These attacks on children are crimes against humanity
Be it in Iraq, Syria or Gaza, too many children are being brutalised by conflict
The Guardian, September 8, 2014
If the abiding image of the summer of 2014 will be the knives of hooded Isis executioners pointed at the necks of innocent victims, the abiding legacy is the torment of two million newly displaced children trapped in conflict zones, in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Both are unthinkable, but now we see them. Both are unacceptable, and we must not accept them.
In fact at 25 million boys and girls – the largest number in any of the 70 years since the end of the second world war – the world’s displaced children are now akin to the population of a medium sized state. The sight of children exiled from their homes, often for years on end, is now so common and their suffering so profound that the world seems frozen into inaction by the sheer enormity of their plight. Vulnerable children, whose right to be shielded from war is supposedly guaranteed in successive UN charters and resolutions, are being systematically violated, exploited, injured, raped and killed, in a succession of theatres of war. The summer of 2014 will go down in the history books as the summer of the child refugee.
Today the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, took the issue to the United Nations security council, in an open debate on children and armed conflict. Hopefully a watching world will have heard there the whispers of innocent victims of the conflicts raging around the world. We need to act so that they may wear school not military uniforms, so that their school precincts will be safe zones not combat zones, and so that the innocence of children will be sacred and not sacrificed.
Yet the arithmetic of despair is worsening with every day that passes. During the week last month in which the UN observed World Humanitarian Day, we learned that a quarter of a million Iraqi children had been forced to flee from Mosul and surrounding areas. It is bad enough to discover that 8,800 of the 190,000 killed in Syria’s brutal civil war are wholly innocent children, and that 2,165 are under the age of 10. But the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights has reported that in 83.8% of deaths, the victims’ ages have yet to be recorded, and child deaths will inevitably be much larger.
In the first six months of 2014, in the Central African Republic, 277 children have been maimed and another 74 killed. And while the announcement of a long-term ceasefire in Gaza comes as an enormous relief to civilians on all sides, almost 500 children have died, with 250 schools shelled. Schools, like hospitals, are supposed to be oases of peace, sanctuaries where children are guaranteed protection even in times of conflict, and yet schools have been targeted by all sides as instruments of war.
There is not only an increasing trend for children to be put directly into the firing line, but they are more likely to become targets or to be cynically used and abused by abductors, as was the case in April when more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school dormitories in northern Nigeria. Over the past five years, a pattern of targeted attacks against schools has been reported in 30 countries and five – Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria – have each experienced 1,000 or more attacks on schools and universities and their staff and students. In Syria alone, by early 2013, 2,445 were reported as damaged or destroyed but, in addition, nearly 1,000 schools have allegedly been used as detention centres and in some cases torture centres. And an all too high number of children are taken from the school playground to be enlisted and brutalised as child soldiers.
In Syria and Iraq, children as young as seven, are reportedly being forced by Isis into taking up arms, while others have been forced to watch executions. Those who perpetrate such violence know that, in doing so, they sow fear and a deep sense of powerlessness among civilian populations.
It is not just boys who are brutalised: of an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today, 100,000 are girls, many of whom are being used as sex slaves.
Whatever our chosen route to justice, today’s security council meeting must send a message after this summer of infamy and carnage that these attacks on children are crimes against humanity.