Human Rights Council holds high-level panel discussion on violations of the human rights of children in Syria
GENEVA (13 March 2018) - The Human Rights Council this morning held a high-level panel discussion on violations of the human rights of children in Syria.
Vojislav Šuc, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that the Council in its resolution 36/20 had decided to convene a high-level panel discussion on violations of the human rights of children in Syria, in consultation with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The focus of the discussion would be on attacks against children, including attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access, featuring witness testimony of Syrian voices, including children’s views through appropriate and safe means.
In her opening statement, Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that there were 8.35 million children in Syria and nearly two thirds required humanitarian assistance with more than one million living in hard-to-reach areas, and 170,000 in besieged areas. Some 125,000 children were trapped in Eastern Ghouta, acutely malnourished and profoundly traumatized. An entire generation of Syrians was making their journey from childhood to adulthood, cowered by unending bombardment, under constant shadow of constant violence, living in permanent fear and deprived of basic goods and services.
Panos Moumtzis, United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, in his opening statement, stressed that 13.1 million people in Syria required life-saving humanitarian assistance and children made up over 40 per cent of this figure. According to the Syria monitoring and reporting mechanism, 2017 was the deadliest year in Syria for children with at least 910 children killed and 361 injured. The mechanism also verified 108 attacks, including 81 airstrikes, on hospitals and medical personnel. Reports further noted that the recruitment of children and their use in armed conflict continued to increase.
The panellists were Alaa Zaza, Founding Member of Hurras Network (Syrian Child Protection Network); Haysam Osman, Director of Children of One World; and Ibrahim Alkasem, Founding Member of Uranammu for Justice and Human Rights. The discussion was moderated by Gunilla Von Hall, Foreign Correspondent in Geneva for Svenska Dagbladet.
Gunilla Von Hall, Foreign Correspondent in Geneva for Svenska Dagbladet and panel moderator, informed the Council about her time in Syria where she had met children victims of war, completely disfigured and paralyzed. Ms. Hall called upon the Human Rights Council, on behalf of a father of six children who had been hiding out for two weeks in the basement, to immediately stop the war machine.
Alaa Zaza, Founding Member of Hurras Network (Syrian Child Protection Network), said that despite all the horrors, and just until the recent escalation, the children in Eastern Ghouta had kept going to underground schools and playing amongst the destruction and rubble. They had kept breathing the oxygen or what was left of it after the repeated chemical attacks. Why had the institution responsible for protecting civilians and children failed over and over again? Ironically, it seemed that the bigger the crisis was, the more paralyzed these institutions appeared to be.
Haysam Osman, Director of Children of One World, said there was an unlimited number of victims because of the use of lethal weapons which were prohibited. Blockades and chemical weapons were killing children by suffocation. No one could provide protection to the 27,000 children who had been killed. One World had done everything it possibly could in order to collect information, provide day care, and build a case for prosecution. There was still time to stop the damage, but no one had believed in this missed opportunity. This was a problem which the world’s conscience had to address.
Ibrahim Alkasem, Founding Member of Uranammu for Justice and Human Rights, reminded that the practice of detention, torture and enforced disappearances, including of children, had been practiced by the Syrian regime for decades and the organization had prepared a report on such practices, noting that some children were born in prison without knowing anything about the outside world. Leniency from the international community made it difficult to find a sustainable solution for the protection of the human rights of children in Syria.
Syria was not present to take the floor as the concerned country.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers concurred that Syrian children had been paying the heaviest price in the conflict and that they were in danger of becoming the lost generation. They expressed shock about the abhorrent siege of Eastern Ghouta, where desperately ill and wounded children needed immediate evacuation. Across Syria there was a growing number of attacks on schools and hospitals and civilian infrastructure, and daily violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Speakers called on the international community to invest comprehensive efforts in putting an end to the plight of Syrian children, and to ensure full implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions. Some speakers regretted that some Member States did not understand that they should not incite terrorist groups to attack schools and hospitals. There were countries that attempted to distort the facts on the ground, while at the same time they financed those very terrorists.
