On June 28, 2021, the United Nations Security Council held its annual open debate on children and armed conflict (CAAC), under the presidency of Estonia. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid chaired the high-level meeting, which included leaders such as President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland and President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger. UN Secretary-General António Guterres presented the findings from his 2021 annual report on CAAC (A/75/873-S/2021/437), which documents 26,425 grave violations verified in 2020. Briefers included Ms. Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF; Mr. Forest Whitaker, Advocate for Children Affected by War with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSG-CAAC) and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation; and Mr. Laban Onisimus, Education Specialist for Plan International Nigeria, who briefed the Council on behalf of civil society.

Due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Security Council’s working methods, the 2021 open debate was held via video-teleconference (VTC), and non-Council members were able to submit written statements.

Secretary-General Guterres called on all warring parties to prioritize the prevention of violations against children by engaging in dialogue, ceasefires, and peace processes. He reported that the most prevalent violations against children in 2020 continued to be recruitment and use, killing and maiming, and denial of humanitarian access. The Secretary-General noted with particular concern an increasing trend of sexual violence against boys and girls, as well as attacks on schools and hospitals, and stressed the need to increase funding for child protection positions on the ground. In closing, Secretary-General Guterres called on UN Member States and the Security Council to always protect children and not allow conflict to erode their rights.

The Executive Director of UNICEF, Ms. Henrietta Fore, spoke to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the lives of all children, but particularly for those living in the 21 situations detailed in the Secretary-General’s report. Executive Director Fore called for the urgent support of Member States, the Security Council, and relevant partners in four key areas to protect children in war and prevent violations: 1) the Security Council must prioritize the CAAC agenda in decisions and negotiations; 2) Member States and parties to conflict must avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; 3) Member States must work to prevent gender-based violence in conflict; and 4) Member States need to increase child protection capacity across the board.

Following the statements of Secretary-General Guterres and Executive Director Fore, Advocate for Children Affected by War with the OSRSG-CAAC Mr. Forest Whitaker described to the Council what he called the three main “invisible impacts” of grave violations. These impacts, he explained, are the loss of education, social stigma, and trauma. Mr. Whitaker spoke of the importance of rekindling links between children affected by conflict and their communities, and that these children have the right to a second chance.

Representing civil society, Mr. Laban Onisimus of Plan International Nigeria provided insight on the protracted crisis in the Lake Chad Basin region and its catastrophic impact on children, particularly girls. Mr. Onisimus called on the Council to increase its efforts to protect girls in armed conflict. He elaborated on the increased targeting of girls by armed groups, specifically for abduction and sexual violence, which increased 90 percent and 70 percent, respectively, in 2020. Mr. Onisimus urged the Council to address the use of girls as weapons of war, develop gender- and age-specific programs, and demand and pursue accountability for all those who perpetrate grave violations against children.

In the ensuing dialogue, Security Council members reflected on challenges and vulnerabilities the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated in efforts to end and prevent grave violations against children. Many Council members expressed the importance of protecting schools and ensuring all children have access to education, calling on fellow Member States who have not yet done so to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. Several Council members stressed the critical need for the Secretary-General to publish a list that is evidence-based and accurately reflects data collected and verified by the UN Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) – echoing criticism and concerns raised in a March 2021 independent review conducted by an Eminent Persons Group, as well as a May 2021 open letter to Secretary-General Guterres from 18 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Other recurring themes among Council statements included the impact of armed conflict on girls and the need for gender-disaggregated data; the need to fund child protection and ensure its capacity in peacekeeping mandates, mission transition, and drawdown; the escalation of violence in conflict situations such as Myanmar, Cameroon, and the Tigray region of Ethiopia; and calls for accountability and for all warring parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law (IHRL).

The complete written record of Council member statements has not been released at this writing. A more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the open debate and the impact of Watchlist’s advocacy efforts is forthcoming.