Today, November 20, the international community celebrates Universal Children’s Day, promoting the welfare of children. This day also marks the anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and Convention of the Rights of a Child.
In Syria, the legal principles enshrined in these international instruments have failed to protect the rights of millions of children and youth. Syria’s so-called “lost generation” – youth facing a pervasive lack of education, resources, and prospects for future success – remains in desperate need of greater international attention to ensure their immediate basic rights. Consideration is likewise needed in the transitional justice process to address pervasive rights violations and ensure their long-term security and prosperity.
Children are acutely vulnerable during conflicts, and the Syrian war has caused the country’s youth to suffer both immediate harm and severe long-term injury in developmental growth. Some of the most prevalent violations against Syrian children include:
Children are afforded the right to life, education, the highest attainable standard of health, access to facilities for treatment, and adequate living standards by international law. Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Chairperson of the UN Committee on the rights of the Child, has stated that continuing attacks in Syria that kill and maim children are a “brutal abdication” of international human rights obligations, adding that the harm inflicted may already have produced not only “a lost generation, but quite possibly… lost generations.”
Despite this, support from the international community has been thus far insufficient in addressing the plight of more than 5.6 million children inside of Syria – and more than 2 million Syrian refugee children. Access and safety concerns continue to hamper the work of aid and civil society workers inside of Syria. Humanitarian agencies face a consistent shortage of funds to assist children impacted by the conflict, and states have continually refused to resettle refugees – overwhelming Syria’s neighboring states. These states, in turn, have implemented restrictive policies that further impede assistance from reaching displaced Syrians.
While the current situation remains bleak, transitional justice mechanisms can be a powerful tool moving forward in addressing the impact of violations perpetrated against children. Recognizing children as a special category of victim – as established by UN Security Council resolution 2254 – with unique and complex needs is an essential first step.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where such a recognition was not sufficiently established, conflicting legal and customary understandings of childhood, youth, and adulthood complicated prosecution of those responsible for crimes against children. Children should also be given opportunities to directly participate in transitional justice processes – including reparations proceedings and truth commissions. In pursuing its first successful conviction, the International Criminal Court (ICC) elicited the participation of child victims while prosecuting DRC warlord Thomas Lubanga for recruiting and exploiting of soldiers.
The child victims were afforded the opportunity to introduce evidence, question witnesses, and present oral and written submissions. Such active participation is consequential, as children are important stakeholders in the country’s future – possessing great potential to challenge established norms and eventually craft the reforms necessary for a better tomorrow. A child-sensitive approach to transitional justice should be established early on in the process and will necessitate significant psychological support resources, as well clear allocation of resources to fund training and retention of professionals with expertise in children.
As widespread violations continue to inflict lasting harm on children in Syria, this vulnerable group requires immediate and enduring attention. Short-term humanitarian assistance remains stifled by lack of funding and political support from the international community, and many organizations working in Syria lack the necessary expertise and resources to focus on the long-term needs of children and their inclusion in transitional justice processes.
On Universal Children’s Day, SJAC encourages states to increase their financial and political support for the children of Syria, while urging individuals and entities working on the issue of human rights in Syria to allocate increased and ongoing attention and resources to the plight of children living both inside of the country and around the world as refugees. Such attention is crucial to remedy the egregious violations children have suffered thus far and to prevent a “lost generation” of Syrian youth – restoring an opportunity for future health and wellbeing unfairly taken by the brutal conflict.
For more information or to provide feedback, please post a comment below or contact SJAC at [email protected].