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The UN and AU must better protect children caught in war

About 179-million children across Africa — one in four — are living in conflict zones. Despite increasingly widespread awareness and robust action to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers, in 2020 the United Nations reported that more than 2 400 children were recruited or used as child soldiers on the continent the previous year.  

As special rapporteur on children and armed conflict for the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and as an academician too, I have seen the devastating impact of armed conflict on children on the continent, and how impunity also often allows abuses to continue. 

For example, when I served as the main facilitator of an amicable settlement between the government of Sudan and civil society complainants in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile state last year, I faced several sleepless nights thinking of the “child face” of the violations. 

In the past two decades, the UN Security Council has placed the situation of children affected by war squarely on its agenda and created a strong system to monitor and respond to violations. A central element of this system is the UN secretary-general’s annual list of perpetrators, a unique accountability mechanism that names parties to conflict — both governments and non-state armed groups — that commit grave violations against children.

The list was until recently remarkably effective. When a party to the conflict is listed in the secretary-general’s report, the UN approaches its leaders to develop and sign an action plan that charts a way forward to better protect children. 

In the last 20 years, at least 24 action plans have been signed with warring parties in Africa — six with government forces and 18 with non-state armed groups. Of those, nine parties, including government forces in Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda have fully complied with their commitments. They demobilised child soldiers, improved age screening of new recruits, prosecuted child recruiters, and allowed the UN access to military bases for verification. As a result of their action to end violations, they were removed from the list.

Recently, I joined other international children’s rights experts to systematically assess the UN’s annual reports on children and armed conflict over the last decade. We sought to determine whether a documented pattern of grave violations by the UN consistently resulted in listing the perpetrators of these violations. Unfortunately, our assessment found significant gaps.

We identified dozens of cases in which armed forces or groups responsible for repeated and serious violations against children in war were omitted or prematurely removed from the secretary general’s annual list. Between 2010 and 2020, at least eight parties to conflict — including six government forces — were found responsible for killing and maiming more than 100 children in a single year, but were not listed. 

For example, in the 2018 report (which documents violations in 2017), the Armed Forces of the DRC were found to have killed or maimed 154 children, yet were not listed; and the Nigerian 

Security Forces were responsible for 261 child casualties, while also evading listing. 

While we cannot determine with certainty why some groups are listed while others are not, government armed forces seem to be getting a free pass for violations more often than non-state armed groups, and countries that co-operate with Western governments in the “War on Terror” may also be let off the hook.

Parties to conflict should be treated based on the facts of their conduct. Ensuring accountability for crimes against children requires no less. We have therefore called on secretary general António Guterres to ensure the list of perpetrators in his forthcoming report this June and future reports is more credible, accurate, complete and evidence-based.

African governments can do much more to support this cause. They can advocate for stronger measures to protect children using their voices as UN member states, as well as bolstering action through African institutions. 

At the AU level, political leaders should send the message that child protection must be emphasised under the “Silencing the Guns” initiative, and match words with deeds, including by ensuring concrete collaboration between the AU and the UN. And the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, if better supported, can continue to strengthen child-specific accountability mechanisms and reduce fragmentation in approaches to accountability. 

So many children continue to suffer as a result of conflicts across Africa. From the UN secretary general to the AU, we must work to create an Africa where all children can flourish. 

Benyam Dawit Mezmur is a former member and special rapporteur on children and armed conflict of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and professor of law, Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape

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Benyam Dawit Mezmur
Benyam Dawit Mezmur is a former member as well as special rapporteur on children and armed conflict of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and professor of law, Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape

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