Harvard Law School Panel Discusses UN’s Commitment to Children’s Rights During Armed Conflict


Human rights experts in a Harvard Law School panel on Wednesday discussed how the United Nations has responded to violations of children's rights during global armed conflict.

The panelists examined the UN’s attempts to hold governments and non-state actors accountable for rights violations. Law professor Gerald L. Neuman, Director of the Human Rights Program at HLS, moderated the event, which featured Benyam D. Mezmur, a law professor at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa; Jo Becker, advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch; Allan Rock, former Canadian Ambassador to the UN in New York; and Yanghee Lee, founding President of the International Child Rights Center.

Mezmur, a fellow at the Law School, discussed the vast scope of the issue, citing research by the Peace Research Institute Oslo that found approximately 449 million children — more than 1 in 6 — were living in a conflict zone.

Mezmur also talked about the “six grave violations” against children the UN reports occur during armed conflicts: killing and maiming, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, abduction, military recruitment, and denial of humanitarian access.


Becker talked about the history of the UN Security Council’s involvement in children’s affairs during armed conflict. She pointed to the UN Security Council passing a 1999 resolution that recognized wartime children’s rights violations as an international security threat.

“Since then, [the Security Council]’s adopted a dozen resolutions over time that have created an architecture that is really unlike anything else at the UN,” Becker said.

Becker added that there are currently 60 governments and non-state actors on the “List of Shame,” a list of parties whom the Secretary-General declares guilty of the six grave violations.

According to a resolution passed by the UN Security Council, parties are deemed responsible for children’s rights violations if they demonstrate patterns of repeated infractions — a criteria Rock said he found "rather vague."

“There’s no detailed definition of what is a pattern of grave violations involving sexual violence or attacks on schools and hospitals,” he said.

Rock then described an incident where Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw funding from the UN if it was not removed from the list, prompting the Secretary-General to launch a review of the nation's inclusion on the list.

Rock said this incident “called into question the integrity of the program.”

“After all, if someone can get their name removed from the list of shame, by threatening reprisals against the United Nations, then what’s the credibility of the list and what is its value?” he said.

The UN did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday evening.

Mezmur, who was a member of the Eminent Persons Group, an independent body tasked with reviewing the UN Secretary-General’s decisions regarding the “List of Shame,” said the group provided recommendations to the Secretary-General to ensure that future iterations of the list are “more credible, objective, and evidence-based.”