Statement by Ms. Leila Zerrougui,
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
Briefing to the Security Council
Monthly meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria

16 November 2015

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Permettez-moi tout d’abord de présenter mes condoléances au Représentant permanent de la France et au peuple français, ainsi qu’à toutes les victimes de la violence extrême. Les récentes terribles attaques qui ont eu lieu à Paris et Beyrouth nous rappellent de manière tragique que nous sommes tous vulnérables à l’extrémisme violent. Aujourd’hui, plus que jamais, nous devons nous unir et travailler ensemble pour trouver des solutions à des conflits prolongés qui peuvent alimenter ces actes de terreur.

I would like to thank the United Kingdom, during its presidency of the Security Council, and the Secretary of State for International Development, for this opportunity to brief you on the situation of children affected by armed conflict in Syria.

The conflict in Syria continues to have disastrous humanitarian consequences for children. After five years of intensifying hostilities, and in the absence of a political solution, fundamental principles of international humanitarian and human rights law continue to be violated daily. The increasing outflow of refugees and internal displacement demonstrate the deteriorating situation. Half of the Syrian population is now displaced – half of the displaced are children.

Mme President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Children are paying a high price for the ongoing conflict. They continue to be killed, maimed, recruited and used, abducted and exploited by parties to conflict. Their futures are jeopardised by attacks on schools. Drawing upon information documented through the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism in 2015, my briefing will focus on three of the six grave violations, namely killing and maiming of children, recruitment and use of children, and attacks on schools. It will complement briefings by my esteemed colleagues, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. Stephen O’Brien, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Mme. Zainab Hawa Bangura.

The United Nations estimates that more than 250,000 individuals have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, with casualties increasing more than two-fold in the last year alone. The cumulative death toll of children was estimated at 10,000 in 2014, and is similarly expected to have increased significantly in 2015. The majority of children have been killed or injured as a result of indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in violation of international humanitarian law.

Aerial bombardments of civilian areas by Syrian Government Forces, including the use of barrel bombs and successive airstrikes, have continued to cause a significant proportion of verified child casualties in 2015. For example, in May, a barrel bomb attack on a school in Aleppo city killed six children and injured 20.

The indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas, including mortar and rocket attacks, is another major cause of child casualties. For example, on 15 September, 19 children were killed and another 85 injured by more than 100 rockets and mortars fired by armed opposition groups into the Salah al Deen area of Aleppo city. On 26 September, another 19 children were killed and 21 injured by a mortar fired from a Government position into a park in Homs.

ISIL has committed brutal atrocities against children. While it has been difficult to verify cases of grave violations occurring in ISIL-controlled areas, the killing and maiming of children by this group continue to be reported. This includes recent horrific video footage allegedly portraying the mass execution of 200 children. It has also been reported that children recruited by ISIL have been executed for trying to escape.

With the growing number of parties involved in the conflict, the risk of grave violations against children increases. It is reported that children have been killed and maimed in airstrikes conducted by international forces.

I reiterate that all parties to conflict must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. The ongoing use of methods and means of warfare which fail to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and the use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, are a clear violation of these obligations.

Mme President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

A continuing feature of the conflict in Syria is the widespread recruitment and use of children by all non-state armed groups, including YPG, FSA and Government-affiliated groups. ISIL and Al Nusra Front have also used children to perpetrate acts of extreme violence.

Reports have been received of armed groups targeting children as young as seven years of age, and forcibly recruiting children through coercion of family and abductions. ISIL allegedly recruited up to 400 children in the first quarter of 2015, and the United Nations has verified cases of their use of foreign children.

Indoctrination and military training of children play an important role in recruitment and use by ISIL and ANF. Children have received military training in three ISIL centres in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa. In addition, ISIL has opened kindergartens for boys in Raqqa, andAl Nusra Front has instructed communities in Idlib to send boys aged 8 to 12 to their ‘education’ camps.

Syrian Government Forces have arrested and detained children for alleged association with armed groups. There are verified cases of children who were subjected to torture during detention and of the death of children in custody. I reiterate that children recruited and used by armed groups are victims and should be treated as such.

Mme President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

At the end of September 2015, over a quarter of all schools in Syria were fully or partially destroyed (almost 6,000, as reported by the Ministry of Education). The United Nations has verified attacks on schools by Syrian Government Forces, ISIL, Al Nusra Front and other non-state armed groups in 2015. In addition, the military use of schools by Syrian Government Forces in Idlib has led to their targeting by armed opposition groups.

Prior to the conflict, primary school enrolment was almost universal in Syria. Now, the right to education has been compromised by hostilities, displacement and restrictions in ISIL-held areas. An estimated two million internally displaced children and 700,000 refugee children are not attending school. We are witnessing a generation at risk of not receiving an education, with serious long-term consequences for the future of these children. We can mitigate these consequences if the international community makes significant investments in protecting education and in providing education in emergencies.

Mme President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Five years of conflict in Syria has taken an immeasurable toll on the lives of children. I urge all parties to respect their obligations under international law, end all grave violations against children, and pursue accountability for violations. To this end, it is critical that every Member State with influence on the parties to the conflict play a constructive role.

Since my first visit to Syria in 2012, I have repeatedly stated that there is no military solution to the conflict. Finally, there is now a broader consensus that a political solution must be reached. The acknowledgement of the linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process by the International Syria Support Group in Vienna this weekend, and the willingness of participants to encourage confidence-building measures that contribute to a viable political process and a nationwide ceasefire, are important and constructive developments. In this context, I underscore that the issue of children has proven to be a positive entry point in a number of peace processes, and strengthening the protection of children must be at the centre of any peace talks.

It is our collective responsibility to support a political solution to the conflict, accompanied by concrete commitments and actions to bring an end to the conflict and suffering. I call on all of you to be the voices of the children in Syria, and to take collective action to allow them to live a life free from fear and violence.