United Nations: UN investigators say in a new report that children in Syria have been sexually abused in government detention, recruited to fight with opposition forces, tortured and used as civilian shields.
The report, the first to assess the impact of the Syrian war on children, was quietly presented to the Security Council last week, as Syrian government and opposition representatives were meeting in Switzerland for peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, is scheduled to brief the council next week on the report, which was not released publicly until Monday. It estimated that at least 10,000 children had been killed and that “grave violations against children” had been committed by “all parties to the conflict” since it began in March 2011.
While the report did not discuss accountability, the evidence it presents will inevitably invite discussion about how to pursue accountability for accused war criminals. In 2011 and 2012, the report said, children as young as 11 were held in government detention centres with adults and, according to witnesses, subjected to torture to coerce relatives to surrender or confess.
“Ill treatment and acts tantamount to torture reportedly included beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives,” the report stated.
“Reports indicate that children were also suspended from walls or ceilings by their wrists or other limbs, were forced to put their head, neck and legs through a tire while being beaten, and were tied to a board and beaten.”
The report said it had documented reports of sexual violence against children in government detention, “perpetrated mostly by members of the Syrian intelligence services and the Syrian armed forces” against those who were suspected of being affiliated with the opposition.
The government denies it detains children.
In Geneva, Faisal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, said in response to a question in late January the day before the report went to the Security Council: “I categorically deny there are any children being detained. Those are rumours.”
He accused the opposition forces, which the Syrian government generically calls terrorists, of abducting and killing children. The UN investigators also received allegations of sexual violence by opposition fighters but were unable to corroborate them because of what the report called “lack of access.”
In 2011 and 2012, the UN investigation, quoting witnesses, said that government forces shot at children as young as 11 who were among groups of antigovernment demonstrators. A witness in Idlib, in northern Syria, said he had carried two boys, 12 and 17, to the hospital after he was shot by government forces. The report cites the father of a 7-month-old boy who was shot by a sniper positioned at a Syrian Air Force checkpoint in Homs.
The report also chronicled abuse by opposition forces, particularly as the war intensified starting in 2013, including summary executions of children. It received two reports from Hasakah province, in northeast Syria: a 16-year-old boy shot to death in April 2013 by the Nusra Front, an extremist faction aligned with Al Qaida, and a 14-year-old boy killed by members of a Kurdish group.
The Syrian government told UN investigators that at least 130 children had been killed by opposition forces in different parts of the country. The report said the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition force, had recruited children in military and support roles.
While there seemed to be no systematic policy of drawing children into combat, the report said, there were no age verification procedures. “Many boys stated that they felt it was their duty to join the opposition,” the report said, adding that at times children were drawn into fighting “by an elder male relative.”
A spokesman for the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, who goes by the name Omar Abu Leila to protect his family, said that the Free Syrian Army only permits combatants who are at least 18, but that other rebel groups might deploy younger teenagers.
“I don’t believe the report because the number of fighters in the Free Syrian Army is large, so there is no need to use children,” he said. Pro-government militias and opposition forces were accused in the report of abducting children, often for ransom or to barter for the release of prisoners. Humanitarian workers also were abducted, arrested and killed. As of October 31, the report said, 13 Syrians who worked for the United Nations had been killed, while another 22 “remained detained, missing or abducted.”