Senior UN officials in Jerusalem have been accused of caving in to Israeli pressure to abandon moves to include the state’s armed forces on a UN list of serious violators of children’s rights.
UN officials backed away from recommending that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) be included on the list following telephone calls from senior Israeli officials. The Israelis allegedly warned of serious consequences if a meeting of UN agencies and NGOs based in Jerusalem to ratify the recommendation went ahead. Within hours, the meeting was cancelled.
“Top officials have buckled under political pressure,” said a UN source. “As a result, a clear message has been given that Israel will not be listed.”
Organisations pressing for the IDF’s inclusion on the list since the war in Gaza last summer – which left more than 500 children dead and more than 3,300 injured – include Save the Children and War Child as well as at least a dozen Palestinian human rights organisations, the Israeli rights organisation B’Tselem and UN bodies such as the children’s agency Unicef.
“These organisations are in uproar over what has happened,” said the UN source.
The IDF’s inclusion on the UN’s list of grave violators of children’s right would place it alongside non-state armed forces such as Islamic State (Isis), Boko Haram and the Taliban. There are no other state armies on the list. It would propel Israel further towards pariah status within international bodies and could lead to UN sanctions.
Although Jerusalem-based officials cancelled the meeting – and subsequently omitted to recommend the IDF’s inclusion on the list – the UN complained to Israel over the intimidation of its staff. Susana Malcorra – a high-ranking official in the New York office of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon – raised the issue in a private letter to Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor. The UN in New York said it could not comment on leaked documents.
The telephone calls were made to June Kunugi, Unicef’s special representative to Palestine and Israel, on 12 February, the night before a meeting to decide whether to recommend the IDF’s inclusion on the list. One call was from a senior figure in Cogat, the Israeli government body that coordinates between the IDF, the Palestinian Authority and the international community; the other was made by an official in Israel’s foreign ministry.
According to UN and NGO sources, Kunugi was advised to cancel the meeting or face serious consequences. However, Israeli sources described the telephone conversations as friendly and courteous attempts to persuade Kunugi to delay the working group’s decision on its recommendation regarding the IDF until Israel had been allowed to present its case on the issue.
At 8.54am the next morning, an email was sent on behalf of James Rawley, a senior official with Unsco (the office of the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process) who had called the meeting, to participants. It said: “Please be informed that today’s meeting scheduled at 13:00hrs has been postponed. Sincere apologies for the inconvenience this may have caused.”
A joint statement to the Guardian from Kunugi and Rawley said the “strictly confidential process” of determining inclusion on the list was still ongoing and was the “prerogative of the UN secretary general, and it rests with him alone”. The UN in Jerusalem was unable to comment on the process, it added, but the submission from Jerusalem to New York was “based on verified facts, not influenced by any member state or other entity”.
Unicef has called a fresh meeting to update UN and NGO officials in Jerusalem on Thursday.
The decision on which state and non-state armed forces are to be included on the list will be taken by UN chiefs in New York next month. However, according to the UN source, “a political decision has already been taken not to include Israel”.
A separate source told the Guardian: “The UN caved to Israel’s political pressure and took a highly contentious step to shelter Israel from accountability.”
The list of violators of children’s rights is contained in the annex of the annual report of the secretary general on children and armed conflict. A “monitoring and reporting mechanism”, established by a UN security council resolution, supplies information on grave violations of children’s rights, such as killing and maiming, recruitment of minors into armed forces, attacks on schools, rape, abduction, and denial of humanitarian access to children. The secretary general is required to list armed forces or armed groups responsible for such actions.
Following last summer’s seven-week war in Gaza, a number of UN agencies and NGOs met to consider whether to recommend the IDF’s inclusion on the list. According to insiders, participants “agreed there is a strong and credible case to recommend listing”.
A 13-page internal Unicef paper seen by the Guardian examined the case for the IDF to be listed on the basis of its actions in last summer’s war in Gaza, including the killing and injuring of children, and “targeted and indiscriminate” attacks on schools and hospitals.
Several of the working group’s participants wrote to the UN secretary general to urge the inclusion of the IDF on the list. A letter sent in December by Defence for Children International (Palestine) said: “There is ample evidence to demonstrate that Israel’s armed forces have committed acts that amount to the grave violations against children during armed conflict, as defined by UN security council resolutions, including killing or maiming children and attacks against schools and hospitals.”
The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs and Cogat declined to answer specific questions about the phone calls to Kunugi, but said in a joint statement: “Israel has a good working relationship with Unicef and the United Nations in general. Israel has no desire to get into a slanging match with anti-Israel elements nor to submit to their intimidations.”