Briefing to the United Nations Security Council on the situation of children in Yemen
Ms. Virginia Gamba
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
15 April 2019
Check against delivery
Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the President of the Council for the opportunity to brief you today on the enduring and tragic impact of the conflict in Yemen on children.
As you know, the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, the MRM, created through Resolution 1612, enables the collection of information on the six grave violations against children in armed conflict, including on recruitment and use, killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, abductions, and denial of humanitarian access.
In Yemen, the MRM was formally established in 2013. As of today, there are six parties listed in the Annexes of the SG’s Annual Report on CAAC for having perpetrated one or more grave violations against children in Yemen.
A country-specific report on Yemen will shortly be presented to the Security Council Working Group on children and armed conflict, covering the period between April 2013 and the end of 2018. The figures for verified grave violations against children in Yemen during that period are staggering: more than 3,000 children were verified as recruited and used, more than 7,500 children were killed and maimed and over 800 cases of denial of humanitarian access to children were documented. In addition, over 350 attacks against schools and hospitals were verified. Unfortunately, due to difficulties in gathering information, sexual violence against children is chronically underreported in Yemen and only a few cases could be verified in that period.
In addition, due to the ongoing conflict, access restrictions, detention and threats against monitors as well as intimidation of communities reporting on grave violations, the numbers I present to you today represent a mere fraction of violations committed against children in Yemen.
The impact of this conflict on children has been horrific. All parties to conflict have acted and reacted militarily to events, resulting in the use and abuse of children in multiple ways. There have been exponential increases in violations throughout the years, as was the case at the end of 2014, when recruitment and use spurred significantly, and in 2015, which was a devastating year for children, with over 900 children recruited and used, 2,400 killed and maimed and over 150 attacks against schools and hospitals.
As military surges occurred, children continued to take the brunt. In end of 2017, during intensified fighting in Sa’ada, Al Hudaydah and Hajjah, killing and maiming of children increased 25 percent compared to 2016. And last year, fighting and offensives in Hodeydah alone resulted in the killing and maiming of more than 500 children.
As the fundamental principles of international humanitarian and human rights law have been violated by all parties to the conflict, children have paid a high price.
Allow me to draw your attention to three persistent concerns in Yemen, notably denial of humanitarian access to children, recruitment and use and killing and maiming of children.
My first concern relates to humanitarian access for and to children. The accumulating years of war, compounded by the economic crisis have taken a devastating toll on children, who have died of curable diseases such as cholera, and of starvation. Yet the fact that close to 70 % of districts in Yemen are currently at risk of famine cannot be explained by the raging conflict alone.
The UN has verified more than 800 incidents of denial of humanitarian access since the establishment of the MRM in Yemen. Most cases involved restrictions on humanitarian movement and violence against humanitarian personnel or destruction of assets and facilities. Key civilian infrastructure, such as water-reservoirs that are indispensable for the survival of surrounding communities, have also been attacked, and recently, an airstrike close to a hospital resulted in civilian casualties including children.
The consequences of each and every one of these cases are tragic as 80 % of the Yemeni population is currently in need of humanitarian assistance and protection and two million children are acutely malnourished and are fighting to stay alive.
As a case in point, on 11 March of this year, a mission for food delivery, including to schools, in Sa’ada governorate was cancelled after obstructions and checkpoints on the road.
The large majority of incidents of denial of humanitarian access, more than 70 percent, were attributed to the Houthis, while almost 10 percent were attributed to the Coalition and 7 percent to the Yemen Government Forces.
Recruitment and use of children remains a key concern. Between April 2013 and December 2018, more than 3,000 children were verified as recruited and used by parties to conflict in various roles: as combatants on the front line, for manning checkpoints, delivering supplies and for assisting in intelligence gathering. In 2018, almost 40% of these children were used in active combat, 50 % of whom were under 15 years of age. In the same period, more than 200 children were killed and maimed while used by parties to conflict in Yemen. Recruitment and use continues unabated, with more than 500 children verified as recruited and used in the first three months of 2019.
