The raw numbers alone can be numbing. Over the past 18 months, more than 26,000 people have been killed in Syria’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists. On Wednesday, however, the world’s attention was focused on a special group of Syrians who are not only innocent victims of this brutal civil war but also purposely targeted: children.
At a Security Council meeting, the United Nations special representative on children in conflict, Leila Zerrougui, said children in Syria are facing a “dire” situation. They are often tortured or sexually abused. Their schools are attacked or used for fighting. She also cited reports of the opposition Free Syrian Army using children in its forces.
Her comments come after an official report in August to the UN Human Rights Council that found the Assad government responsible for 49 children killed last May in a massacre in the village of Houla. The report lays the groundwork for possible prosecution of Syrian leaders in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Private groups, too, are tallying the toll. Anti-Assad Syrian groups claim close to 2,000 children have died in the conflict so far. In July, a British-based group called War Child said the Syrian conflict is “disturbingly unique” in the deliberate targeting of children, citing reports of hundreds of children being detained by the regime.
“Not one of [Syria’s] two million children and young people can now be considered safe,” the group stated.
Ms. Zerrougui’s comments on Syria were part of a special Security Council session devoted to naming and shaming governments and armed groups that recruit, attack, or kill children. The council voted 11 to 0 to cite 52 such governments and groups, including Syria. Not surprisingly, Russia and China were among the countries that abstained, fitting a pattern by the two permanent Council members to protect the Assad regime.
A strong reason to highlight the plight of Syrian children is to further the progress of the UN in its efforts over the past decade to protect children in conflict zones. Since 1999, it has passed eight resolutions on the issue, with positive effects in a few countries, such as Nepal and Afghanistan. In addition, former African warlords Thomas Lubanga and Charles Taylor have recently been convicted by the ICC for using child soldiers.
Saving the children of Syria from more harm is alone worth a more intense international focus. But such efforts will also save the global momentum toward ending the abuse of children in war.
Western leaders can do more to convince Russia and China to not stand in the way of a tougher UN response on Syria. The world has a special responsibility to protect the innocent, but most of all, children.