The findings come in the latest report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, released on Thursday.
“I am appalled by the flagrant disregard for the laws of war and the Convention on the Rights of the Child by all parties involved in the conflict”, said Commission chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro.
“While the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic has the primary responsibility for the protection of boys and girls in the country, all of the actors in this conflict must do more to protect children and preserve the country’s future generation.”
The three-member Commission was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate and record all violations of international law related to the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011.
Its latest report is entitled: They have erased the dreams of my children – a quote taken from a 2012 interview with a woman discussing attacks on her village in Idlib.
The study is based on approximately 5,000 interviews conducted between September 2011 and October 2019 with Syrian children, but also eyewitnesses, survivors, relatives of survivors, medical professionals, defectors, members of armed groups, healthcare professionals, lawyers and other affected communities.
I realized that my brother was shot in the head and neck. I witnessed how his soul left his body – Boy, al Houla, witness to the execution of his entire family, 2012
The Commission said the use of cluster munitions, so-called thermobaric bombs and chemical weapons by pro-Government forces, have caused scores of child casualties.
Additionally, children’s experiences in the conflict “have been deeply gendered.”
Women and girls worst affected
Women and girls are “disproportionally affected” by sexual violence, and the threat of rape has led to restrictions in their movements. Girls have been confined to their homes, removed from school or faced obstacles to access health care.
Meanwhile, boys, particularly those 12 and over, have been arrested and kept in detention facilities, and targeted for recruitment by armed groups and militia.
“The younger ones are very good fighters. They fight with enthusiasm and are fearless. Fighters who are 14 -17 years old are on the frontline”, a person associated with an armed group told the authors.
The war has also had an impact on access to education, with more than 2.1 million children not regularly attending classes of any form.
“Urgent efforts are required by the Syrian Government to support as many children as possible to return to education. Armed groups holding territory also need to act with haste to facilitate access to education,” said Karen AbuZayd, one of the commissioners.
Commit to protecting children
The report also expresses concern over the severe impact the conflict has had on children’s long-term physical and mental health.
Large numbers of young Syrians now have disabilities as well as devastating psychological and development issues. Additionally, fighting has displaced some five million children.
As the mother in Idlib stated: “They have erased the dreams of my children. They have destroyed what we have built during our whole life; my daughter was so depressed when she found out that our house was burnt down. My other child, a three-year-old boy, is traumatized by the crisis. He is continuously drawing tanks.”
The Commission members called on all sides to “commit in writing” to granting children special protection during wartime, in line with international law.
Other recommendations include ending child recruitment and taking child rights into consideration during military planning.
They stressed that displaced children also require protection, which includes the obligation to repatriate children with family ties to ISIL extremist fighters.
“States have well defined obligations to protect children, including from statelessness. Failing to abide by such fundamental principles would be a clear derogation of duty,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally.