Heartbreaking stories, statistics, and truths about children in conflict

By Jo Allebone World YWCA Short-term Advocacy Intern, Jo is currently attending the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council  (HRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Original source of blog: http://jojoia.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/day-12-heartbreaking-stories-statistics-and-truths-about-children-in-conflict/)

Today we attended an event on on the human rights of children during conflict, sponsored by The Worldwide Movement for Children’s Rights.

His Excellency Jean-Marc Hoscheit, Permanent Representative of Luxembourg opened by saying that without the very real possiblity of punishment, there is no way of preventing children’s rights from being violated during conflict situations.

He said that in terms of doing justice for children who’s rights have been violated during conflict, punishing the perpetrator is but a fragment of the picture.

More importantly it’s about acknowledging that their childhood has been completely destroyed, and that they require ongoing support to be able to reintegrate back into the community. They need physical rehabilitation, psychological support, and education.

More than 3 million children in Syria suffer from the consequences of the ongoing conflict. Many  have died trying to find hospitals or shelter.

A whole generation of Syrian children have been traumatised, raped, mutilated, and murdered. There are frequent reports of them being used as human shields, as well as trained as combatants and messengers during armed conflict.

Mr Hoscheit reiterated Luxembourg’s commitment to ending the bloodshed in Syria, and called on the international community to respect international agreements and honour their duties.

Mr Victor Ullom, International Commission of Inquiry on Syria shared with us some horrendous statistics from his most recent report on kidnapping, torture, children being killed due to being suspected combatants or spies, and children being forced to watch their parents being killed. In 2013 alone, over 40 child combatants have been killed according to his reports.

However, it’s highly likely that these numbers are underrepresented due to the difficulties of accessing data and reporting of such incidences. The Syrian Government doesn’t let the Committee conduct any investigations inside the country which definitely restricts their efforts. They do the best they can by talking to NGOs, people exiting the country, and they use Skype to interview people inside the country.

Next on the panel was powerful and passionate Justice Renate Winter from the CRC Committee, who began with another heart-breaking statistic: there are more than 380 thousand child soldiers around the world.

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Justice Winter recounted how she has seen many child soldiers in her life as a judge, and not one of them isn’t traumatised.

She talked about many children between the ages of 4 and 10 years of age who know nothing but war and violence. Sadly, she said that she sees that the average age of child soldiers aren’t increasing, they’re decreasing.

When chatting with a war lord in Sierra Leone, he told her that the problem is that there’s no cheaper weapon than a child – they don’t eat much, they are “stupid” and will do things that an adult soldier would never do, they are readily available, and they are easy to intimidate.

He told her that when she came to him with an equal alternative that he would stop.

And then another harrowing story. A war lord had sent 200 children to cross a field that he knew was littered with land mines. Once the children had crossed (there were few left at the end), the war lord then sent his precious adult soldiers safely across the field.

She said one of the major problems with the international justice system is that there isn’t a single government in the world that would pay for the years of rehabilitation needed to provide the victims and witnesses of these crimes with the kind of care that they need in order to heal and reintegrate into the community.

There was some discussion with panelists and delegates about prevention – how can you stop this from happening? While there are some efforts to educate and work with some military groups regarding the use of child soldiers and the impact of conflict on children, the outlook is pretty bleak.

According to Justice Winter, there is no way of stopping it, and that the best we can do is better deal with adult perpetrators and children (be they victims, witnesses or perpetrators) in international and national courts. Her belief is that no child should be convicted of war crimes, and that adults should feel the full force of the law.

I left this session with a heavy heart.

I’m glad it’s Friday so I have time to digest all of this, and reflect on another intense week of learning.