In March 2017, the NGO “Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflictmade headlines for a Policy Note urging the UN Secretary General to add Israel, the Saudi-led coalition of states fighting in Yemen, and others to the list of “parties known to commit grave violations against children.”

Every year, the UN Secretary General compiles a list of state and non-state actors that violate the rights of children in armed conflict; in 2015, there was a concerted but failed NGO campaign, led by Human Rights Watch (HRW), to include the Israeli army on the list.


What is Watchlist?

Although the 2017 publication was issued under the Watchlist brand, its politicized agenda was set by a “network” of anti-Israel NGOs, primarily again, HRW. An HRW official was the featured speaker at the press conference to launch the report, and the campaign’s tagline (“restore credibility”) parallels the language from HRW lobbying for Israel’s inclusion in 2015 (“ensure consistency” and “ensure integrity”).

Watchlist staff do not determine the organization’s agenda. Rather, its “programmatic content is set by an Advisory Board composed of six international NGOs” – Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children International, Terre des Hommes International, War Child International, and World Vision International. On behalf of HRW, Jo Becker, advocacy director of the children’s rights division at HRW, is the chair of Watchlist’s Advisory Board.

Watchlist’s advocacy centers on the UN in New York, claiming to work “closely with the UN Secretariat, UN agencies, and diplomatic missions.” Itregularly hosts press conferences at the UN, which are broadcast on UN’s online streaming site.

Funders include the governments of Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and the U.S., and Watchlist’s “fiscal sponsor” is the Tides Center.

Analysis of Report

Accusing UN Secretary General of Misconduct

The background section of the Watchlist publication accuses the Secretary General of not listing the IDF in the 2015 report because of “extensive pressure from the US Government to prevent the listing.” Whereas, in reality, the Secretary General reached his decision based on measured consideration of all the relevant facts and rejected the noncredible and incomplete information provided to him by HRW in 2015, Watchlist accuses Ban Ki Moon of impropriety.

Lack of Methodology

The Policy Note does not include independent research or verification methodology. Instead, according to the publication “In 2016-2017, Watchlist conducted a systematic desk review of all publicly available reports related to grave violations against children in all relevant situations for the years 2014-2016.” Contrary to Watchlist’s, claim:

  • Watchlist does not provide any criteria of how “publicly available reports” are selected for review.
  • Watchlist’s review was neither systematic nor thorough, and appears to consist of a few cherry-picked publications without any independent verification or analysis.
  • Watchlist regurgitates materials previously rejected by the Secretary General while ignoring publicly available materials that decisively repudiate Watchlist’s claims.
  • Watchlist’s methodology (or lack thereof) allows for significant biases to infect the publication, such as under-reporting of actors that are not allied with the United States and an ideological obsession with Israel. In addition, non-credible claims from other NGO publications or from UN reports based on NGO publications are simply recycled.
  • The issue of under-reporting is magnified by the stated “method to arrive at a recommendation for listing,” which is based on speculation that the UN Secretary General has a “minimum number of verified cases… to determine which parties and violations should be added.” As such, because Watchlist’s defective research process fails to “find” a sufficient number of incidents regarding certain parties (terror groups, non-US allies), while manufactures cases against Israel to bolster the numbers, Watchlist’s recommendations are wildly skewed.

On March 7, 2017, NGO Monitor contacted HRW’s Jo Becker to clarify the methodology of the Watchlist report. Our request was ignored.

Definition of “Armed Conflict” and Application to Jerusalem

The Secretary General’s list is based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005). The resolution calls for the protection of children from “grave violations” in “armed conflict,” and is focused on four main themes:

  1. Condemning the recruitment of children as combatants in armed conflict1;
  2. Condemning the intentional targeting of children in the course of armed conflict2;
  3. Preventing the proliferation of small arms3;
  4. Ending the impunity of parties to armed conflicts who commit breaches of international law4.

The language of UNSCR 1612 is clear that not every death of a child in the course of armed conflict is to be the subject of either the reporting and monitoring mechanism or of the Secretary-General’s listings. Moreover, it is important to note that international humanitarian law (IHL) does not grant special status to children. Therefore, 17- or 18-year olds, for instance, that are members of armed groups or are civilians directly participating in hostilities can be legally targeted under IHL (provided the rules of proportionality are observed). The correct focus called for by Resolution 1612 and the Secretary General’s list is identifying instances when children, who were not a legitimate military target, were directly targeted5. The Watchlist Policy Note ignores these fundamental requirements.

Another fatal flaw in the Watchlist publication is its reliance on several incidents that took place in Jerusalem. Regardless of whether the international community accepts Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, the Israeli Government applies Israeli Law to Jerusalem (both East and West). As such, the law enforcement personnel who are deployed there are all members of the Israeli Police Force and not IDF personnel. IDF personnel, under Israeli law, have almost no jurisdiction to conduct law enforcement activities within the areas where Israel applies its own domestic law. Thus, even if the incidents mentioned by Watchlist were examples of illegal actions (which they are not as discussed below), they were not carried out in a situation of armed conflict or by the IDF and fall outside the scope of Resolution 1612.

