Expert Panel at LISD Discusses the Role of the UN and NGOs in Protecting Children in Armed Conflict

The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination sponsored a panel discussion, "Protecting the Rights of Children Affected by Armed Conflict: The Role of the UN and NGOs," on Thursday, February 7, 2013, at 4:30 p.m. in 016 Robertson Hall, on the Princeton University campus. Panel participants included Alec Wargo, Program Officer for the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict; Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch; and Eva Smets, Director of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. Swen Dornig, Second Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the UN moderated the session.

A webcast of the panel is available on LISD's YouTube channel.

Alec Wargo, Program Officer for the Officer of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, began the discussion by outlining the role of the United Nations in addressing the issue of children and armed conflict, specifically focusing on what mechanisms the UN has at its disposal and their evolution over time.  The UN Office of Children and Armed Conflict began in the 1990s with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia, under the leadership of Graça Machel. Her report on the “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” drew global attention to the issue of children and armed conflict. The report highlighted issues where the UN could advance outcomes, highlighting children who were internally displaced persons (IDP), refugees, and child soldiers, sparking conversation within the UN to consider how to protect and reintegrate these children into their societies post conflict.

Wargo addressed how Machel’s report culminated in UN General Assembly Resolution Document 51/77 (1997), specifically addressing the human rights of children, and led to the creation of the position of Special Representative to the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Children and Armed Conflict. Under Olara Otunnu, the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict focused on engagement with the Security Council and its power to compel, resulting in a policy emphasizing sanctions as a key strategy and integrating the issue of children and armed conflict into the peace and security agenda. Working with member states and ambassadors, especially France, as well as NGOs, real advances were made: the codification of the 6 great violations against children; a plan on what to monitor, how to monitor, and how to punish violators; as well as laying the foundation for Resolution 1612 establishing the working group on children and armed conflict.

Wargo highlighted that one key aspect of this outcome was the creation of the UN’s “list of shame” that explicitly designates parties to conflict who violate children’s rights. To respond to these violations, the UN can issue sanctions against persons as well as designating groups on the list of shame who have remained there for five years as persistent perpetrators. The working group on Children and Armed Conflict can also use action plans, which are contracts between the UN and a state or non-state actors to compel action. Noting there are 18 such contracts even though 52 parties currently qualify as persistent perpetrators – and emphasizing the complexity of each situation – Wargo to characterized the UN’s current mechanisms for action “conservative and limited.”

Eva Smets, Director of WatchList on Children and Armed Conflict, discussed the role of NGOs. WatchList, a network of human rights and humanitarian organizations, serves to promote collaboration and dissemination of information on children and armed conflict to the Security Council and UN as a whole to push forward policy initiatives. Smets argued that NGOs and civil society perform six key roles related to the protection of children in conflict situations: holding stakeholders and the international community accountable to ensure that measures deliver and promote real change; monitoring and reporting first-hand to bring information to parties and to push for additional action; interacting with the UN’s children and armed conflict agenda by encouraging the development of a new legal framework and architecture; and remaining an independent voice to judge the success of the agenda and create recommendations; using information from 14 countries currently studied for the Children and Armed Conflict working group to urge prioritizing situations that are either low priority or require urgent action.

Smets illustrated these points with examples of Watchlist’s recent work. In 2011 WatchList sent a researcher to the Central Africa Republic (CAR) to gather research meant to urge the Children and Armed Conflict working group to engage with a CAR party that had voluntarily released children. The SRSG subsequently visited the Central African Republic and signed two action plans. In another example, Smets discussed Watchlist’s advocacy, citing examples of its work toward a change in the legal architecture related to children and armed conflict, urging the addition of attacks on schools and hospitals as events that trigger the UN’s reporting framework, and Watchlist’s organization and publication of statistics analyzing outcomes. Their findings suggest that the end results have not been overly successful, nothing that out of the 26 tools available to the working group, only 6 have been used. Moreover, the time necessary to process a country-situation has increased from 3.4 months to 12.9 months, with the result that the situation as per the beginning of the process and the time of action are often completely different.

Smets highlighted the problematic nature of the ability of NGOs to engage effectively with the UN’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) on Children and Armed Conflict. NGOs are often best positioned to provide primary monitoring as they know the area, play a role in the community (and thereby are trusted), and will be on the ground once the UN leaves. However, in times of sustained violence, NGOs often leave the area due to safety concerns, and in some cases associating with the UN increases the security risk due to the perceived politicization of situations by the very presence of the UN. The requirement of UN-led verification of data further impedes the ability of NGOs to participate. 

Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, discussed strategies and tactics to meant to protect and prevent the use of children in armed conflict. She discussed of shaming as a key tactic, noting that in the 10 years since the creation of the “lists of shame,” 140 distinct parties have appeared on the list. At the time of the panel, some of those groups no longer exist, some have merged with others, some have been de-listed, and some are in the process of implementing an action plan. Becker emphasized the role of NGOs in reporting on children in armed conflict as part of this shaming strategy. She highlighted that Human Rights Watch has published reports on more than 20 countries; citing 34 violations in 17 countries last year alone. NGOs then use the strategy of shaming, through the media, to apply pressure on the parties.

Becker also discussed how ICC can play an important role, as occurred with Sierra Leone, and how foreign aid, or the threat to withhold it, may be used by donor nations against governments that use child soldiers. Other strategies Becker discussed were related to the UN and its special working group. These included better and more regular follow-up reporting to the special working group, the increased use of deadlines by the working group to compel action, devoting special working group sessions to persistent perpetrators, and further engagement with resident representatives at the UN and in the county. Becker closed by proposing the creation of thematic sanctions committees mandated to focus on specific issues like that of children and armed conflict to complement the current country-specific sanctions mechanisms.

The panel was the plenary session of a private workshop on children and armed conflict, which took place on February 8. The workshop addressed the current gaps in mandates related to the issue of children in armed conflict in UN Missions, particularly in Afghanistan and Somalia, with the goal of providing specific recommendations on how to strengthen the fight against impunity for persistent violators of the rights of children affected by armed conflicts. The meeting brought together academics, representatives of NGOs, and representatives of UN member states including members of the Security Council and the UN Secretariat for private discussion.

The workshop was organized by the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination's program on Women in the Global Community in cooperation with the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations and Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.