Two thirds of the children were recruited by the Houthis, followed by the Popular Resistance, Yemen Armed Forces and Security Belt Forces, as well as AQAP, Salafists, only to name a few.
The raging conflict fueled this trend, exacerbated by the deteriorating humanitarian situation. To join parties to conflict has increasingly become a coping mechanism for families on the brink of survival and children recruited are often among the poorest. Many children have explained how they felt they had no choice but to join to sustain their families. As the war continues, I fear that this push factor only gets stronger.
The ideological indoctrination of children to defend their communities against a perceived enemy has equally been an important factor in inciting children to join parties to conflict. Children have reportedly been forcibly recruited from schools, orphanages, and communities.
While the vast majority of children recruited were boys between the ages of 15 and 17, cases of recruitment of girls were verified for the first time in 2018. The girls were used to pressure their peers to send male members of their families to the battlefields and were threatened with expulsion from schools if they refused to comply.
The levels of killing and maiming of children are unsettling. Between April 2013 and January 2019, the UN verified the killing and maiming of more than 7,500 children, one third of whom were girls, making it the most prevalent violation in Yemen.
Almost half of these casualties were caused by airstrikes, for which the Coalition bears the main responsibility.
As for ground fighting, which caused 40 % of child casualties, the shelling on urban areas and the use of mortars and small arms were predominant causes of child casualties. The Houthis were responsible for the majority of child casualties as a result of ground fighting, followed by the Yemeni Government Forces, among others. Land mines and unexploded ordnance were also a major source of danger for children, causing more than 700 child casualties since 2013.
During these years, I have consistently engaged with parties to conflict to end and prevent grave violations, which is at the very core of my mandate, supporting efforts by the UN on the ground.
To this effect, in December 2018, the Yemeni Government endorsed a roadmap aimed at revitalizing and expediting the implementation of the Action Plan signed in 2014 to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children. The roadmap lays out measures to ensure release, reintegration and prevention of child recruitment. The Government of Yemen also endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration in October 2018, an important first step to ensure better protection of schools, education personnel and children. We now look towards the Government of Yemen to swiftly implement the roadmap and to prioritize the development of Standard Operating Procedures for the release and reintegration of children associated with armed forces and groups.
In March of this year, following engagements with the Coalition since 2017, I signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen the protection of children affected by the armed conflict in Yemen. The MoU includes provisions related to capacity-building of the Child Protection Unit established at the Coalition’s Headquarters in September 2017, as well as provisions for accountability and for the revision of Standard Operating Procedures for the handover of children intercepted during military operations. Yet most importantly, the MoU stipulates that a Workplan containing concrete measures to strengthen the protection of children will be developed in the coming months.
To conclude, the violence Yemeni children have been subjected to – and still are –is simply unacceptable.
I urge all parties to the conflict to take immediate measures to ensure that their military operations are conducted in full compliance with international law, including through respecting the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.
Thousands of children and their families are today in dire need of assistance and support; from basic aid to reintegration assistance. I reiterate my call for parties to facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage for the delivery of life-saving assistance to children and families in need. I also call on the international community to prioritize funding for Yemen, or the disbursement of pledged funds, in order to provide children with a chance to survive, learn and construct the Yemen of the future.
There is no alternative to peace to end this suffering. The Stockholm Agreement late last year provided hope, yet as fighting continues and intensifies in parts of the country, I urge the parties to swiftly implement the commitments made. The tragedy of Yemeni children and their role in the Yemen of tomorrow emphasizes the need to put them at the heart of the peace process.
Provisions related to the unconditional release, handover and reintegration of children associated with parties to conflict should be prioritized, and children deprived of liberty for their alleged association with opposing parties should be treated primarily as victims, and with dignity. Importantly, perpetrators of grave violations should be held to account for their acts before relevant jurisdictions.
This is why I urge the Security Council to heed my call and ensure that child protection is central to efforts for peace in Yemen going forward.
I thank you Mr. President.