On 7 June 2013 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Defence for Children International (DCI) held a side-event to the Human Rights Council 23rd session on ‘Children & Justice in times of Armed Conflict: the Middle East experience’. With the support of the Permanent Mission of Luxembourg, DCI organized the event in order to raise awareness and share experiences on the situation of children involved and/or victims of armed conflict in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, promoting child protection and respect of the basic human rights of the child.
DCI gathered a panel of experts from the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child Committee (CRC) and NGOs working in the Middle East. Rifat Kassis, DCI General Commissioner for the Middle East and North Africa region moderated the discussion.
Jean-Marc Hoscheit, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to the UN in Geneva opened the side-event and spoke about Luxembourg’s recent role as chair of the Security Council Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict, and the importance of intensifying efforts to ensure perpetrators of abuse against children are held accountable. Amb. Hoscheit stressed the restoration of children’s rights and dignity as an equally important issue, and highlighted that more than 3 million children in Syria have become a new generation traumatized by conflict and violence.
Vic Ullom, Legal Adviser for the COI for Syria, shared the findings of COI’s reports. Mr Ullom described the detention of children at checkpoints and house searches by Government forces and affiliated militia, and the increasing recruitment and use of children for active participation in hostilities by anti-government armed groups. He added that there were some positive signs with cases of young people who volunteered themselves to fight were refused and parents were called to pick them up. Speaking about methodology, Mr Ullom cited the continual refusal of the Syrian government to allow the COI to conduct investigations inside the country.
Renate Winter, Member of the UN CRC and former President of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, shared her views on justice in times of armed conflict, stating that justice always occurs after the event, never in prevention and almost never during the conflict itself. Justice Winter deplored increasing reduction in the age of children used in armed conflict, pointing out the existence of many child soldiers aged between four and ten. She explained that for government and armed groups, there is no cheaper weapon than a child. Justice Winter recommended global disarmament and sending children to truth and reconciliation commissions, whether they are victims, witnesses or perpetrators.
Mehmet Balci, Programme Director and Permanent Representative of Geneva Call to the European Union, described his organization’s role in educating armed groups in Northern Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria to prevent violations such as the use of child soldiers, sexual violence, and civilian casualties. Mr Balci described the use of TV spots, short videos, and booklets to sensitize the public and train armed groups. He spoke of training Palestinian security forces in camps on how to treat civilians, especially children, and how in Northern Iraq they work on landmines and children. He outlined challenges faced, such as not well constructed groups, no chain of command, and instability.
Ivan Karakashian, Advocacy Unit Coordinator of DCI-Palestine, raised several issues regarding recruitment and involvement of children in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Karakashian expressed concern of the re-introduction of a Hamas programme for Palestinian children aged 15-17, involving activities such as rope climbing, self-defence, and use of arms and weapons, which could potentially become a direct channel for children to be recruited and targeted during offences. In the same way, but with another angle, Mr Karakashian described similar training programme for children held in Israel and the use by Israeli soldiers of Palestinian children as human shields and urged the government of Israel to impartially investigate those cases and hold perpetrators accountable.
Interventions from the audience included questions about child prostitution and the trend of the Syrian conflict in the COI’s report, the impact of Geneva Call’s engagement with armed groups in the field, and how to discourage the use of children as the cheapest weapon. War Child Holland made a comment on behalf of the newly established Focus Group on children affected by armed conflict (FG/CAAC), which was created as subgroup within the Working Group on Children and Violence (WG/CAV) of Child Rights Connect (formerly “the NGO Group to the CRC”)
In response to these interventions, Mr Ullom explained that the COI had limited information on child sexual violence, and that it is actually difficult for gender-based violence experts to reach victims, because such issues are rarely spoken of when they occur. Despite seeing a downward spiral trend in the Syrian conflict, Mr Ullom described efforts by organizations to educate and raise awareness of participants in the conflict about humanitarian law. Mr Balci said he hoped Geneva Call’s interventions make an impact, noting that their Syrian videos were launched only a few weeks ago. Justice Winter stressed that as long as there is an economic reason for war, the use of child soldiers cannot be stopped. Mr Karakashian ended the discussions on a positive note, sharing an example of an organization that showed change can be achieved if you put pressure on the people backing armed groups, and acknowledging social media’s powerful role in raising awareness on child rights violations.