On June 23, 2020, the United Nations Security Council held its annual open debate on children and armed conflict (CAC), under the presidency of France. The debate marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 1612 (2005), establishing the UN Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) and the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict (SCWG-CAAC). In addition to marking this milestone, the debate aimed to highlight the importance of education and vocational training to prevent the six grave violations and as central aspects of comprehensive reintegration of children formerly associated with armed forces or groups.

Given the Security Council’s remote working methods, this year’s open debate was held via open video teleconference (VTC), and non-Council members were able to submit written statements. Following the debate, the Security Council issued a press statement condemning the scale and nature of all violations and abuses against children affected by armed conflict and expressing its concern over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the situation of these children.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC), Virginia Gamba presented findings from the Secretary-General’s (SG) latest annual report (A/74/845-S/2020/525) which documents more than 25,000 grave violations verified in 2019. While highlighting some progress in 2019, including the release of 13,200 children from armed forces or armed groups, SRSG Gamba raised concerns about the underreporting of rape and sexual violence against children, persistently high numbers of attacks on schools and hospitals, the dramatic increase in the denial of humanitarian assistance, and the continued detention of children for their alleged association with armed groups. SRSG Gamba also appealed to Member States for dedicated resources and specialized personnel to maintain and strengthen child protection capacity, including in UN peacekeeping and political missions.

The Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, spoke to the progress achieved to date in securing the release and reintegration of children from parties to conflict, in creating space to engage with listed parties to end and prevent grave violations, and in raising public awareness about the plight of children in these situations. Ms. Fore called for commitments to international frameworks and instruments to be brought to life through laws and regulations, and political will to make use of them. Ms. Fore concluded with five concrete recommendations for Member States: to urge parties to sign action plans addressing all six violations; immediate release all children detained for actual or alleged association with armed parties; repatriate child nationals abroad, including those children stranded in northeast Syria; invest in education and vocational training for reintegrated children; and protect water and sanitation infrastructure.

Following the presentations of SRSG Gamba and Ms. Fore, a youth named Mariam, a member of the National Children’s Parliament in Mali, spoke on behalf of civil society. At the age of 15, Mariam is the first girl-child to address the Security Council in an open debate. Her remarks focused on the experience of children affected by the armed conflict, including sharing stories of children recruited by armed groups, displaced and separated from family members , and subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Mariam called on UN Member States to urgently take action to protect children, ensure access to justice, and include children’s perspectives in decision-making processes that impact them. Watchlist supported Mariam’s nomination, and Save the Children facilitated her safe participation.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members praised the progress made to protect the rights of children in conflict, while emphasizing that much work remains to sustain these gains and protect children from ongoing violations. Several Council members emphasized the critical need to ensure that the SG’s annexed list of perpetrators remains credible, objective, and evidence-based. Recalling the criteria for listing and de-listing of perpetrators of grave violations against children, as set forth in the 2010 annual report (S/2010/181), several Member States cautioned against prematurely de-listing warring parties who continue to violate children’s rights – echoing criticisms raised by a group of 25 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in a recent open letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Other recurring themes among statements included the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child protection, the need to ensure that children associated with armed groups are treated primarily as victims in need of comprehensive gender- and age-sensitive reintegration, and the need to strengthen accountability.

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