Statement by Virginia Gamba
Special Representative of the Secretary-General  for Children and Armed Conflict

Briefing to the Security Council on the situation of children in Syria (humanitarian)

27 July 2018

Mr. President,
Distinguished Council members,

Firstly, allow me to thank the current President of the Council, Sweden, for giving me the opportunity to brief you today and share the most recent updates on the situation of children affected by the armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) created through SC Res1612 in 2005 collects information on the six grave violations against children in armed conflict situations.

The MRM in Syria was established in 2013 following the listing of the Syrian Government for the killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals. Every year since then, there has been a tremendous increase in all grave violations committed by all parties to the conflict. This specific MRM is unique in its set up, as it operates as a regional MRM, gathering information from inside of Syria, as well as from neighboring countries, allowing a broader scope of monitoring and capturing violations committed across Syria, whilst large parts of the country is inaccessible to the United Nations. However, I must stress that the cases documented in the MRM, while all have been verified by the United Nations, only present a mere fraction of violations committed in Syria up to today.

Since the beginning of the Syria crisis in March 2011, the United Nations verified through the MRM that more than 7,000 children have lost their lives or have been maimed as a result of this conflict. I must stress that this is the verified number alone, the unverified reports reflect numbers that go way beyond 20,000 child casualties.

The MRM makes a distinction between reported and verified cases. Only verified cases lead to listing of parties. The methodology of verification is very well elaborated and requires a thorough triangulation of information procedures which makes it a very strict mechanism generating data that appears lower than figures in other monitoring initiatives of the United Nations.

The indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by all parties, of which the latest tally is 88, including the use of weapons prohibited under international law, aerial attacks, mortars and rockets, indiscriminate shelling and improvised explosive devices have been used against civilian areas and civilian infrastructures and have had a deadly toll on children.

As you know, the MRM reports on six grave violations: recruitment and use, killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, attacks on hospitals and schools, abductions, and denial of humanitarian access. Over the years the Secretary General has listed in the annexes of his Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict seven parties committing grave violations against children in Syria.

Since the beginning of 2018 the MRM has verified over 1,200 violations against children, of these more than 600 children were killed or maimed; more than 180 were recruited and used; more than 60 schools have been attacked while over 100 attacks on hospitals and medical facilities or personnel were verified. Most of these verified grave violations have occurred in the context of military surges by various parties in the areas of Afrin, Hama, Idlib, Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a in the last six months. Each of these surges has resulted in hundreds of thousands of displaced people, of which a vast proportion are children.

As war rages, detention of children for alleged association with armed forces and armed groups has exponentially increased. In 2018 alone, over 1300 children are reportedly held by parties in the North-Eastern part of Syria, of which the MRM could verify only seven cases since the beginning of the year due to the inaccessibility to the area and relevant actors. In other parts of Syria detention of children is also reported and the MRM was able to verify more than 350 cases since 2014.

The figures emerging from the first six months of 2018 reflect large increases in comparison to previous similar reporting periods. For example, in the first quarter of 2018 there has been an increase of 25% in recruitment and use of children, and of 348% in killing and maiming both compared to the previous quarter. The total number of grave violations for the first quarter marks a 109% increase compared to the last quarter of 2017. Attribution for these violations indicates that all recruitment and use in 2018 was committed by non-state actors while most killing and maiming figures were attributed to Syrian government and pro-government forces.

Although figures for the beginning of 2018 include few verified cases of sexual violence and abduction, these are violations reported across all the years since the establishment of the MRM in Syria. For example, boys and girls have been sexually abused and exploited, sold as sexual slaves and forcibly married to ISIL fighters. Rape has been used as a means of torture, especially while children were deprived of their liberty. Despite being under-reported, cases of sexual violence against children in Syria reflect the despicable nature of this conflict.

Attacks on schools and medical facilities were one of the persistent features of the conflict in Syria. One in three schools are estimated to be out of use, either damaged, destroyed or used as a shelter or for military purposes. An estimated 2.1 million children are out of school inside Syria, due to a range of factors including insecurity, lack of facilities and quality education, poverty and displacement.

In the upcoming months, the Security Council-mandated country report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Syria will be published, covering almost 5 years of the conflict. The findings of the MRM over that period of time are utterly unsettling. I am deeply disturbed by the stories of children born and raised throughout this conflict, children who have never seen peace in Syria. Children who have suffered repeatedly of all types of violations in their homes, communities, schools, detention centers and in refugee and IDP settings. We must think that these children are in severe psychosocial distress. They do not know the meaning of the word “peace”.

The violence Syrian children have been subjected to – and still are – as well as the pain they and their families have faced throughout these years of “crisis” is simply unacceptable.

Given the dynamics and violations occurring against children this year, I am particularly concerned about children deprived of their liberty and the conditions of detention of children allegedly associated to parties to the conflict. These children must be treated primarily as victims of violations of international law. I call on all parties involved in the conflict in Syria to comply with applicable obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child and its optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, and to allow access for civilian child protection actors to children deprived of liberty for association or alleged association with armed forces and armed groups.

I further call on all parties to the conflict in Syria to take immediate measures to ensure that their military operations are conducted in full compliance with international law including through respecting the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.

Humanitarian access must be granted to all children in all locations in Syria including through the implementation of humanitarian corridors and pauses for the delivery of humanitarian assistance that are indispensable to their survival and development, without any discrimination. This should also be applicable to returnees.

Let me conclude by emphasizing that children continue to be disproportionately affected by the armed conflict in Syria. It is essential that the Security Council, does all that is in its power to put pressure on parties to conflict to comply with their obligations under international law, ensure that children are no longer subject to grave violations of their rights. Parties to conflict must take immediate, concrete and effective actions to prevent child casualties during the conduct of hostilities, including by immediately ceasing to use means and methods of warfare that are inherently indiscriminate or disproportionate in nature and ensure that children deprived of their liberty be treated primarily as victims of violations of international law.

There clearly is no alternative other than peace to stop the increasing violations against children in Syria. We must prime peace and in the pursuit of that peace we must ensure that all peace negotiations include children at the center of the discussion. Nowhere it is more important to consider children as an indispensable part of peace processes than in the situation of the Syria conflict. There will be hundreds of thousands of children that will need assistance and we must prepare to meet their needs.

The prolonged exposure to war has immediate and hugely detrimental effects on the psychosocial wellbeing of children. If left untreated, the long-term negative consequences that will affect them for the rest of their lives. In this regard, recalling the recently adopted Security Council resolution 2427, children affected by the conflict must be able to access protection programs designed to meet their needs in an integrated and comprehensive approach towards mental health and psychosocial support, including the specific needs of children with disabilities. The international community must prioritize funding and provision for quality education for all children at all levels, from the initial stages of child development through to vocational training for youth. No one must be left behind, especially those that -through no fault of their own- have been robbed of their most important developmental years.

It is time for the children of Syria to believe in their own future and to learn what peace means. It is time for them to retake the childhood that was taken away from them. It is time for them to stop being victims and become game changers in the restoration of normality in peace and justice. They have been used and abused by, in and for armed conflict for far too long.

I thank you Mr. President.