Syrian Government Lands On UN's 'List Of Shame'

Jun 12, 2012
Originally published on June 12, 2012 7:02 pm
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Children have been a common target in the Syria conflict. From the beginning of anti-government protests last year, there were reports of children being arrested and tortured by Syrian authorities. Now, a U.N. report has placed Syrian government forces and their allied militias on a list of shame. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the details.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Radhika Coomaraswamy says children often get caught in the crossfire in wars or drafted to fight, but the violence against children in Syria has reached a whole new level.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY: The scale of torture of children in detention, the summary execution of children, use of children as human shields, these, of course, make it an extraordinary case of terrible violations against children.

BLOCK: Coomaraswamy is the U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict. Speaking by phone from U.N. headquarters, she says in one recent massacre in Houla, 49 children under the age of 10 were killed. Also, she's been raising concerns with the opposition that the Free Syrian Army has been recruiting children. She says her team got a commitment from a top commander to stop that practice.

COOMARASWAMY: So at the command level there seems to be a commitment but it's at the field level that things seem to be happening, especially in support functions. But at least with them we have a dialogue and they're facing the issue, so that's a positive thing.

KELEMEN: To write her report, Coomaraswamy had access mainly to refugees from the conflict and spoke to children who were beaten, raped and tortured because they were suspected of backing the opposition or their families were.

COOMARASWAMY: It's really quite shocking. What the children described is quite shocking and they carried the marks on their bodies as well.

KELEMEN: Her report says schools and hospitals have been used by Syrian armed forces. That should be a wakeup call to the world, says Zama Coursen-Neff, the director of the children's rights division at the Human Rights Watch.

ZAMA COURSEN-NEFF: Security forces have used children's schools as sniper posts and also for other military operations. So schools that should be safe places for children have, in fact, been used for military activities.

KELEMEN: Coursen-Neff says the conflict has taken a heavy toll on children. The Syria violations documentation center, which is run by activists, has reported that at least 1,176 children have been killed since last year. And Coursen-Neff says Human Rights Watch has documented many cases of abuse at the hands of Syrian security forces.

COURSEN-NEFF: A 13-year-old boy told us that a security officer told him we take both children and adults and we kill them both. So children are as targeted as adults with no allocation made for their age.

KELEMEN: She says it's absolutely urgent for the U.N. Security Council to do something about this.

COURSEN-NEFF: Human Rights Watch is specifically calling on the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo, also to impose targeted sanctions on individuals who are implicated in serious violations, and to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

KELEMEN: But the Security Council has been divided on Syria. Russia, a permanent member with veto power, still sells weapons to the Syrian government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed Moscow today, dismissing Russia's argument that its weapons are not used internally in Syria.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: That's patently untrue, and we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.

KELEMEN: Her spokesperson wouldn't provide any more details about that alleged shipment, but did raise concerns that Syria has already used Russian-made helicopters to kill civilians, including women and children. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.