UN report condemns torture, sexual abuse of Syrian children

Government and opposition groups responsible for crimes carried out against minors in almost three-year-old conflict

A Syrian child sits in a neighboring village to Kafr Nabuda in Syria's Idlib province on Sept. 19, 2013.

Children in Syria have been subjected to torture and sexual violence during the years-old civil war, the United Nations has said, calling on both government forces and armed opposition groups to stop the brutal treatment of minors caught up in the conflict.

 “Violations must come to an end now,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the report, which was released Monday to the Security Council.

The plea comes as violence in Syria continues despite attempts to bring the unrest to an end. Peace talks in Geneva concluded Friday without progress towards ending the civil war, which regularly kills more than 100 people a day. The government and opposition parties are due to meet for a second round of negotiations next week.

Both sides were blamed by the U.N. for worsening the plight of children in the country.

“Government forces have … been responsible for the arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of children. Armed opposition groups have been responsible for the recruitment and use of children both in combat and support roles, as well as for conducting military operations … in civilian-populated areas,” Ban said.

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Many children in Syria already experience high levels of distress due to the witnessing of violence, the killing of family members and friends, or from being separated from their family and displaced, the report said.

Interviews for the study were carried out inside Syria and from refugees outside the country, and covered the period from March 1, 2011 to Nov. 15, 2013.

The report indicates the level of violence against children has only gotten worse since the early days of the conflict, when government forces were largely responsible for crimes against children. 

As the opposition became more organized, Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups began recruiting children as cooks, porters, cross-border arms smugglers, lookouts, spies, as well as fighters, the U.N. said.

"Many are killed not only because they're fighting, but because they're performing these functions and are in the middle of the battle fields," Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told Al Jazeera.

U.N. interviews with children and their parents indicated that the loss of family members, political mobilization and peer pressure made some boys feel it was their “duty” to join the opposition.

But just about every armed group present in Syria today was listed in the U.N. report as “known perpetrators of grave violations against children.” This list included all Syrian government armed and intelligence forces, government-associated militia known as “Shabiha,” Kurdish armed groups, FSA, and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Torture and sexual violence

“Children have been arrested, detained, ill-treated and tortured in detention facilities” by government forces in large-scale arrest campaigns – particularly in 2011 and 2012, Ban indicated in the report. 

Among the acts of torture reported were “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 threat of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives.”

Reports indicate that children were also suspended from walls or ceilings by their wrists or other limbs and then beaten.

A 16-year-old boy reported being arrested by government forces in March 2012 and detained with 20 other children. They were then “beaten with metal bars, their fingernails were pulled out and their fingers were cut; or they were beaten with a hammer in the back, sometimes until death.”

The U.N. report added allegations were made that armed opposition groups also detained and tortured children perceived to be pro-government, though limited information was available.

Members of Syrian intelligence services and government armed forces were responsible for most of the reported sexual violence against those perceived to be associated with the opposition.

Examples include electric shocks to or burning of the genitals, the rape of boys and some girls, sexual mocking or humiliation and the threatened rape of family members. Some girls were abducted by government forces at checkpoints or during home invasions and then raped or gang-raped, sometimes in front of family members, it was alleged.

Children have also been killed or injured during heavy shelling and aerial bombardments – facing injuries including burns, shrapnel wounds, severed limbs and spinal cord injuries, according to the report.

And children as young as 11-years-old were injured or shot dead during anti-government protests in Dar’a, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, and Deir el-Zor governorates. Others were starved, injured, killed, and denied humanitarian access during sieges and blockades carried out by both sides of the conflict, the U.N. said.

Government forces reportedly used children as human shields.

Among the worst attacks on children were those involving chemical weapons – such as the attack on the Ghouta suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

More than two million people – mostly women and children – have fled Syria’s conflict. At the time the report was written, the U.N. estimated that more than 100,000 people had been killed – including over 10,000 children. Activists say at least 130,000 have been killed.

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