World

UN says violence against children in conflict reached extreme levels in 2023

Conflicts ranged from Israel and the Palestinian territories to Sudan, Myanmar and Ukraine.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (Yuki Iwamura/AP, File)
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (Yuki Iwamura/AP, File) (Yuki Iwamura/AP)

Violence against children caught in multiplying and escalating conflicts reached “extreme levels” in 2023, with an unprecedented number of killings and injuries in crises, according to a new UN report.

The annual report on Children in Armed Conflict, obtained on Tuesday by The Associated Press, reported “a shocking 21% increase in grave violations” against children under the age of 18 in an array of conflicts, from Israel and the Palestinian territories to Sudan, Myanmar and Ukraine, also citing Congo, Burkina Faso, Somalia and Syria.

For the first time, the UN report put Israeli forces on its blacklist of countries that violate children’s rights for the killing and maiming of children and attacking schools and hospitals.

It listed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants for the first time as well for killing, injuring and abducting children.

Hamas’ October 7 surprise attack in southern Israel and Israel’s massive military retaliation in Gaza have led to a 155% increase in grave violations against children, especially from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Gaza, said the report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The United Nations kept the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups on its blacklist for a second year over their killing and maiming of children and attacking schools and hospitals in Ukraine.

The UN verified the killing of 80 Ukrainian children and maiming of 419 others by Russian forces and their affiliates last year, most from explosive weapons, the report said.

Sudan, where a war between rival generals vying for power has been raging since 2023, witnessed “a staggering 480% increase in grave violations against children”, the report said.

The Sudanese Armed Forces and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces went on the blacklist for killing and injuring youngsters and attacking schools and hospitals — and the paramilitary also for recruiting and using children in military operations and for rape and sexual violence.

By the end of 2023, Mr Guterres said the UN had verified 1,721 grave violations against 1,526 children.

“I am appalled by the dramatic increase in grave violations,” he said, especially the recruitment, killing and maiming of children as well as sexual violence and attacks on schools and hospitals.

The growing civil war in Myanmar also saw a 123% increase in grave violations against children and the Myanmar armed forces and related militias and seven armed groups are also on this year’s blacklist.

The report said the UN verified 2,799 grave violations against 2,093 children – including 238 killings and 623 injuries attributed to the military and its allied militias.

The United Nations verified 30,705 violations against children in 2023 and 2,285 committed earlier, affecting more than 15,800 boys and more than 6,250 girls. Some were subjected to multiple violations, the report said.

While armed groups were responsible for almost 50% of the grave violations, it said, “government forces were the main perpetrator of the killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access”.

Mr Guterres said the alarming increase in violations is due to “the changing nature, complexity, expansion and intensification of armed conflict, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians” and infrastructure and other essential buildings, as well as the emergence of new armed groups, acute humanitarian emergencies, and “blatant disregard” for international law.

The UN chief said he is “appalled by the dramatic increase and unprecedented scale and intensity of grave violations against children in the Gaza Strip, Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, despite my repeated calls for parties to implement measures to prevent grave violations”.

Mr Guterres said he was shocked by Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s killing, maiming and abduction of children on October 7, saying nothing can justify these “brutal acts of terror”. And he said he was appalled at reports of sexual violence during the attacks which must be investigated.

The magnitude of the Israeli military campaign against Hamas and Islamic Jihad “and the scope of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip have been unprecedented”, he said, reiterating calls for Israel to abide by international law and ensure civilians are not targeted, and that excessive force is not used during law enforcement operations.

In 2023, the report said, 5,698 grave violations against children were attributed to Israeli forces, 116 to Hamas, 58 to unidentified perpetrators, 51 to Israeli settlers, 21 to Islamic Jihad, 13 to Palestinian individuals, and 1 to Palestinian Authority Security Forces.

It said the process of verifying the attribution of 2,051 other violations is ongoing.

Just in the Gaza Strip, the report said the UN verified the killing of 2,267 Palestinian children. It said some 9,100 children were reported killed in the territory “and verification is ongoing”.

Overall in the Palestinian territories, it said, “some 19,887 Palestinian children were reported killed or maimed” and “the reports are pending verification”.

On a positive note, the secretary-general reported progress in engaging with blacklisted governments and armed groups to protect children.

He cited Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

“More than 10,600 children formerly associated with armed forces or groups received protection or reintegration support during 2023,” he said.

To get off the blacklist, government forces and armed groups must develop an “action plan” to address the violations with the office of the UN special representative for children in armed conflict, and then implement it.

Mr Guterres welcomed an offer by the Israeli government on May 28 to engage with special representative Virginia Gamba to develop an action plan.

He also welcomed Russia’s continued engagement with Ms Gamba “to end and prevent grave violations against children”, and urged its armed forces to develop and sign an action plan.