GENEVA — The brutality of Syria’s civil war has stolen the childhoods of 5 million boys and girls displaced by fighting including many killed or subjected to grave violations of their rights, U.N.-backed investigators reported on Thursday.
The report is the first by the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria to examine how children have been killed, maimed, tortured, sexually abused and forced into military training during almost nine years of war.
Boys as young as 12 have been rounded up, severely beaten and tortured. Girls as young as nine have been raped and forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State militant group. Some children have been targeted by snipers or forced to kill others publicly.
Syrian government forces on “multiple occasions” used cluster munitions, thermobaric bombs and chemical weapons to cause scores of child casualties, investigators said. The war began with a March 2011 peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government and has since spiraled into a cyclone of death and destruction — and the world’s most complex humanitarian crisis.
“I am appalled by the flagrant disregard for the laws of war and the Convention on the Rights of the Child by all parties involved in the conflict,” said the commission chair, Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, citing a landmark children’s human rights treaty that turned 30 years old last year.
“While the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has the primary responsibility for the protection of boys and girls in the country, all of the actors in this conflict must do more to protect children and preserve the country’s future generation,” he said in a statement from the commission established by the U.N. Human Rights Council in August 2011.
Rape and sexual violence have been used repeatedly against men, women, boys and girls to punish, humiliate and instill fear among communities, investigators said. Thousands of schools have been destroyed or used by the military, leaving more than 2.1 million boys and girls unable to go to classes.
“Urgent efforts are required by the Syrian government to support as many children as possible to return to education,” said panel member Karen AbuZayd, a U.S. citizen and former head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees. “Armed groups holding territory also need to act with haste to facilitate access to education.”
After 9 years of conflict in Syria, the most important thing children need is peace. 🕊️#ChildrenUnderAttack
— UNICEF (@UNICEF) January 13, 2020
Many of the children are so young they have known nothing but or little more than life during wartime. They have been “robbed of their childhood” by violations from all parties to the conflict, the commission said. That has inflicted deep wounds to their physical and mental health.
The commission said the war has displaced 5 million children inside and outside Syria, but it provided no figures on casualties to children during the war since it lacks direct access to Syria. Its findings come from more than 5,000 interviews conducted with Syrian children, relatives, medical professionals, survivors, fighters and defectors between September 2011 and October 2019.
“Today, large numbers of children suffer from disabilities as well as devastating psychological and development issues,” the commission said. In response, panel members urged nations to honor international obligations to repatriate children with familial ties to Islamic State fighters.
“States have well defined obligations to protect children, including from statelessness,” said the commission’s third member, Hanny Megally, an Egyptian economist and veteran human rights investigator with expertise in violent extremism.
“Failing to abide by such fundamental principles,” he said, “would be a clear derogation of duty.”