Address by Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, to the Human Rights Council’s Special Session on Iraq
Geneva, 1 September 2014
Check against delivery
Mr. President, Excellencies, members of the Human Rights Council,
I thank you for allowing me to address the Council here today and for giving me this most timely opportunity to provide an update on the situation of children in the current crisis in Iraq.
The events that are unfolding in Iraq continue to put children at risk and have led to increased grave violations committed by all parties to the conflict.
I am particularly concerned over the recent rapid expansion of ISIL, first in Syria and now in Iraq. I am appalled by their total disregard for human life. The images that we see through media reporting of indiscriminate and brutal killings of civilians, including children is deplorable.
The United Nations in Iraq has been following the recent developments and endeavors to document cases of violations despite the security situation and limited access to affected populations. In this regard, I would like to commend the work done by UNAMI and UNICEF in these difficult circumstances.
While violations against children have sadly been a consequence of the instability in Iraq over the years, the impact of the armed violence on children has reached unprecedented levels during the current crisis. Through the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, the United Nations have received 413 reports of violations against children since the beginning of the year. Interviews conducted by UN staff on the ground with IDPs from all affected areas add to this number every day.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The most reported violation remains the killing and maiming of children. Six-hundred and ninety-three child casualties have been reported since the beginning of the year. Most casualties are due to indiscriminate attacks, including shelling of populated areas, by Government forces and by armed opposition groups including ISIL and affiliated groups, particularly in Ninewah, Anbar, Diyala, Saleheddin, Kirkuk and Baghdad governorates. Reports were also received and verified concerning children, especially young boys, being executed along with other civilians in areas controlled by armed opposition groups, including by ISIL. These incidents of killing and maiming of children remain of grave concern and I would like to highlight the responsibility of all parties to the conflict to abide by international humanitarian and human rights law, by ensuring that civilian casualties are prevented at all times.
In the same vein, the United Nations has documented incidents of schools being destroyed or damaged by indiscriminate attacks, including airstrikes and IEDs. Within the last three months, thirty-two targeted attacks on schools and teachers were reported, of which 22 have been verified. Most of the attacks on schools were related to the use of these facilities as polling stations for the parliamentary elections on 30 April. Of equal concern are incidents of attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities. Hospitals have been hit by Government forces in the context of shelling of populated areas. IEDs placed by armed groups in the vicinity of schools and hospitals also continued to be reported, causing damage to these facilities. I urge all parties to the conflict to refrain from attacking schools and hospitals and to ensure that these facilities remain safe havens for children to uphold their right to education and health care.
Over the last few months, reports of sexual violence and forced marriages are beginning to emerge. Abductions of young girls from minority groups for these purposes have been reported. However, most of the information received by the United Nations remains unverified at this stage, and it is difficult to evaluate the scale of these alleged violations, given the sensitivity of this information and fear of families to report.
Members of the Council,
Of grave concern are the continued reports on child recruitment and use. Children continue to be recruited by armed opposition groups, including ISIL and affiliated entities, and used as informants; for patrolling and for manning checkpoints, and in some cases as suicide bombers. Verified reports from Mosul in Ninewah governorate, as well as from Salaheddine and Diyala, showcase the use of boys as young as 13 years patrolling with ISIL alongside adults, and carrying weapons, sometimes bigger than themselves. Children are also given the responsibility to guard strategic locations or arrest individuals. Although preliminary information seems to point to the fact that these children are relatives of ISIL members, reports of abductions and forced recruitment by ISIL are also starting to emerge. In addition, worrying reports from Diyala and Salaheddin regarding the creation by ISIL of a youth wing called “the Sons of Islam”, or alternatively “the Sons of paradise” in charge of recruiting and training underage combatants were also received. The UN is currently in the process of verifying this information.
Children continue to be recruited by militias from all sides of the conflict, including those supported or backed by the Government, and those fighting alongside opposition groups. These recruitments by militias take place in all conflict-affected areas, including Baghdad and Basra governorates. I was informed that instructions were given by the Iraqi authorities to prevent the recruitment of children by Government-backed militias. However, as reports of these incidents continue to be received, I call on the Iraqi Government to ensure that these instructions are widely disseminated and duly enforced in all affected areas. Tribal and religious leaders also have a vital role to play and I will follow-up with all UN entities in Iraq to ensure that this issue continues to be highlighted with them. In addition to putting children at high risk of being killed or injured in combat, I cannot emphasize enough the long-term psychological damage that these child soldiers will face.
I would like also to stress the dire situation of IDPs, and particularly of IDP children. The latest update shows that there are more than 1.2 million displaced people who fled their homes, reportedly because they feared Government shelling or violations by ISIL. Half of those IDPs are children. Tremendous efforts to assist these IDPs are currently being deployed by all stakeholders, including the concerned official authorities and the United Nations. However, the needs remain high. I am also concerned by reports of religious and ethnic communities under siege, or prevented from leaving conflict areas and who could not be reached for humanitarian assistance. Too many children of the Yazidi community which found itself stranded on Sinjar have died for lack of medical assistance.
I would like to highlight that the situation in Iraq remains extremely fluid. The United Nations is collecting information on violations committed against the civilian population, including children, on a daily basis despite the challenging working conditions on the ground. For my part, I will continue to brief all relevant entities on the ongoing violations committed against children and highlight the urgent need to safeguard the rights of children in the current escalating crisis.
In closing, I would like to commend the efforts that have been deployed since the beginning of the conflict. I also note with relief the latest mobilization around the fate of minorities in Iraq. However, the international community needs to remain vigilant as the conflict continues and as more children become vulnerable every day. With what we see in the media every day, we must galvanize to address the plight of the Iraqi children – there is no time for hesitation and united action must be taken.
Watch SRSG Zerrougui’s intervention below (Minute 28:00)