Syria: seeking protection of children’s rights during times of war

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict three years ago, over 7,000 children have been killed in air strikes, crossfire and fighting, while thousands have been left  traumatized after witnessing the death of family members, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The disruption of their lives is on-going. As schools across the region reopen, in Syria, many schoolchildren will be missing their classes – some of them now years behind their peers in the region.

“Syrian children are not just losing their families and homes; they have lost hope and are full of anger,” says Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary- General for Children and Armed Conflict, at a UN press conference in New York.

Reports indicate that schools have been bombed, shelled, raided and used for military purposes by government forces and opposition armed groups. “Traditional safe havens for children are all too often on the frontline,” Zerrougui says.

In one example from a UN Report issued on 15 May, opposition forces in Kafr Zeita used two classrooms of the Al Shahid Wahid Al Jusef High School as barracks for a number of days while children were attending classes.

According to UN reports, nearly two million children have dropped out of school since last year.

“The absence of education is an extremely serious matter. If the crisis persists for much longer, there is a real risk that Syria will have a generation of illiterate people,” Zerrougui says at a UN press conference.

During Zerrougui’s visit to Syria in July, she met with many children and their families, who spoke of the horrors of the conflict.  “In one of the many camps I visited, a woman shared with me the story of her daughter, who was registered to begin elementary school. However, when the time came, there was no school to go to: it had been destroyed.”

Loss of education is not the only concern. The United Nations has received a growing number of alarming reports of Syrian children being used by armed opposition groups, in both combat and support roles. Accounts indicate that often an older relative is responsible for facilitating recruitment. In other cases, children volunteer after losing family members.

Syrian children are not alone.

The Special Representative says children in the African state of Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo share similar challenges. However, since Zerrougui’s last report to the Council, both states have signed Action Plans.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Action Plan strives to end the recruitment and use, as well as sexual violence against children, while the Transitional Government of Somalia’s Action Plan aims to end the killing and maiming of children, the first of this kind to be signed by a Government.

As a result, of the eight Government security forces currently listed for recruitment and use of children in the Annexes of the Secretary-General’s Annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, six have already signed Action Plans. Active dialogue is on-going with the remaining two governments.

Building off this recent progress, at the 24th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 10 September, Zerrougui announced the launch of a global initiative, beginning early next year, to end the recruitment and use of children by Government security forces in armed conflict by 2016. “This initiative aims to deepen cooperation with Governments that have committed to ending under-age recruitment,” she says.

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights, which led to the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its creation gave a new impetus to the recognition of human rights principles which has seen fundamental progress in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Peace and security, development and human rights are the three pillars of the United Nations. The integration of human rights in peacekeeping has significantly enhanced United Nations peace missions’ preparedness to prevent and respond to human rights violations.

The ability of United Nations peace operations to protect local populations from large scale incidents of grave human rights violations has increasingly become the yardstick by which missions’ performance and success is scrutinized. As of June 2013, there are 15 human rights components in UN peace missions.

16 October 2013

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