Targeting Israel – With No Evidence

The section on Israel reflects the lack of research methodology, incorrect application of law, and ignorance of the applicable law in Jerusalem. Watchlist claims that it is “known” that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) “commit grave violations against children.” However, no evidence is provided to support this allegation. Conversely, Watchlist claims that it lacks evidence to recommend listing Hamas and the PFLP, terror groups that have long exploited children, despite the myriad of evidence available publicly and even presented in Watchlist’s own publication .

  • The IDF gets far more attention in the Watchlist Policy Note than any other country or army/armed group. As confirmed by previous NGO Monitor research, Watchlist/HRW disproportionately focuses on Israel and US-backed forces (with strong IHL compliance programs) rather than armed militias and Islamist terror groups (no compliance).
Army/Armed Group (Country)Number of Columns of Text in Watchlist Report
IDF (Israel)17
Popular Mobilization Forces (Iraq)3.5
Libyan National Army, ISIS militias (Libya)5
GATIA, CMA (Mali)2.5
TTP – Pakistani Taliban (Pakistan)6.5
Johnson Olony armed group (South Sudan)2
Southern Thailand opposition groups (Thailand)5.5
US-backed Saudi-led coalition (Yemen)14
  • Israel is accused of killing 27 Palestinian children in 2015, yet Watchlist acknowledges that at least 14 of them were carrying out terror attacks at the time, and there is no discussion of the circumstances of the other 13 deaths. There is a fundamental distinction, both legally and morally, between deliberately targeting innocent children, children tragically caught in the crossfire while others are committing violent acts, and children coming to harm as a result of their engaging in violence and abuse. Watchlist immorally obscures these fundamental differences to create a false portrait of IDF malice.
  • Watchlist cites “concerns” and “indications” that point to “excessive use force and unlawful killings” of children (pp 30-31). Perhaps these pose sufficient questions to require further investigation, but Watchlist categorizes Israel as “Recommendation to list,” not “Recommendation to further investigate.” In addition, the Secretary General list requires hard evidence of actual intentional targeting of children during armed conflict, not “concerns” and “indications” of “excessive use of force.”
  • Watchlist uses accusations of “violence by Israeli settlers” as a basis for listing the IDF, yet provides no evidence whatsoever that the army was involved in any such incidents. Nor does Watchlist mention that the perpetrators of these crimes were arrested and currently standing trial
  • In one instance, Watchlist notes that two Israelis had been indicted. Inexplicably, instead of pointing out that this was a positive example of Israel “ending impunity,” Watchlist uses this incident as a reason to list the IDF.

Promotion of Impunity for Palestinian terror groups

Watchlist includes only one paragraph each on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas) despite thousands of incidents it could have discussed. Watchlist proceeds to weakly recommend both for “further investigation” rather than to include them on the Secretary General’s list.

Watchlist’s failure to hold Hamas and the PFLP to account are even more shocking when Watchlist’s own publication provides numerous examples of activities specified by Resolution 1612 as warranting including on the list.
For example, Watchlist writes (p. 33):

“At least 13 children were reportedly killed by rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups towards Israel that fell inside Gaza. Additionally, rocket fire from Gaza by Palestinian armed groups towards Israeli population centers reportedly gravely injured at least six Israeli children, aged between 3 months and 17, said the Secretary-General.”

Watchlist further noted (p. 34):

“A 2-year-old Palestinian girl was also killed, and four other children injured, apparently due to Palestinian rocket-fire falling short in Beit Lahia.”

Watchlist further noted (p.39):

“In June 2015, the independent commission of inquiry pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-21/1 reported the Al-Qassam Brigades issued a statement indicating that on July 19, 2014, they fired three M75 rockets at the town of Dimona. The UN said it appeared that one of the rockets injured 2 children in the nearby Bedouin settlement of Kaser Al-Ser.”

These few examples are notwithstanding the more than 12,000 rocket and mortar attacks fired by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups on the civilian population of Israel, and the hundreds of stabbing, rock throwing, shooting, car-ramming, and bombing attacks on children perpetrated by Palestinians, and ignored by Watchlist.

Another egregious omission by Watchlist is the failure to document the extensive recruitment and training of children by Hamas, the PFLP, and other Palestinian armed groups. According to Palestinian journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh, in 2015 alone, Hamas military camps recruited and trained 17,000 Palestinians aged 15-21. Recruitment of children as combatants is one of the primary activities the Secretary General list is intended to address.

The paltry attention to child abuse by Palestinian terror groups is designed to put a thumb on the scales in Watchlist’s “methodology” of merely counting incidents included in Watchlist’s cherry-picked and selective sources. Again, this duplicitous approach, highlights Watchlist’s lack of research capabilities and expertise in specific conflict zones. It also reflects Watchlist’s warped political ideology, which not only does not protect children, but encourages impunity of armed groups that know they can exploit children and get away with it.