The Security Council and Children and Armed Conflict:An Experiment in the Making

Public Lecture Delivered by:

Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy

Under-Secretary-General andSpecial Representative of the Secretary-Generalfor Children and Armed Conflict

12 April 2010Centre on Human Rights in ConflictUniversity of East London School of Law

The Security Council and Children and Armed Conflict:

An Experiment in the Making

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“In a world of diversity and disparity, children are a unifying force capable of bringing people to common ethical ground”- Graça Machel


Of all the humanitarian issues prevalent in the world today, the theme of children and armed conflict has caught the imagination of the Security Council of the United Nations. Since 2000 there has been a systematic engagement with CAAC as it is called in UN circles, much of it in the form of, what I would term, an experiment.  What I propose to do today is to first describe the background to this engagement, then move onto describe the nature of the engagement and finally to reflect upon the implications of such an engagement for human rights issues and children and armed conflict.

In 1996 Graça Machel presented her in-depth expert study on children and armed conflict to the General Assembly.  Responding to the terrible news stories of children in conflict, the Assembly had asked the expert to provide guidance on what was necessary at the international level to protect children in times of conflict.  Graça Machel, in her report, highlighted the fact that contemporary warfare was changing; that the lines between civilian and combatant were no longer clear; that women and children were often on the frontline and directly targeted.  She went on to signal issues that required urgent international attention. These included the issue of child soldiers, the problem of refugees and IDP children, sexual and gender based violence and the effect of landmines on children. She also drew attention to the particular problems posed by generalised sanctions, the terrible impact of warfare on health and nutrition and the need for psychological recovery and social integration for all children affected by war. The Assembly responded to her by creating the post of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict at the Under-Secretary-General level to mobilize a UN system wide effort to protect children in times of war.

Olara Otunnu inherited the mantle and was appointed the first Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict.  Olara Otunnu was Uganda’s ambassador when Uganda was a member of the Security Council and he saw the potential for Security Council engagement on this issue.  He was determined to make the Security Council recognize that children and armed conflict is a peace and security issue under the Council’s purview and the full plethora of tools that the Council had at its disposal had the real potential of driving this agenda with the political muscle of the Council behind it.


Security Council engagement with the issue of children and armed conflict began in 1999 when the Council, in resolution 1261, requested the Secretary-General to provide a report on Children and Armed Conflict to the Council, cementing the recognition sought by Otunnu that children and armed conflict was a peace and security issue.  This regular report has become the basis for on going Security Council action on this issue.  The first report, following the framework of the Graça Machel report, outlined the issues as contained in the initial study and sought to assess developments in the field.  It was general and thematic, much like the reports to the Human Rights Council.  However, over time the report would change to become a monitoring and reporting document focusing on parties within country specific situations.

The first important decision made by the former Special Representative was to guide the Security Council process to focus on grave violations. Though a substantial part of the report also looked at UN peacekeeping and how it could foster protection for children, over time the main thrust of the report was to focus on grave violations.  It was felt that programmatic reviews would be misplaced since the Council was not a response mechanism but that grave violations as elements of threats to peace and security would be important for its deliberations.  After reviewing international humanitarian law, the former Special Representative identified six grave violations that occur against children during war time – the killing and maiming of children, sexual violence against children, recruitment and use of children, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals and denial of humanitarian access.  These were not comprehensive and did not include all the violations suffered by children in armed conflict situations, but they were the most practicable in terms of monitoring.  These six grave violations have now become the basis for the Security Council process.

If one examines the 2009 report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict the focus is on violations and compliance by parties within country specific situations. With regard to country situations they are divided into two – countries that are on the agenda of the Security Council and countries not on the agenda of the Council.  In all there are 20 country situations of concern.  If one looks at the text within these country situations, for example Iraq, it examines issues such as the recruitment of children, killing and maiming of children, children in detention as well as issues relating to attacks on educational institutions.  The report presents certain statistics but the main thrust of the reporting is incident based reporting with an attempt to identify perpetrators where possible.  This specific incident and perpetrator focus makes this a unique report in the UN system, especially as it is presented as the report of the Secretary-General.

Since it is the Secretary-General’s report, the process of writing this report with country specific information is also unique and interesting.  The information for the report comes from the UN country team itself.  Where there is a DPKO or DPA mission, the SRSG in the field is responsible for providing the information after system-wide consultation. Where there is no DPKO mission, the Resident Co-ordinator is responsible for conveying the final information.  UNICEF in the field, as a co-chair of the Task Force in the country – where there is one – is an active member of this process.  This information, along with any other relevant information at the Headquarters level, is collated and put together by my Office.  The report is then shared with a Headquarters level task force made up of all the relevant agencies – UNICEF, UNHCR DPKO, ILO, UNDP, DPA, UNIFEM, OLA – who make additional inputs as necessary.  After their inputs, the report is then finalized and then pertinent sections shown to the Member States so that they have an opportunity to be heard on the allegations against parties to conflict operating within their territories.  If they challenge information, we request the country teams to verify the data.  Once that process is complete, the report is given to the Executive Office of the Secretary-General who then consults the heads of key departments, if necessary, and may make changes before the report finally comes out.

