In times of crisis or violence, children are often the most vulnerable members of society — psychologically scarred by the acts of brutality that occur around them, susceptible to manipulation and in many instances forced to fend for themselves if their families are displaced by fighting.
In Syria, children are put in even greater jeopardy by the deliberate actions of their government — acts that include widespread arrests, detention under horrendous conditions and outright torture for their confessions.
These are some of the grave and disturbing findings published last week by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his team of field researchers. The report was delivered and briefed to members of the Security Council in the hope that the chamber would at least be able to come together and issue a clear statement of condemnation against the crimes that have been perpetrated.
While Ban’s report is long and detailed, it all points to one conclusion: the warring factions in Syria, with the regime of President Bashar Assad taking the crown of the worst offender, have no respect for human rights, regardless of how young their victims are.
From the earliest days of the uprising in 2011, children who were seen as opposed to the regime were taken off the streets in wide dragnets by the security forces. In many cases, they were arrested simply because of their parents’ affiliation with the opposition movement — and they weren’t safe anywhere.
“The United Nations collected reports of children who were arrested in their homes, schools and hospitals and in the streets,” the report says, “and at checkpoints in Dara, Idlib, Homs, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Damascus governorates. Children arrested in 2011 and 2012 reportedly transited through multiple detention facilities and were often held in intelligence forces detention facilities, sometimes for months.”
What happened inside was even worse. Children as young as eleven years old were subjected to a variety of interrogation techniques, all of which are internationally described as torture, in order to extract confessions on the whereabouts of their relatives.
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.
All of this to extract questionable confessions and enact a form of collective punishment for their perceived support for anti-government protests.
Rebel units were also implicated in the mistreatment of children, including by enlisting them as soldiers and recruiting them to deliver supplies to adult fighters.
Although the Free Syrian Army explicitly states that it does not allow children under the age of eighteen to participate in combat operations or support roles, the reality is that these restrictions are not enforced — a clear concern for Western nations that support this secular opposition group.
All in all, at least 10,000 children have been killed in the civil war. Given the Assad regime’s reliance on crude and deadly tactics that make no distinction between armed combatants and civilians, this figure — however disturbing — is not necessarily a surprise to those who have been monitoring the war and keeping track of the casualties.
Expressions of outrage and official statements of condemnation are better than letting the report go unanswered or ignored. But in the end, words will not do anything to stop the killing, displacement, imprisonment and torture of men, women and children, most of whom are too poor to become refugees in another country or too proud to leave their homes.