Speaking were Iceland on behalf of the Nordic Group, United Kingdom on behalf of the Syrian Core Group, European Union, Croatia on behalf of a group of countries, Ireland, Israel, France, Estonia, Belgium, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Australia, Iran, Maldives, United States, and Bahrain.
The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches, United Nations Watch, International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Conseil International pour le soutien à des procès équitables et aux Droits de l'Homme, Union of Arab Jurists, International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM), and Indian Movement “Tupaj Amaru.”
The Council will next hear the presentation of the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission.
VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, reminded that in its resolution 36/20, the Human Rights Council had decided to convene a high-level panel discussion on violations of the human rights of children in Syria, in consultation with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The focus of the discussion would be on attacks against children, including attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access, featuring witness testimony of Syrian voices, including children’s views through appropriate and safe means. The objective of the meeting was to provide an opportunity for States and stakeholders to consider and recommend concrete ways to safeguard the human rights of children in Syria in the future.
KATE GILMORE, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded that the conflict in Syria was about to enter its eighth year. A conflict that had begun with the denigration of a child. In 2011, in the midst of the Arab spring, 13 year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, having been detained for a month by the authorities, had been returned to his family – his body brutalized, burnt, shot, his genitals severed. Shocked by such treatment and detention of a child, Hamza’s tragic fate would become a rallying cry for thousands, a rallying cry that was brutally suppressed, causing suffering for the Syrian people that over subsequent years had only expanded, deepened, and spread beyond their worst fears. There were 8.35 million children in Syria. Today nearly two thirds required humanitarian assistance with more than one million living in hard-to-reach areas, and 170,000 living in besieged areas. Half of those internally displaced were children. An entire generation of Syrians was making their perilous journey from childhood to adulthood, cowered by unending bombardment, under constant shadow of constant violence, living in permanent fear, deprived of basic goods and services, unable to exercise their rights to education, healthcare and play. Almost every indicator showed that things had been worse for Syria’s children in 2017 than in 2016.
For all humanitarian efforts; for all the evidence gathered; the monitoring and reporting; for all the negotiations, denials, politics and speeches; the Syrian conflict had escalated in 2017, driving the highest verified number of grave violations against children since 2012. The scale, scope and gravity of crimes committed against children were shocking. They were perpetrated by the Syrian authorities and armed groups. Homes, ambulances, schools, which under international law should be sanctuaries for children, had been ruthlessly targeted. Some 125,000 children were trapped in Eastern Ghouta, many acutely malnourished, most profoundly traumatized. The children in Eastern Ghouta, and elsewhere in Syria, were likely victims of war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity. No words could do justice to the suffering of the children of Syria, but the international community could keep its word to see that justice for them was made possible. To help secure accountability of all parties to the conflict, Ms. Gilmore urged the Council to renew the mandate of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, to support the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and to refer Syria urgently to the International Criminal Court.
PANOS MOUMTZIS, United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said that today 13.1 million people in Syria required life-saving humanitarian assistance. Children made up over 40 per cent of this total, and out of the 5.6 million people in acute need across Syria, 663,000 were under five. Airstrikes, barrel bombs, artillery shelling and starvation were a daily reality in Eastern Ghouta. According to the Syria monitoring and reporting mechanism, 2017 was the deadliest year in Syria for children and at least 910 children had been killed and 361 injured, the large majority of causalities occurring in Idlib, Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor. Yet this was just a tip of the iceberg. The Syria monitoring and reporting mechanism also verified 108 attacks, including 81 airstrikes, on hospitals and medical personnel.
