Influencing Armed Actors to Increase the Protection of Children in Armed Conflict

Influencing Armed Actors to Increase the Protection of Children in Armed Conflict

[Ezequiel Heffes is the Director of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. Samantha Holmes is a Researcher for Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and the Coordinator of the Generating Respect Hub at the University of York’s Center for Applied Human Rights.]

Children’s insecurity worldwide is proliferated despite the existing international legal framework aimed at protecting them. More than one in six children are living in a conflict zone; a figure that has doubled since the mid-1990s. Last year alone, almost 24,000 ‘grave violations’ against children in armed conflicts were documented by the UN. This figure will undoubtedly be higher for 2023 considering recent conflict escalations. Egregious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory stalk the daily headlines, with unprecedented numbers of children being abducted, killed, and buried under rubble, and countless schools and hospitals being targeted. Children are the over-represented victims of armed conflict. 

In this alarming context, this contribution consolidates promising compliance-generating mechanisms that could be better leveraged by various humanitarian and human rights actors to safeguard children in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and beyond. Rather than focusing on the amassed violations, we choose to focus on how we—organizations, governments, and individuals with varying mandates but the same goal—can collectively and complementarily respond to deter violence against children, encourage restraint, and generate IHL and IHRL compliance.

Commitment to Compliance 

Many State and non-State parties to conflict have publicly committed to respect, and to prevent breaches of, international norms that concern children and armed conflict. In addition to assuming obligations under relevant international treaties, States have endorsed a number of important soft law instruments: the Safe Schools Declaration to protect education in armed conflict, the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers, the Paris Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, and the Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas Declaration. Many non-State armed groups (NSAGs) have also signalled their intention to prevent violations against children. According to Child Soldiers International, between 1999 and 2015, over 60 NSAGs had ‘made unilateral or bilateral commitments to reduce and end the recruitment of children, leading to changes in internal policies and practices’ (at 4). Geneva Call’s public database contains almost 600 commitments made by nearly 230 armed groups, several of which focus on child protection issues. 

When faced with the sheer number of violations against children outlined in the introduction, it can be easy to abandon hope in international law’s capacity to protect children in conflict. However, wars are not exclusively lawless or disorderly, rather international law is regularly heeded. In fact, States and NSAGs are dynamic and evolving actors and their commitment to and compliance with international law is evolving and context-dependent. Compliance should therefore be examined along a spectrum, rather than in a binary way. Compliance with international rules that protect children in armed conflict and restraint from violence can be observed to varying degrees in all armed conflicts ever to have been fought. While parties may indeed be responsible for deliberately attacking essential services for children, such as schools and hospitals, or for using and recruiting them in hostilities, at other times they choose to follow specific international rules that prohibit these actions. 

Avenues to Increase Compliance 

The motivations behind human rights and humanitarian norms-compliance are manifold and contextual. The Generating Respect Project found that in addition to material factors, such as availability of resources and conflict dynamics, ideational factors, including values, tradition, and emotion, explain the behavioral variation of armed actors (at 10). Notably, parties’ behavior is shaped by social processes such as persuasion, legitimate control, or coercion, ensuing from interactions between them and a host of other internal and external actors. Thus, approaches aimed at generating greater compliance must understand the motivations for (non-)compliance and the interactions that can de- and re-construct these. 

The following (categories of) actors each engage, either directly or indirectly, on international law compliance with parties to armed conflict and thus are key components in any agenda to encourage protection for children (and respect of other international rules) in armed conflict. 

Third States

Although they might not necessarily be parties to the conflict in question, States may exert influence and shape the warring parties’ behaviors through humanitarian diplomacy. It must be recalled that Common Article 1 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (CA1) requires States to ‘respect and to ensure respect for’ these treaties in all circumstances. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has interpreted this obligation as one containing an ‘external dimension’ according to which third States ‘must do everything reasonably in their power to ensure respect’ for IHL by the parties to a conflict (at para 153), either an international or a non-international one. Importantly, a similar provision is contained in Article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms that States ‘undertake to respect and to ensure respect for’ IHL rules ‘which are relevant to the child’. Importantly, this obligation has recently been referred to by certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the context of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. By relying on CA1, they have asked Switzerland, as a depositary of the Geneva Conventions, to convene a meeting of High Contracting Parties to the fourth Geneva Convention in order for States to ‘fulfil their obligations’ under this provision. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross

The ICRC is one actor that systematically engages with parties to armed conflicts to increase their level of compliance with international law. As the ‘guardian of the Geneva Conventions’, the ICRC seeks to ensure that IHL is ‘faithfully applied, effectively disseminated and properly understood’ (at 15). The ICRC relies on various means to fulfil its mandate. For instance, it provides expertise to States implementing IHL in domestic legislation. It can also encourage NSAGs to adopt codes of conduct or other regulations containing international rules. The ICRC also provides IHL training and dissemination sessions for States and NSAGs, which are considered an integral part of its mission, ‘and one that is essential in order to foster an environment conducive to the respect for human lives and dignity during armed conflict’ (at 366). It can also employ bilateral and confidential dialogue to persuade parties to change their behavior. 

