The U.N. Secretary-General Is Letting Powerful Countries Get Away With Killing Kids
By removing Saudi Arabia and other serial violators of children’s human rights from the annual list of shame, António Guterres is weakening one of the U.N.’s most effective accountability mechanisms.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is undermining one of the U.N.’s most effective tools for holding wartime abusers to account: He has repeatedly omitted powerful governments from his annual list of shame for grave violations against children in armed conflict, ignoring the U.N.’s own evidence of abuse.
When the Security Council first requested the list in 2001, it was limited to governments recruiting and using child soldiers, but over the years the Security Council has expanded it to include military forces and armed groups that kill and maim children, commit acts of sexual violence, attack schools and hospitals, abduct children, and deny them humanitarian access. Many of the state and nonstate actors named—including the governments of Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria—are on the list for multiple violations.
Not surprisingly, most parties to armed conflict—particularly governments—do not want to be included on the list. To be listed means keeping company with pariah groups like the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban—and facing possible Security Council sanctions, including arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans.
The first major successful attack on the credibility of the list was in 2015, when the secretary-general’s special representative on children and armed conflict recommended adding Israel for violations during a major military offensive in the Gaza Strip the year before. The U.N. reported that at least 557 Palestinian children were killed and at least 4,249, most under the age of 12, were injured. According to diplomatic sources, both Israeli officials and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. lobbied Guterres’s predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, to keep Israel off the list. Ban succumbed to the pressure and omitted Israel.
The following year, Ban included the Saudi-led coalition of countries fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. He based his decision on U.N. documentation that the coalition was responsible for at least 1,100 child casualties in Yemen, as well as about 50 attacks on schools and hospitals. But after Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the U.N., Ban announced that he was removing the coalition from the list, “pending review.” Ban later accused Saudi Arabia of exerting “unacceptable pressure” and said that the decision to remove the coalition from the list was one of the most difficult and painful of his tenure.
A pattern had been established. Powerful governments that were willing to throw their weight around were able to avoid the stigma of the list, no matter their crimes.
Guterres inherited the politicized list when he took office in 2017. During his tenure, the list’s credibility has deteriorated even further. To his credit, he restored the Saudi-led coalition to the “list of shame” in 2017, after the U.N. verified that the coalition was responsible for at least 683 child casualties and 38 attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen.
But he attempted to appease Saudi Arabia by dividing the list into two sections, one for parties that had put in place “measures aimed at improving the protection of children,” and a second for parties that had taken no action. Although a U.N. panel of experts found that any precautionary measures taken by the Saudi-led coalition to protect civilians during its air campaign were “largely inadequate and ineffective,“ Guterres placed the coalition on the not-so-bad list.
Then, in 2018, Guterres removed the coalition from the list with regard to schools and hospitals citing a “significant decrease” in the number of attacks compared to the year before, and “preventative measures” taken by the coalition. He made this move despite verified attacks on at least 19 schools and five hospitals—even though the Houthis remained on the list for that violation, despite a far smaller number of attacks.
That same year, Guterres continued to omit Israel from his list, despite U.N. documentation that 15 Palestinian children were killed and 1,160 injured, as well Iraqi government forces responsible for at least 109 child casualties, and U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan, responsible for at least 96 child casualties.
This year, Guterres went further, delisting the Saudi-led coalition entirely, even though his accompanying report stated that the coalition had killed or maimed 222 children in Yemen in 2019. Similarly, he delisted the Myanmar armed forces, the Tatmadaw, after 17 straight years on the list for using children in conflict, despite more than 200 new cases of child recruitment and use in 2019.
In doing so, he ignored criteria established in 2010 stipulating that a party would only be delisted based on full implementation of a U.N. action plan to end the violations, and U.N. verification that the party had ceased all violations for a period of at least once year. Neither the Saudi-led coalition nor the Tatmadaw met those conditions.
Guterres’s most recent list also omitted Israeli security forces, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, Russian forces in Syria, and U.S. forces in Afghanistan—despite hundreds of child casualties attributed to each. In an open letter, a group of 24 nongovernmental organizations said that the secretary-general appeared to continually move the goalposts with regard to listing and delisting in order “to accommodate a predetermined outcome: not upsetting powerful U.N. Member States.”
Power politics at the U.N. is nothing new. But in the past, this list of shame has been remarkably effective at pressuring governments and armed groups. Over the past 20 years, it has contributed to the release of more than 155,000 child soldiers, including an estimated 13,200 in 2019 alone, and has prompted 32 governments and non-state armed groups to sign U.N. action plans to end grave violations against children. At least a dozen of these have successfully ended their violations, while others are working to implement their plans.
One of its successes is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where warring parties, including the government, recruited tens of thousands of children as soldiers over decades of conflict. At the conflict’s height in the 1990s, UNICEF estimates that 30,000 children were fighting on all sides.
After appearing on the U.N. list of shame, the Congolese government issued new command orders prohibiting child recruitment, initiated age verification procedures for new recruits, and arrested and prosecuted officers for recruiting children. By 2015, government recruitment and use of children had virtually stopped.
Similarly, the governments of Uganda, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, and non-state armed groups from Nepal, the Philippines, and Côte d’Ivoire, were removed from the list after successfully implementing their action plans and proving that they had reformed their treatment of children.
But now, the list has become almost meaningless. When powerful countries escape scrutiny year after year, other listed parties can claim a double standard. To restore the list’s credibility, Guterres needs to list all parties based on the evidence, not political pressure or influence.
Guterres is not the first secretary-general to allow powerful states to escape accountability for their offenses. But his willingness to ignore the U.N.’s own evidence and coddle powerful countries may fatally damage one of the U.N.’s proven and most effective weapons for protecting the world’s children.