Child casualties were a daily feature of the conflict. Reports further noted that the recruitment of children and their use in armed conflict continued to increase. Nine out of 10 recruited children served in a combat role. The most vulnerable were 2.9 million men, women and children living in hard-to-reach areas. This included over 400,000 people in United Nations declared besieged locations, nearly half of whom were children. In recent months cross-line assistance into hard-to-reach and besieged areas had almost totally collapsed due to the refusal of the Syrian Government to grant the necessary approval. The protection of civilians was one of the most challenging aspects of the humanitarian agenda. However, even during a high-intensity armed conflict, there were solutions to make sure that all parties complied with their international obligations and not least mitigated the impact of children.
Statements by the Moderator and the Panellists
GUNILLA VON HALL, Foreign Correspondent in Geneva for Svenska Dagbladet and panel moderator, said as a Swedish journalist, she had recently been in Syria for stories, especially on children in the conflict. There she had met Hala, eight years old. A bomb had fallen on her house in Aleppo, after which she had received 70 per cent burns and was today completely disfigured. She had also met Hozaifa, a 17-year old boy, who was on his way home from school in Idlib, when a bomb fell. Today he was paralyzed for life from the waist down. Ms. Von Hall called upon the Human Rights Council, on behalf of a father of six children who had been hiding out for two weeks in the basement, to stop this war machine now. With these words, she introduced the panellists from Syria, who were Alaa Zaza, Founding Member of Hurras Network, Syrian Child Protection Network; Haysam Osman, Director of Children of One World; and Ibrahim Alkasem, Lawyer and Founding Member of Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights.
ALAA ZAZA, Founding Member of Hurras Network (Syrian Child Protection Network), said it was really hard for him to describe the gravity of the current situation in Ghouta, without repeating words of condemnation and despair. Eastern Ghouta was an area occupied by 350,000 civilians, most of whom had lived there all their lives. For years now, it had been besieged by the Syrian regime’s forces and its allies. The access of humanitarian aid convoys had been denied. The population had been starved and deprived of basic life necessities. Despite all the horrors, and just until the recent escalation, the children in Ghouta had kept going to underground schools all this time. They had kept playing amongst the destruction and rubble. They had kept breathing the oxygen or what was left of it after the repeated chemical attacks. They had kept waving goodbye, sometimes with amputated arms, to whom was left alive of their loved ones before heading to the schools every morning. They had kept dreaming of skies ornamented with colourful kites instead of war jets. They had kept hoping. Those children were asking very clearly: why was the world still watching this and doing nothing? And the Network asked on their behalf: why had the institution responsible for protecting civilians and children, failed over and over again?
Ironically, it seemed that the bigger the crisis was, the more paralyzed these institutions appeared to be. What would actually save the children was to bring down those institutions to allow for a new humanitarian and justice system to be built on their rubble. A system where humanitarian workers would actually stay in besieged areas instead of evacuating just hours before a new battle started again. He called upon the Council to, instead of presenting more figures and statistics in this broken system, to answer the following questions. “What are you REALLY going to do if another chemical attack is carried out? What REAL actions will you take if another aid convoy is blocked, or bombed? What collective solid actions will you take if the siege continues? What are YOU going to do now if another school is bombed? What actions of real value will you take when you see another child killed? How are you going to bring these criminals to international justice?”
HAYSAM OSMAN, Director of Children of One World, said the situation of children in Syria was a true catastrophe today, with an unlimited number of victims because of the use of lethal weapons which were prohibited. Now the international community was seeing a blockade and chemical weapons that were killing children by suffocation. The Independent Commission of Inquiry had indicated that children made up 54 per cent of the over 150 persons killed recently. Children under 18 were being mobilized. This was compounded by the risks that these children ran, following intervention that the foreign armed forces had used. Children were also deprived of birth registration, which led to a number of girls into despair, early marriage, and abandonment of school. They were thus exposed to even greater physical and moral risks. Why should children be leaving their homes, and not their oppressors? It was unacceptable.
