By SOMINI SENGUPTA for The New York Times on February 4, 2014—
“United Nations investigators say in a new report that children in Syria have been sexually abused in government detention, recruited to fight with the opposition, tortured and used as civilian shields.
The report, the first to assess the impact of the nearly three-year-old Syria war on children, was quietly presented to the Security Council last week, as Syrian government and opposition representatives met in Switzerland for peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, is scheduled to brief the Council next week on the report, which was not released publicly until Monday.
It estimated that at least 10,000 children had been killed and that “grave violations against children” had been committed by “all parties to the conflict” since it began in March 2011. While the report did not discuss accountability, the evidence it presents will inevitably invite discussion about how to pursue accountability for accused war criminals.
In 2011 and 2012, the report said, children as young as 11 were held in government detention centers with adults and, according to witnesses, subjected to torture in order to coerce relatives to surrender or confess.
“Ill treatment and acts tantamount to torture reportedly included beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives,” the report said.
Investigators said they had documented reports of sexual violence against children in government detention, “perpetrated mostly by members of the Syrian intelligence services and the Syrian armed forces” against those who were suspected of being affiliated with the opposition.
The government denies it detains children. In Geneva, Fayssal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, said in response to a question last week, the day before the report went to the Security Council: “I categorically deny there are any children being detained. Those are rumors.”
He accused opposition forces of abducting and killing children.
The United Nations investigators said they were unable to corroborate allegations of sexual violence by opposition fighters because of what the report called “lack of access.”
Investigators were able to chronicle abuse by opposition forces, including summary executions of children. It received two reports from Hasakah Province, in northeast Syria: a 16-year-old boy fatally shot last April by the Nusra Front, which is aligned with Al Qaeda, and a 14-year-old boy killed by a Kurdish group.
The Syrian government told United Nations investigators that at least 130 children had been killed by opposition forces.
The report said the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition force, had recruited children in military and support roles. While there seemed to be no policy of doing so, the report said, there were no age verification procedures.
“Many boys stated that they felt it was their duty to join the opposition,” the report said.
A spokesman for the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, who goes by the name Omar Abu Leila to protect his family, said that the Free Syrian Army permits only combatants who are at least 18, but that other rebel groups might deploy younger teenagers.
“I don’t believe the report because the number of fighters in the Free Syrian Army is large, so there is no need to use children,” he said.
A State Department spokesman said the United States condemned the use of child soldiers. “We thoroughly vet recipients of our assistance in Syria,” he said. “The leadership of the moderate armed opposition has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to upholding international human rights standards.””
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