In the end we can genuinely say that the compilation of the annual report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on children and armed conflict is a UN system wide process.  The process is important in itself since it is a consensus building tool for UN partners as how to best protect children.  It contains information that the UN system has access to and that can be verified by UN partners.  We only use non-UN material if the country teams for some reason feel that they cannot monitor, report or verify information. In that case we use official sources as well information from child protection partners whose data is credible and based on a sound methodology, and the UN country team will stand by their information.

One of the first legal issues to emerge in the compilation of the report was “what constituted armed conflict?” for the purposes of the report.  Several governments felt that their situation was not armed conflict in the strict sense of the word and therefore their situation should not be in the report.  The response of our Office is that our determination was derived from a humanitarian angle with a pragmatic emphasis on children, what happens to them and how they can best be protected.  This approach puts the interests of children as an overriding concern and that situations requiring scrutiny should be responded to without a legal determination of what constitutes armed conflict. With the help of the Secretary-General’s office and the Office of Legal Affairs, along with language in the recent Security Council resolution 1882, we examine what we call “situations of concern” and inclusion of a country situation in our report is not a legal determination of armed conflict.  Still many countries continue to resist their inclusion with demarches and strong language at the open debate that often accompanies the production of the report.

One important aspect of the reporting to the Council that is also included in the annual report is the emphasis on peacekeeping.  From the very first report, there was an attempt to ensure that UN peacekeeping missions respond to children’s concerns.  The report to the Council highlighted the need for UN Security Council resolutions setting up peacekeeping operations to include provisions on child protection.  The reports also called for training of peace keepers and for some time monitored sexual violence and exploitation by peacekeepers against children.  As a result of all this emphasis, the Department for Peacekeeping Operations has formulated a Child Protection Policy.  This policy calls for the recruitment of child protection advisors as requested by the Security Council who would help the mission monitor grave violations along with UNICEF and other child protection partners, train peacekeepers and be the advocate and the interface between peacekeepers, civil society and children in the community.


The second initiative with regard to the Security Council and children and armed conflict took place in 2001 when the Council requested that the Secretary-General, in his annual report, also include an annex of named parties that continue to recruit and use children as child soldiers.  The issue of child soldiers was of particular concern to the Council since Graça Machel highlighted the issue in her study and most Council members considered this a universally abhorrent practice.  Pictures of small children carrying automatic weapons, killing and maiming under the influence of drugs had flooded the media ever since the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone had begun.  This was deemed to be an unacceptable state of affairs.  The Council therefore decided on a listing process, a naming and shaming exercise that would indicate to the world who the perpetrators are, their names and where they are located.

The first “list of shame” contained the names of 23 parties, state and non-state actors from Afghanistan to Sierra Leone.  In 2009 there were over 50 parties listed.  Over the years the numbers have increased as data availability increased but there was also greater specificity so as to focus Security Council action on these violators.  Today there are 19 persistent violators who have been on the list for at lease five years.  Resolution 1379 of 2001 also indicated how parties could get off the list – they should enter into time bound action plans with the United Nations to release and reintegrate the children in a structured manner and to desist from further recruitment and use of children.  The action plan then became the vehicle for delisting parties and allowed the United Nations to receive and implement commitments.

There are people who are skeptical of the listing process.  It is true that a number of parties do not care, and sometimes are unaware, if they are listed by the Secretary-General, but in many cases the listing process has resulted in compliance.  For example in 2008 I visited the Central African Republic and met with Commandant Laurent of the APRDC. He lived deep in the bush and did not have much access to international news.  I informed him that he was on the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report and since it was after Security Council resolution 1612, that there was a possibility of targeted measures being used against him in the near future.  He was initially taken aback and gave me a long lecture, his unique version of the history of the United Nations.  However, even though he was a rebel now, he had aspirations of leading the country one day.  He did not want to be on any list.  He made a commitment to release the children as long as there were proper programmes for their care.  He is currently releasing the children in a structured manner and all separated children have been reintegrated into their communities.

In December 2008, I met with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation front) in their territory in a remote part of Mindanao, Philippines.  Though initially they were reluctant to cede any ground, first claiming that they did not have children and then stating that Muslim law defines children differently, they finally relented once the process was explained to them and the cost of remaining on the list became clear.  They too wanted to be off the list. Over the course of 2009 they entered into an action plan with the United Nations and we are at the moment trying to raise the necessary funding for the successful implementation of the action plan.  A similar change of heart took place in Nepal.  After prolonged negotiations, in February this year the Nepalese Maoists released their minors who had been held in the cantonments.  Again, they felt that as a past and possible future ruling party they should not be on the Secretary-General’s list.