No one could provide protection to the 27,000 children who had been killed. One World had done everything it possibly could in order to collect information, provide day care, and build a case for prosecution. There was still time to stop the damage, but no one had believed in this missed opportunity. Thus a whole generation was lost. There were 1.5 million children deprived of education. The reports on the region showed that children were afraid to go to school because of the lack of infrastructure. One World called on the international community and the Security Council to do everything possible to prop the Independent Commission of Inquiry to take legal measures to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes of aggression. It was essential to provide schools and protect them. Indifference to the mobilization of children was unacceptable. This was a problem which the world’s conscience had to address. It was not possible to not end the suffering of these children.
IBRAHIM ALKASEM, Founding Member of Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights, reminded that the practice of detention, torture and enforced disappearances, including of children, had been practiced by the Syrian regime for decades. That had caused fear and trauma among children and their families, exacerbated by the lack of accountability of the perpetrators. The organization had prepared a report on enforced disappearance and forced detention of children, and on the attendant consequences. Children were forced to make false testimonies and were subjected to special courts. Most of them in custody were between 13 and 18 years old, and were treated as adults. Some children were born in prison without knowing anything about the outside world. Armed groups accused children of apostasy and spying in favour of the Government and international intelligence agencies. Children in detention were sexually violated by ISIS members, and girls were forced to marry ISIS members, while boys were recruited by armed groups. Most children did not serve as witnesses for the crimes committed against them, but as witnesses of crimes done to others, because of the strong social stigma related to sexual crimes. Establishing accountability was a cornerstone for the rehabilitation of the society. Leniency from the international community made it difficult to find a sustainable solution for the protection of human rights of children in Syria.
Iceland, speaking on behalf of the Nordic Group, stated that it was shocked by the horrible footage of desperately ill and wounded children needing immediate evacuation from the hell they had been made to suffer. Syrian girls were now more vulnerable to child marriage, while schools were increasingly becoming targets of violent attacks. United Kingdom, speaking on behalf of the Syria Core Group, reminded that Syria was the most dangerous country in the world to be a child. The abhorrent siege of Eastern Ghouta had led to nearly 12 per cent of children under five suffering from malnutrition. European Union noted that all those who had perpetrated grave violations against children in Syria had to know that they would ultimately face justice and be held to account. That was the loud and clear message that the panel was sending to those who had it in their power to stop the infliction of barbarities on children.
Croatia, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, strongly condemned the reported deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure in Syria, especially hospitals and schools, impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid. Those responsible for the violations of the rights of children should be held accountable. Ireland stressed that ultimately a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned resolution of the conflict was necessary to relieve the suffering of Syria’s children, and to protect their rights. Ireland fully supported the United Nations-led Geneva talks process, based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué and the United Nations Security Council resolution 2254. Israel reminded that the forces of the Government of Syria, as well as pro-Government militias, continued the practice of recruiting minors into their combat units. Hezbollah and Iran did the same, and recruited Afghan, Iranian and Lebanese children. Despite the known tension along the border, Israel continued to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, including children.
France said that the situation of children, particularly in Eastern Ghouta where children represented half of the besieged population, was of extreme concern. The situation was getting worse every day with constant attacks on hospitals and breaches of international humanitarian law. Estonia welcomed the panel’s topic, particularly the inclusion of children’s testimonies as half of the 3 million internally displaced persons were children. What could the international community do to ensure that violence against the children in Syria and their involvement in the conflict was stopped? Belgium agreed that children across Syria had been disproportionally targeted and denied rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Severe malnutrition was acute, particularly in besieged areas, and all those children had known was fear and despair so the early rehabilitation and reintegration of children who were victims of armed conflict was of utmost importance, particularly their sustainable reintegration.
