Shame on the UN for once again omitting Israel from list of child-killing states
“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza.”
These were the words of António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, during the May 2021 Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. It is a stark statement, leaving no question as to the brutality and violence experienced by Gaza’s residents, about half of whom are children.
The United Nations General Assembly created the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict following a 1996 report that comprehensively documented how children are disproportionately affected by armed conflict. Since 2001, the mandate of this office includes what has colloquially been called a “List of Shame,” naming perpetrators that kill, harass, and otherwise threaten the lives and well-being of children.
''Whilst the list has no legal impact, it is a potentially powerful tool for documentation and accountability. However, it seems to be just another means for the international community to take aim at bad actors in the Global South whilst hesitating to offer any real consequence for states with influential friends, even if it does not deny their role in harming and killing children.''
In 2023, Russia was added to the list due to the murder of 136 children in Ukraine in 2022. An additional 518 children were maimed, while dozens of children were used as human shields. Hundreds of schools and hospitals were also attacked, directly harming children. This inclusion, considering the events of the past year, was not surprising.
However, what was both surprising, and yet utterly predictable, was the exclusion of the state of Israel from the list—a list compiled by Guterres—considering the same report outlined the multiple attacks on children committed by both the Israeli military and by Israeli settlers. In fact, even with decades of documentation of Israeli violations of Palestinian children’s rights, including countless reports issued by the United Nations itself, Israel has never been included on the list, despite the inclusion of other parties whose violations do not reach the scope of Israel’s.
Interestingly, the report does not even attempt to argue that Israel committed no “grave violations,” as such actions are referenced. To the contrary, more than 3,000 such violations were documented, including the use of four Palestinian children as human shields by Israeli forces; the detention of 852 Palestinian children for supposed security offences, with 17 under administrative detention with no charge or trial (with dozens of reports of poor treatment from children detained by Israel); the murder of 54 Palestinian children, most by live ammunition from the Israeli military; the maiming of 517 Palestinian children; 121 attacks on Palestinian schools and hospitals by Israeli forces and settlers; the abduction of a Palestinian child by Israeli settlers; and the denial by Israeli authorities of 1,863 medical permit applications for Palestinian children from Gaza who needed medical treatment unavailable in the besieged territory. Five children died while awaiting their permits.
These are just the incidents that could be verified by the UN. Undoubtedly, there are countless more cases of harassment and violence that were never reported or could not be formally verified. Furthermore, no report could capture the toll of living one’s entire childhood under the direct and structural violence imposed daily by the Israeli military, the restrictions of occupation, and the increasing threat of the settler population, among other constant sources of physical and mental trauma.
By Palestinians, their allies, and the human rights community more broadly, the omission was immediately noted and criticised. The advocacy director for children’s rights of Human Rights Watch, the same organisation that argued that Israel has committed crimes of apartheid and persecution in 2021, stated what is seemingly a clear consequence of such exclusions: “His [Guterres’s] unwillingness, year after year, to hold Israeli forces accountable for their grave violations against children has backfired, only emboldening Israeli forces to use unlawful lethal force against Palestinian children.”
This argument is not theoretical. By early July 2023, 35 Palestinian children had already been killed by Israeli forces. A countless number of children in the West Bank have suffered through Israeli checkpoints, forced evictions, home demolitions, road and city closures, and raids of towns, refugee camps, and homes. Children in Gaza live their entire lives under conditions of neglect, deprivation, and the threat of violence, either by Israeli airstrikes or Israeli snipers stationed across the territory’s artificial border.
So why exclude Israel, yet again?
Whilst the list has no legal impact, it is a potentially powerful tool for documentation and accountability. However, it seems to be just another means for the international community to take aim at bad actors in the Global South whilst hesitating to offer any real consequence for states with influential friends, even if it does not deny their role in harming and killing children.
A recent report outlined how the list has lost credibility due to multiple incidents of lobbying and even blackmail against the UN that has successfully kept perpetrators, including but not limited to Israel, off the list.
After the 2014 Israeli attacks on Gaza, during which over 550 Palestinian children were killed, the US and its ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, heavily pressured the UN to keep Israel off the list. This was seen as a move to gain support from members of the US congress, who are unwilling to bear any criticism of Israel ahead of the Iran deal. Yet another example that demonstrates the disposability of Palestinian life in the halls of the world’s most powerful capitols.
If children living in what the UN Secretary-General himself referred to as “hell on earth” do not qualify for the bare minimum in terms of at least naming and shaming the entities that have created their unbearable conditions, what even is the purpose of such a list?
Yara M. Asi, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Global Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida, a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and a US Fulbright Scholar to the West Bank.
Follow her on Twitter: @Yara_M_Asi
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