International Humanitarian Law: Protection of Children in Armed Conflict

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) held a Parliamentary roundtable discussion, in conjunction with War Child, on 11 July 2018, on ”the Role of the UK in Protecting Children in Armed Conflict”, further to the launch of War Child’s report “A Critical Friend? How the UK uses its influence to protect children’s rights in conflict” and the UN Secretary General’s recent report on Children and Armed Conflict 2018.

The speakers were:

  • Hannah Stoddart (HS) Director of Advocacy and Communications, War Child;
  • Professor Rosa Freedman (RF) – Director, Global Development Division, School of Law, University of Reading

The main points were:

  • War Child’s report focuses on Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia (in connection with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen) (included in the UN Secretary-General’s report as violators of children’s rights in conflict), because they are close allies of the UK, with the latter having the potential to build on its role as major aid donor, trading and military partner, and champion of human rights and gender equality, in order to exert influence on them to ensure greater respect for the rights of children in armed conflict. However, to date, the UK’s role in promoting the rights of children in conflict and ensuring their protection has been highly inconsistent. (HS)
  • There are a number of countries closely allied to the UK in which children’s rights in conflict settings have been de-prioritised in favour of other UK interests. This undermines the UK’s legitimacy as a champion of children’s rights and human rights more broadly. (HS)
  • UK-led military and security force training and protocols do not adequately weigh children’s rights against other factors.
  • The report concludes that trade and security objectives generally take precedence over the rights of children in conflict. This is illustrated by the UK granting arms export licenses to countries which seriously and continually violate children’s rights, such as Saudi Arabia, as regards its role in the conflict in the Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. (HS)
  • The recommendations from the report were highlighted (HS):
    • Develop a cross-governmental strategy for protecting children affected by armed conflict – to address policy incoherence and inconsistencies that undermine children’s rights;
    • Strategically use the levers of humanitarian assistance, military presence, trade measures and diplomatic relationships to put more pressure on State and non-State armed groups that commit grave violations against children;
    • Make better use of all international channels and UN bodies to promote the rights of children in armed conflict;
    • Support mechanisms that hold the perpetrators of grave violations to account to deter future violations – such as tying economic sanctions to persistent breaches;
    • Increase training of UK armed forces on the rights of children in armed conflict and ensure these issues are embedded in training provided to military forces in other countries.
    • Only permit arms exports when they adhere to international law – and do not approve arms exports to countries who are listed by the UN as committing grave violations.
  • The UK will be engaging with states in a different way post-Brexit, and there is a danger that though the UK has historically been seen as a leader on human rights and civilian protection mandates, trade and security could be accorded more importance at the expense of those mandates. (RF)
  • When the UK is silent or does not take a position or responsibility for some violations of human rights or humanitarian law (e.g., Yemen), it undermines its legitimacy when takes a position and action in other situations (e.g., Syria). Where there is hypocrisy, other international actors that do not wish to abide by human rights/humanitarian law use that to justify their behaviour and to undermine the UK’s position and the entire international rules-based system. (RF)
  • There is a disconnect across areas of the UK government: human rights are better embedded in certain areas/agencies (e.g., MOD, military, FCO) than others (e.g., trade and business, including arms sales). The question is how to ensure comparative levels of buy-in across the board. It is also essential to generate wider public support to call out the UK for this gap. (RF)
  • There also has to be an acknowledgement that national justice systems in conflict countries do not work so there is no domestic mechanism for accountability. (RF)


The PHRG will continue to champion the importance of international humanitarian law, including the protection of all civilians; to monitor conflict situations closely; and, to raise its concerns with the relevant interlocutors.