Switzerland noted that Save the Children depicted Syria as the most dangerous place for children so the discussion was timely. The growing number of attacks on schools and hospitals and civilian infrastructure was alarming and girls in particular were vulnerable, so the full implementation of the Security Council resolution was necessary. Saudi Arabia said that since the beginning of the war thousands of children had suffered at the hands of the Syrian regime. The international community was called on to invest comprehensive efforts to put an end to the plight of Syrian children. Slovakia said that children had paid the heaviest price in the conflict and that they were in danger of becoming the lost generation. A concern was expressed that many Syrian refugee families had to resort to negative practices such as early marriages.
Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches was appalled by the deaths of children and the bombing which had a disproportionate effect on children in Syria. Seven years of violence had created a mental health crisis for the children, who had seen numerous relatives killed, and who bore the symptoms of suicide attempts, deprivation of sleep and depression. United Nations Watch said that as they spoke, a besieged population of 420,000 people, half of them children, were undergoing Russian airstrikes. How could China, Cuba, Venezuela and South Africa be members of the Council and oppose action in this Council to help children? How was it that the United Nations had once again failed to take action? International Organization for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination EAFORD said indiscriminate killings of civilians persisted. The situation had escalated, especially in the region of Eastern Ghouta, and the attacks on hospitals had had a detrimental effect on health, in particular on children. Access to humanitarian aid and assistance was especially difficult and growing numbers of civilians were facing malnutrition.
Remarks by the Moderator and the Panellists
GUNILLA VON HALL, Foreign correspondent in Geneva for Svenska Dagbladet and panel moderator, said the Council had heard shocking stories. She asked the panellists to speak in remarks.
ALAA ZAZA, Founding Member of Hurras Network, Syrian Child Protection Network, said the United Nations and the Security Council were a major part of the problem and not the solution. Working within these institutions with their procedural norms was part of the problem. Syria needed a critical approach. “He who gives up in the face of these circumstances is a coward,” said Mr. Zaza. The non-governmental organizations in Eastern Ghouta were neither fools nor cowards. They would do everything to bring back to their children their basic rights – and not just some baskets of food. They hoped that a better system in the world would someday prevail. They would continue to be the voices of children who were silenced not by tyranny but by the silence of the humanitarian system that had become so detached and mechanical.
HAYSAM OSMAN, Director of Children of One World, said the right arm of positive intervention was what would limit the impact of daily catastrophes in Syria. Access through the border was one of the mechanisms. The impact on Syrians in general and children in particular was catastrophic. The protection of aid workers was most important because they were eye witnesses of what was going on in the country daily. And they alone could help these people on the ground.
IBRAHIM ALKASEM, Lawyer and Founding Member Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights, said the failure of the international community to stop atrocities in Syria was unacceptable. It did not take the plight of children in its interest. What was lacking was to undertake intervention to end the violence. His organization had documented the detention of 2,433 children from 6 to 12 years of age, and 1,700 children from 13 to 18 years of age, in addition to over 400 children whose ages were unknown. Around 152 children, including 138 boys and 14 girls, under 5 years of age were killed under detention. Over 100 were detained by the Government alone, while one child was detained by Iranian militia, two by ISIS, one by brigades, one by unknown gunmen, and one by Kurdish groups. Mr. Alkasem asked the international community to pass to Chapter VII of the Charter and force all parties of the conflict to release the detainees. The Syrians could not wait.
Australia emphasized that to the shame of all involved, Syria’s children had been deprived of normality and exposed to countless horrors. They had been chemical weapons victims, civilian shields and child soldiers. The international community could not do all it would like for Syria’s children, but it had to help those it could reach. Iran regretted that armed conflicts continued to take a heavy toll on innocent children as extremists and terrorists continued their evil acts in Syria. The situation of children underscored the need for reaching a political solution in Syria. The international community needed to show greater leadership in countering violent extremists. Maldives reminded that 5 million Syrian children were in immediate need of humanitarian aid, 1.75 million were no longer in school, and some 2.8 million were living as refugees or on the run, in search of safety. It was the humanitarian duty of the Council to provide any help possible to those children.
