By Olivia Alabaster
The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The U.N. Secretary General’s 2012 annual “list of shame” on children in armed conflict this year had a new member: Syrian government forces.
Blacklisted for breaking two of the main violations against children: killing and maiming children, and attacking schools and hospitals, Syrian government forces – including members of the army, the mukhabbarat intelligence forces and the shabbiha militia – were accused in the April report of the arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, of children as young as 9, and the use of children as human shields.
Schools were also regularly being raided, attacked and used as temporary military bases and detention centers, the report added.
While the policy of the opposition Free Syrian Army is not to recruit children under 17, the report also stated that rebel groups, including the FSA, had done so.
The inclusion on the list is always followed up, where possible, by a visit to the country by the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, currently Leila Zerrougui.
Speaking Tuesday after a three-day visit to Syria, Zerrougui said that the Syrian government officials she met with said they were not using any schools as bases and were working to ensure children could attend school.
Many schools have already been destroyed, however, as Zerrougui saw firsthand, and those schools still in operation are putting on double shifts to allow for twice the regular attendance.
During her visit, Zerrougui visited Damascus and Homs, and was allowed to visit any site to which she asked to see. Many schools were now being used to house internally displaced Syrians.
In terms of the allegations of the targeted killing and maiming of children, Zerrougui met with Ali Mamlouk, a Syrian security chief, who simply stated that “if any violations were made, I had no knowledge of it,” according to Zerrougui.
Zerrougui has now created a system whereby the claims of the Syrian government will be monitored and verified by teams on the ground.
The Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism will see U.N. staff and partners on the ground visiting schools and sites, where possible, to ensure the claims of the government are accurate.
During her visit to Syria, Zerrougui was prevented from visiting Khaldieh, in Homs, which is under opposition control and experiencing heavy fighting, but she spoke with rebel commanders by phone, and they also vowed to abide by international conventions governing children in armed conflict.
Following the annual “list of shame” in April, Zerrougui in September stated that her office was collecting information on violations by rebel groups, including indiscriminate bomb attacks which had killed children in Damascus.
Teams on the ground in Syria will now work to verify the claims by both sides, and report back to Zerrougui.
A key objective of her visit to Syria, which is now entering the 22nd month of civil war, was to stress to all parties the consequences of violating the rules of war, in terms of children.
“My role is to advocate, to raise the issue, to raise the concern to say – ‘this is a war crime, we will not accept that you continue and you will be held accountable,’” she said Tuesday.
The commitments from both sides, and the access she was granted, was a positive step, she said.
“For me it was a good step: we got access, we got in, we identified partners in civil society, in the opposition, in the armed groups,” she said, adding that, “I explained my mandate to everyone and what the Security Council is expecting me to do. And I will report all the violations and I will not just focus on one party or the other.”
“They have to comply and if they don’t they will have to be held accountable.”
Russia, after the publication of the latest annual U.N. report on children in conflict, accused the office of targeting only government forces, and mentioning crimes by opposition members only in passing.
Zerrougui stressed the need for “all governments and members of the Security Council to put the necessary pressure on all parties to first of all come to peaceful solution and to allow, while this is ongoing … for more access to allow humanitarian aid to … reach those in need.”
“I was there and I saw how the burden is … when you have conflict like this, in urban areas, those who will pay the price are the most vulnerable and the poor,” she added.
“Children are paying a very high price in this conflict and they need to be protected.”