Increasing Respect by Non-State Armed groups: The case of Geneva Call

In addition to third States and the ICRC, other humanitarian, human rights and development NGOs have focused on child protection issues when conducting public advocacy for the respect of their safeguards and engaging with parties to conflict. Geneva Call, for example, acknowledges that direct dialogue with ‘armed groups and de facto authorities’ is essential to solving problems related to the implementation of international law in armed conflict. This dialogue includes IHL training and dissemination sessions that aim to address NSAGs’ ‘practical concerns about implementing international standards in the context in which they operate’. For this purpose, Geneva Call has developed Deeds of Commitment – one of which focuses on protecting children and education and has been signed by 31 armed groups. When signing this Deed, these entities adhere to, among other obligations, a total ban on the use of children in hostilities, to ensure that children are not recruited into their armed forces, ‘whether voluntarily or non-voluntarily’, and to never compel children ‘to associate with, or remain associated with’ their armed forces. This process aims at creating a sense of ownership over the rules these groups undertake to respect and to be held accountable for in their pledge. 

UN Mechanisms: The Children and Armed Conflict Agenda

Various UN mechanisms have conducted direct engagement on child protection issues, in particular those established under the framework of the Security Council’s Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) agenda. One useful avenue for promoting accountability for violations committed against children in armed conflict is the Secretary-General’s ‘list of shame’. In the annexes to his annual CAAC report, the Secretary-General lists perpetrators of ‘grave violations’ against children in conflict. Not only does the listing process serve to name and shame perpetrators of grave violations against children, but it also triggers additional mechanisms that have resulted in concrete commitments to protect children in armed conflict. 

Listed parties are ‘required to enter into dialogue with the United Nations to prepare and implement a concrete, time-bound action plan to cease and prevent grave violations committed against children for which the party has been listed’ (at para 179). To date, 38 action plans have been signed, 12 of which have been fully complied with resulting in the delisting of the relevant party. Of the remainder four have been replaced by consolidated action plans whereas other parties have either ceased to exist, or implementation of an action plan is ongoing. In addition, the listing of parties triggers the establishment of the UN’s formal Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) managed by a Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR). Through the MRM, the CTFMR systematically gathers timely and reliable information on the six ‘grave violations’ against children in conflict which form the basis of key CAAC reports. Listing also triggers the engagement of the Security Council Working Group on CAAC, tasked with reviewing development and implementation progress of action plans and providing recommendations to the Council.

Whilst showing an important measure of success in various contexts, the Secretary-General’s ‘list of shame’ has remained deafeningly silent regarding the ongoing conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and historically with respect to Israel and Palestinian armed groups. Despite references to grave violations against children in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory in every report since 2005, and enduring numbers of grave violations year-on-year, the Israel Defense Forces has never been listed, nor have Palestinian armed groups. On 16 November 2023, key child rights professionals called for the immediate listing of the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, recognizing the importance of this mechanism and how impactful it can be with respect to protecting children’s safeguards in armed conflict. 

Other Influential Actors 

In recent decades, alternative avenues to increase compliance with international law in armed conflict have paid particular attention to the role of actors that are more proximate societally to parties to conflict. This might be the case with civilians and tribal or religious leaders. A recent research project has found clear evidence that religious leaders influence the behaviors of States and NSAGs. Humanitarian NGOs have engaged with religious leaders towards leveraging their influence potential. Such humanitarian engagement recognizes that which has been justified on the following basis:

To retain its protective force, norms-compliance work has had to expand its foci in terms of engagement – drawing on local values, secular and religious norms, and customary practices in addition to (international) law. In respect to the targets of engagement, a broadening of the pool of addresse[e]s can be observed, beyond direct parties to conflict to a variety of other actors with potential influence on armed actors (at 8).

Importantly, religious leaders have promoted behavioral change with respect to the use and recruitment of children in various contexts. An example of this is the case of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar (at 25) or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines (at 537) which indicate that, in the last decade, there has been an increased awareness of international standards on this issue among key stakeholders, and that religious actors were instrumental.  


The international community’s awareness of the effect war has on children has much improved and collectively a light has been shone on this once invisible impact. Both directly and indirectly, the above actors can, and do, contribute to successful behavioral change by parties to armed conflict. For instance, over 170,000 children have been released by armed actors after being engaged by the UN. Other cases took place after Geneva Call’s engagements. Evidently, encouraging armed actors to comply with international law on child protection is not as insurmountable as it may at first appear, and thus, more efforts are needed to bolster IHL and IHRL compliance and to increase the protection of children in armed conflict.

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