Open Letter to António Guterres: Will the UN Protect Our Rights and End Our Suffering?

With temperatures dropping to near freezing levels, Gazan families resort to such methods to stay warm. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Jehan Helou

Many voices from around the world criticized the omission of Israel from the ‘list of shame’. As reflected by Human Rights Watch, Israel’s continued omission from the list of shame does a grave disservice to Palestinian children.

Jehan Helou is a Palestinian author and intellectual. She served as the general director of the Tamer Institute for Community Education and she was a member  and one of the founders of the Palestinian Child Rights Coalition (2000-2006) 

Currently, Helou is the President and founder of the Palestinian National Section of The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), whose main aim is to ‘Protect and Uphold the Rights of the Child’.

It is in her capacity as IBBY President that Helou wrote a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, on behalf of all Palestinian children.

Excellency, António Guterres United Nations Secretary-General

I write to you on behalf of the Palestinian children in light of your most recent report on Children and Armed Conflict, in which Israel was regrettably not added to the “list of shame”, despite its ongoing violations against Palestinian children that warrant to be added to the list. This is a letter of Hope to ask where is the United Nations from the goal “A World Fit for Children”? Why did the Secretary-General decide to drop Israel from the “List of Shame”?

Many voices from around the world criticized the omission of Israel from the list. As reflected by Human Rights Watch, Israel’s continued omission from the list of shame does a grave disservice to Palestinian children. The Secretary General’s report found Israeli forces responsible for 975 child casualties and 110 attacks on schools and hospitals in 2022…

Those figures contained in the Secretary-General Report on Children and Armed Conflict for 2022, and relevant reports by UN agencies are shocking figures. Facts about Palestinian children killed, tortured, and denied basic human rights constitute solid proof that Israel should be the first to be included in the “List of Shame”.

As these figures get worse every year, we ask, why this exclusion? Why the UNSG has never included Israel in the “List of Shame”?

Twenty years ago, in 2002, the United Nations General Assembly concluded its Special Session on Children by adopting its final outcome document – “A World Fit for Children”. I participated in this special session as part of the Palestinian Child Rights Coalition delegation, we came from Palestine to the UN in New York right after the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp by Israel, and after ferocious aggressions and incursions in Ramallah and other cities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. We were shocked to learn that Israel, the occupying Power, was not included in the “List of Shame” of parties to armed conflict who commit grave violations against children.

I met with Mr. Olfra A. Otunnu, the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict at the time. He expressed his support and mentioned that he has met with the PLO leader Yasser Arafat and other PLO officials. He confirmed to me that listing Israel was solely a decision by the Secretary-General. This kept me questioning what was it that prevented the Secretary-General from adding Israel to the list knowing it met the criteria year after year. In this chaotic unjust world, we hold high hopes and expectations of the UN Secretary-General, as a moral power to speak “Truth to Power”.

Moreover, a delegation of five Palestinian children participated in the Youth Forum that was held on the margins of the UNGA special session, they came to the International You Forum to be heard. For three days they had the opportunity to meet children from all over the world and to tell their story and their ordeal.

The children attended the plenary session on Children and Armed Conflict where they posed a question to the panelists “When will the UN end our suffering as Palestinian children?” The great Graca Machel, who was the main speaker on the panel, expressed her frustration and anger and answered to the effect that nothing can be done as long as the military industry dominates. From the podium, she approached our delegation and hugged the Palestinian girl who asked the question and told her passionately “Please do not die”. Many of the delegates were in tears.

A press conference for the four Palestinian children was arranged at the UN headquarters. They said they came with a message of peace and hope. They spoke about the shadow of death that haunts them and the loss and grief that dominate their lives. They told stories of their daily suffering and the late horrific destruction of the Jenin refugee camp– which ironically occurred again in 2023 and coincided with the release of the Secretary-General report on Children and Armed Conflict!

One child said, “Some 10 years after the Convention on the Rights of the Child became operational, children were still being killed, abused, abandoned, denied education and recreation. Every bad thing imaginable is still going on {…} all of which was being destroyed by the Israeli soldiers in my country. Children stressed what Palestinian children wanted was to have their child rights respected and fulfilled. They demanded international protection, the end of the occupation, and the return of refugees. They spoke and yearned with great hope for an end to their suffering!

Now, after twenty years, were our children heard as promised in the special session as the Executive Director of UNICEF made in her concluding remarks on behalf of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a three-day event marked the first General Assembly session where children were not only seen but also heard!

More ugly realities to note. OCHA reported that 2022 has been the deadliest year for the Palestinians in the West Bank since 2006. More than 2210 children were killed since 2002; till the day more than 33 children were killed in 2023. Moreover, the large number of Palestinian children illegally detained and tortured by Israel is another horrific crime and flagrant violation of International Humanitarian law and human rights laws.

Our children are distressed and cannot understand why Israel has the impunity to continue its crimes and atrocities against them. They see this reality as their complete exclusion from the Children’s Rights Convention. They eagerly question and ask if they are subordinate to other children or if are they children of a Lesser God?!

Palestinian children raise the question asked twenty years ago, but now directly addressed to the Secretary-General, what will the United Nations do to protect our rights and to end our suffering?

Palestinian children cling to hope and anxiously wait for an answer!

Warm greetings from Palestine!

On behalf of Palestinian Children

Jehan Helou

President of The International Board on Books for Young People – Palestine National Section 

Member of Palestinian Child Rights Coalition and General Director of Tamer Institute for community Education (2000-2006)

– Jehan Helou was born in Haifa, uprooted with her family to Lebanon in 1948. She was a pioneer in the Palestinian national struggle and women’s liberation movement. She directed the Tamer Institute for Community Education in Ramallah and has been president for the Palestinian section of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) since 2003. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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