Submission from Save the Children

As one of the world’s leading children’s rights organisations, the focus of Save the Children’s submission is advancing human rights in British foreign policy. Specifically, we will examine what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) can do to promote and protect children from grave violations of their rights in armed conflict.

New Government, New Opportunity

British aid has played a critical role in transforming and saving the lives of millions of children around the world, yet the impact of aid can only be fully realised with equal attention to ensuring the effective implementation of international humanitarian law and human rights standards and the protection of civilians more broadly.

In its report on the FCO’s human rights work abroad, which was published in April this year, the Foreign Affairs Committee argued that there is a strong perception that the department has deprioritised human rights.

Ministers have denied this, citing examples of the department’s commitment to protecting human rights through their recent financial commitments to the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy as well as over 100 projects which aim to provide practical and tailored interventions to local contexts. Whilst these initiatives are welcome, recent foreign policy decisions, specifically in relation to Yemen, suggest the FAC may be right.

Moreover, FCO leadership in certain areas, such as preventing sexual violence in armed conflict, has not translated into support for wider initiatives on the protection of civilians which have the potential to enhance the safety and well-being of the estimated 250 million children who currently live in regions affected by armed conflict.77

With the new Government settling in and beginning to set its direction, there is a renewed opportunity to ensure that the UK continues to place human rights at the heart of its foreign policy and ensures this is consistently applied across all policy areas. In this regard, we welcome Baroness Anelay’s cross-departmental portfolio between the FCO and DfID and believe that this will help to engender stronger policy coherence between government departments.

A Children’s Protection Crisis

One in every ten of the world’s children now lives in conflict-affected areas, where girls and boys are subjected to violations of international law on a massive scale including: killing and maiming; sexual violence; military recruitment and use; forced displacement; and denial of humanitarian assistance. Their schools and hospitals are frequently attacked and used by military forces denying them the right to education and healthcare. Armed conflict continues to disproportionality affects children with an increasing number of cases reporting grave violations being committed against their rights.

In the 2016 Report of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict78, increased intensity of grave violations against children in a number of situations of armed conflict are directly attributed to “the denigration of the respect for international humanitarian and human rights laws by parties to conflict.”

As a Permanent member of the Security Council, the UN Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict and member of the Human Rights Council, in addition to being one of the largest international aid donors, the UK is well placed to lead efforts on ensuring that the protection of children and their families’ is prioritised in times of war. This would not only help address the perception that the FCO is deprioritising human rights but would also ensure that the Government is supportive of initiatives that minimise the impact of armed conflict on children.

FCO Priorities

The reconfiguring of the FCO’s six priorities in 2015 into three has resulted in the prioritisation of the following themes: (1) democratic values and rule of law, (2) human rights for a stable world and (3) strengthening the rules-based international system. The latter was also identified as a priority in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 201579, which specifically stated that the Government will “help strengthen the rules- based international order and its institutions, encouraging reform to enable further participation of growing powers” and “work with our partners to reduce conflict, and to promote stability, good governance and human rights.”

There are positive and commendable examples where the Government has shown leadership in promoting and protecting rights in armed conflict. This includes its support for the work of the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, and through the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative launched in 2012 that has raised the profile of sexual violence in conflict, resulted in high-level global commitments and practical actions to end it.

However, in contrast Government policy in relation to the conflict in Yemen has been inconsistent with its stated commitment to promote and protect human rights. In particular, we are concerned by the lack of an adequate Government response to credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law all parties to the conflict there.

Yemen: an inconsistent approach

In Yemen, the UN documented a six-fold increase in the number of children killed and maimed during 2015, compared to 2014, as well as multiple attacks on schools and hospitals, a trend that continued into 2016. While these and other violations have been attributed to all parties to the conflict, according to the UN the Saudi Arabia-led Coalition (SLC) is responsible for disproportionate number of child casualties and attacks on schools and hospitals.

Despite multiple, credible allegations of violations of international law by the SLC and other parties to the conflict in Yemen, the UK, in contrast to its response on Sri Lanka and other situations where serious violations are alleged, has been unwilling to support the establishment of international, impartial investigations in accordance with the recommendation by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Rather, the UK’s policy has been to continue to provide political and military support for the SLC’s intervention in Yemen which, in Save the Children’s view, is inconsistent with and undermines the credibility of the commitment to support the effective implementation of international norms as well as DfID’s commendable humanitarian support.

What next?

Yemen is an example where apparent inconsistency creates a perception that human rights may have been deprioritised. It also undermines international actions aimed at enhancing the protection of children and their families in that conflict which could potentially place civilians living in other war zones at increased risk.

In order to ensure human rights are a central pillar in foreign policy, and specifically to ensure that children are better protected from grave violations of their rights in armed conflict, Save the Children would like to see the Government take on a more proactive role in enforcing this agenda.

We would like the Government to use its influence and support actions aimed at ensuring international law is respected and upheld by all parties to armed conflicts, and to further strengthen its support of the UN Security Council’s agenda on children and armed conflict, including by leading efforts to strengthen the UN’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on Children and Armed Conflict. The Government should also encourage States to do the same.

Additionally, the Government should consider how it can further protect children and broader civilian populations in war through supporting other international initiatives, for example, to protect schools from being attacked and ending the use of explosive weapons in populated areas which cause unacceptable harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

To this end, the UK could demonstrate its commitment to protecting civilians in armed conflict by endorsing the Safe-Schools Declaration and implementing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools from Military Use during Armed Conflict; as well as back international efforts to develop a political declaration on ending the use of these explosive weapons in populated areas.

The blurring of battle lines and the growing complexity of conflicts is putting children at risk as never before. The UK Government through its prioritisation of the international based system and global standing has a unique opportunity to enhance the protection of these children, but only through delivering consistently and thoroughly on their existing priorities.