatedly harmed children in 2023 to encourage the UN to ensure its list for 2024 is – you guessed it – credible.



Who deserves a spot on the 2024 list?
Three conflict contexts emerged strongly in the research due to high rates of violations against children in 2023. These were Sudan, Haiti, and Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

In Sudan, fighting since April, 2023, has led to the largest child displacement crisis in the world. Evidence of children killed through airstrikes and indiscriminate shooting, as well as attacks on schools and hospitals, indicate that the two belligerents, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, ought to be added to the UN’s list.

Insecurity has proliferated in Haiti as armed gangs exercise violence against children as a means of territorial control. There have been disturbing reports of gangs aligned with Haiti’s two major gang coalitions, the G9 Alliance and the opposing G-Pèp Alliance, as well as the Gran Grif gang, killing, abducting, recruiting and sexually assaulting children. Under this compelling evidence, the UN should consider listing these groups.

The 7th October attacks by Palestinian armed groups on Israeli civilians saw children indiscriminately killed, attacks on healthcare staff and infrastructure, and at least 30 children abducted. The evidence is clear that the Qassam Brigades and Al-Quds Brigade have earned themselves a place on the UN’s list.


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According to UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, Israel’s unrelenting bombardment of Gaza has turned it into a “graveyard for children”, fettering access to education and healthcare. The West Bank has also witnessed unprecedented violence by Israeli government forces and settlers, both before and since 7th October.

Israel’s efforts to shield itself from accountability have been successful thus far. But its killing of over 14,500 Palestinian children since 7th October should cement Israel’s place on the list this year.

As the world grapples with the colossal loss of children’s lives, we are reminded of how crucial accountability is. The effective implementation of mechanisms such as the UN’s “list of shame” could instil a culture of protection for children and encourage armed parties to view children – even those of their enemies – as off limits.

A spokesperson for the UN declined to comment on the issues raised in this article.The Conversation

Samantha Holmes is a research associate at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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