We have also had successes with parties in Cote D’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, the DRC and Sudan. There are also fewer governments now on the annexes since they, especially, do not want to be on any Security Council endorsed list.  Recently, the UPDF in Uganda entered into an action plan and opened their camps for inspection.  They have since been delisted.  The only state parties that remain are in Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Chad.

In August 2009, the Security Council, recognizing the effectiveness of this listing process in certain contexts, in Security Council resolution 1882, asked the Secretary-General to expand the scope of his annexes and also list parties that have a pattern of committing sexual violence against children and/or killing and maiming of children contrary to international law.  The May 2010 report will therefore contain additional listings of such parties.  The listing criteria for these violations are premised on the notion of pattern.  The violations cannot be random or isolated; they must be systematic, willful and intentional. This now poses a challenge as it will require my office and partners in the field to gather the kind of information that will meet this standard for these new criteria.


The most significant development with regard to children and armed conflict and the Security Council took place in 2005 with the passage of Security Council resolution 1612. The resolution called on the Secretary-General to set up a monitoring and reporting mechanism and a Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.  The notion that the Security Council would set up a monitoring and reporting mechanism on anything seemed unthinkable at one time but for the sake of children a unity of purpose was found.  Nevertheless, safeguards were in place to ensure the fact that nation states would be fully consulted and their interests protected.  Assurances were given and process set in place for effective action. My predecessor, Olara Otunnu, and the French Ambassador at the time, Ambassador de la Sablière, worked tirelessly to put this innovation in place.  NGOs and UNICEF staff were also active with support and lobbying on behalf of the resolution.  In May 2005, the resolution was unanimously adopted much to everyone’s surprise.  It was after all for the sake of the children – who could publicly oppose such noble sentiments?

The monitoring and reporting mechanism as initially designed by Olara Otunnu and modified in consultation with partners, established Task Forces at country level to be chaired by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General if there were DPKO or DPA missions and by the Resident Co-ordinators in other country situations.  The Chair would therefore be the highest UN representative in the county, signaling the high level of importance the agenda would have politically.  These Task Forces are also co-chaired by the UNICEF representative. In some countries the representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is also a co-chair.  The Task force members include UN departments and agencies that have information on children, independent national institutions such as independent human rights commissions that meet the threshold of the Paris Principles, and select NGOs who the Chair is convinced are doing work on children and are neutral, impartial and independent and who are capable of collecting credible information.  However all information collected by non UN partners must be verified by the UN. This Task Force sends its report to our office where it is processed in consultation with UNICEF, DPA, DPKO and other important partners at Headquarters in the manner described for the drafting of the annual report.  Finally the document appears as a Secretary-General’s report on the country concerned.  Again it is a system- wide report with information that focuses on the six grave violations and especially on incident based reporting with an attempt to identify perpetrators of these grave violations.  However, unlike the annual report, this report allows for a fuller appreciation of all background information, violations and protection efforts.

Many governments in these situations of concern had an initial reaction to the fact that they were not represented in the Task Force due to concerns for neutrality and impartiality. We argued that those against whom there are possible allegations cannot be on the Task force.  However, a practice is emerging where all the government agencies that deal with children form a government working group which then interacts with the Country Task Force.  In this way the government may be made aware of the type of allegations against all parties to conflict at regular intervals (though without endangering the sources) and also in some countries it has become very useful in responding to these violations through providing services for affected children.

NGOs and UNICEF have also been concerned that monitoring and reporting should be closely tied to programmatic response so that children are not made more vulnerable without any support.  Though the monitoring and reporting process has to be kept separate so that it does not look like witnesses and sources of information become beneficiaries, it was recognized that the international community must also provide support to the class of children affected so that they are given specialized programmes and successfully reintegrated back into their communities.  These processes also had to be kept separate to shield programmatic actors in more difficult conflict situations.


The reports of the Secretary-General on country situations are presented to another innovative creation of Security Council resolution 1612 – the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.  In the first few years it was chaired by France – at the moment it is chaired by Mexico.  It meets bimonthly and examines the reports of the Secretary-General, an informal global horizontal note and also considers oral or written reports of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict of my country visits. This systematic engagement with frequent meetings has deepened the engagement and the knowledge base of the Council on issues relating to children and armed conflict.

When the country report is presented to the Working Group, the national government representative is given an opportunity to respond to the report.  After that process, the Working Group deliberates on Conclusions and Recommendations, based on the recommendations of the Secretary-General, which it then adopts at its next meeting.  Since its inception, the Working Group has come to a consensus on all the country specific situations placed before it.  There has b