United States reminded that less than 40 per cent of the approved United Nations humanitarian convoys were able to deliver supplies, and regime supporters were removing necessary items, including medical supplies and baby formula. Children had died as a result of those removals. Bahrain stated that 5 million people affected by the conflict in Syria were children, while 3 million children were displaced, deprived of basic healthcare, education and play. It called for the immediate implementation of the relevant United Nations Security Council resolution, and for the attainment of a political resolution to the conflict.
Conseil International pour le soutien à des procès équitables et aux Droits de l'Homme regretted that some countries had not respected the rules of courtesy and decorum. All Member States should understand that they should not incite terrorist groups to attack schools and hospitals. There were attempts to distort the facts on the ground by countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Turkey which were funding those very terrorists. International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM) said that he could not find the words to describe the situation in Syria. Nothing had changed in the past seven years, except for the number of children who had been killed and wounded. The international community must take a serious position to put an end to all the suffering. Indian Movement “Tupaj Amaru” said that the developments of the situation in Syria reflected the interests of neo-colonial powers and that Syria was the victim of aggression and international plots of western powers and Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Failure of the ceasefire ordered by the Security Council resolution was attributed to Al Nusra.
GUNILLA VON HALL, Foreign Correspondent in Geneva for Svenska Dagbladet and panel moderator, said that after the discussion, the solutions to the conflict and the plight of children were not closer.
ALAA ZAZA, Founding Member of Hurras Network (Syrian Child Protection Network), noted that everyone talked about the Security Council resolution. Since its enactment, 200 children had died and only one convoy had been allowed through. So the people and children of Syria were still waiting for the implementation of the Security Council resolution. Everyone was called to strongly rethink the overall approach and put human rights before the procedures. The crime of forced displacement occurred before in Aleppo and numerous other areas and was happening now before everyone’s eyes in Eastern Ghouta. Children were being killed now in Eastern Ghouta as they spoke here. Something had to be done.
HAYSAM OSMAN, Director of Children of One World, did not want to politicize the issue further. He reiterated that everyone needed to be on board for sustainable solutions. Local non-development organizations all had to be involved in order to ensure humanitarian protection and call for accountability.
IBRAHIM ALKASEM, Founding Member of Uranammu for Justice and Human Rights, said that peace in Syria could not be achieved as long as the file on those forcibly disappeared remained closed. Perpetrators had to be held accountable and brought to justice and this was voiced by Syrian people. They wanted to know the fate of their loved ones. The Syrian Government had a greater duty than the duty of other warring parties, it had a duty as a State to protect the rights of its civilians. Keeping silent on the fate of detainees and forcibly disappeared meant giving up on them. Children were liquidated in detention centres. They were given a different number when they were killed and sent to hospitals and to mass graves, with no one knowing their fate. If the regime did not have anything to hide, it had to allow the Commission of Inquiry or at least the International Committee of Red Cross to investigate. Living conditions in detention centres were appalling, so many women miscarried in such conditions. The secret detention centres were even worse.
PANOS MOUMTZIS, United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said there was no justification for the attacks on children in Syria and for people to be dying because they could get no medical care - care that was available just a few miles down the road. The people of Syria needed more than just words. They needed peace and stability. They needed to be able to evacuate those in urgent need. Action should be the next move.
GUNILLA VON HALL, Foreign Correspondent in Geneva for Svenska Dagbladet, said after listening for two hours, there was a risk that all had become numb. She asked the individuals present in the Human Rights Council, what if these were your children, your son or daughter raped, detained, starving to death, forcibly recruited to kill? Some of the victims had maybe been listening to them in Damascus, Idlib, Aleppo or Afrin. She hoped that they had not just heard despair but had seen some seeds of hope. She thanked the panellists for their touching words, which gave some hope. She also thanked Mr. Panos Moumtzis and Ms. Kate Gilmore.
For use of the information media; not an official record