The Syrian war has become one of the widest scale challenges to children’s rights. Recent global initiatives highlighted the need for mobilizing resources to provide education to hundreds of thousands of refugee and displaced children.
Recruitment of children by armed groups and their use in war efforts need to be highlighted as well.
In a recent Skype call, a social worker working in the opposition-held Al-Ghouta region near Damascus told me that the Islamist armed groups in that area are cautious not to recruit children younger than 18.
However, this was not the case with the more extremist groups in other areas.
The worker added that in Al-Ghouta many children are assisting the armed groups in logistical tasks – preparing food, transportation, cleaning weapons and so on.
This conforms with the report of the U.N. Secretary-General to the Security Council issued on May 15, which stated: “Children, on average between 15 and 17 years of age, have been used in both combat and support roles, such as food and water portering and loading bullets into cartridges.”
“A former Free Syrian Army combatant of Kafr Zeita village stated to the United Nations that children as young as 14 years were largely used for loading bullets, delivering food and evacuating the injured,” the report continued. “Medical staff reported treating boys between 16 and 17 years of age injured in combat who were associated with the Free Syrian Army.”
Lebanon was equally cited in the report: “The United Nations also received allegations of Syrian refugee children in border areas of Lebanon being pressured into joining armed groups in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Two weeks ago, a Palestinian friend in the Yarmouk camp in Syria, shared with me over Skype a poster image, posted July 26, announcing training for 14- to 18-year-olds in combat, tactics and weaponry.
This training, organized by a Palestinian Islamist group connected to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is a blatant violation of children’s rights.
In the first half of September, a surreal story surfaced of 10-year-old Issa, the “mechanic of the Free Syrian Army.”
He told us last month that one of the 16-year-olds who took part this year in a BCYM camp in the Bekaa in eastern Lebanon had died in Syria during the summer, fighting. It was a big surprise. The teenager was a member of an armed group fighting in Syria.
In 2003, the Syrian government ratified the “Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.”
The significance of this protocol is that it clearly imposes obligations on armed groups (Article 4) in addition to obligations on governmental forces (Articles 1, 2 and 3).
It also sets the age of recruitment at 18, with the exception of voluntary recruitment in governmental forces.
Under the laws of armed conflict, it is not considered recruitment to provide military training or to give supporting roles to children as long as it does not amount to direct participation in hostilities or forced association.
Nevertheless, under human rights law, assigning such roles to children remains a direct violation of the rights of the child.
Two initiatives aim at disseminating knowledge of international humanitarian law in Syria, including norms on protection of children in armed conflict.
â— In the “Fighter Not Killer” initiative, Swiss-based humanitarian organization Geneva Call produced Arabic materials to promote awareness of and respect for such international standards and conducted trainings for some FSA groups.
The second approach is for states whose priority is respect for human rights to pressure Syrian armed groups and their backers (including Middle Eastern states) to strictly deny Syrian children from associating themselves with the groups.
The third approach is for the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which gives the court a mandate over all the actions of all stakeholders on Syrian territories.
In the court’s statute, war crime includes conscripting or enlisting children younger than 15 years old into armed groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities.
Churches and followers of Christ can find the second and third approaches suitable for lobbying their governments to protect Syria’s children.
We have a moral obligation toward these children of whom Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (see Luke 18:16).
I’m sure he included 10-year old Issa, “mechanic of the FSA,” in his call.
Wissam al-Saliby is the partnerships manager at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at Ethiopian Suicides and Lebanonesia, and you can follow him on Twitter @lebanonesia. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.