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What SJAC has Learned from Documenting the Role of Children in the Syrian Conflict

Syrian refugee children singing at a social center in Northern Lebanon. Source: Wikipedia

SJAC’s database contains over 1.8 million pieces of documentation, covering a wide cross section of human rights violations being committed in Syria. To make sense of this huge volume of data so that it can be searched, linked, and filtered in the future, SJAC’s Data Analysis team labels and analyzes each piece of documentation with relevant information such as the location of the incident or affiliation of the alleged perpetrator. One factor that analysts tag is the appearance of children in the documentation, but appropriately categorizing videos that contain children, and understanding the possible crimes they represent, can be a challenge for the team. Through this process, SJAC has come to appreciate the diversity of ways in which children are being affected by the conflict in Syria and to recognize that children growing up among pervasive insecurity and violence require psychosocial interventions to help them process their experiences.

Children are uniquely vulnerable during times of conflict, a status that affords them some special consideration under international humanitarian law (IHL). SJAC’s database includes clear examples of IHL violations committed against children. For example, SJAC has videos of children actively using firearms during hostilities, wearing uniforms of armed groups, and assisting on the front lines, all of which are examples of child recruitment  and participation in active fighting. The use of child soldiers was originally banned in 1977, under the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions and the ban has since been reaffirmed and strengthened, first by the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, and again in 2000, with the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the involvement of children in armed conflict. This final treaty, which Syria has signed, calls upon State Parties to “take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” In addition, to child recruitment and participation in hostilities, the UN has identified five other grave violations that can be committed against children in times of conflict: killing and maiming of children, sexual violence against children, abduction of children, attacks against schools and hospitals and denial of humanitarian access for children. All of these violations have taken place in Syria, and SJAC has documentation which depicts, and appropriately labels, many of them.

Although not all videos of children can be easily categorized into potential crimes under international law, even videos that do not show a violation can still depict the complex ways in which children are affected by conflict. Recently, SJAC’s analysts have come across videos of children, often as young as three or four, holding weapons while chanting slogans or making statements about the conflict. While SJAC conducts a fact-based assessment of each video, the analysts generally do not view these videos as examples of child soldiers or recruitment. Rather, such videos appear to be filmed by family members or political activists, in an attempt to create political propaganda. Such videos tend to arise from specific areas within the country and may also reflect differing cultural norms in varying regions of Syria regarding children’s handling of guns. Nevertheless, images of young children with weapons may represent a generation of youth being acclimated to conflict and related violence. While these videos do not appear to represent a violation of IHL on their own (additional evidence could prove otherwise), they are still labeled and preserved, as they depict the unique and complicated ways in which children are associating with conflict.

While pursuing accountability for crimes against children is an important long-term goal, in the short-term, children, both within Syria and in refugee communities, need psychosocial support to help them deal with the experience of growing up surrounded by conflict. A report by Save the Children recently found that many children living within Syria experience ‘toxic stress,’ which over the long-term can have not only devastating psychological consequences, but also cause physical illness and developmental delays. This stress has shown itself through a variety of symptoms, including bedwetting, self-harm, aggression, social withdrawal and speech impediments. When asked about the sources of fear and stress in their lives, children discussed their immediate physical safety, but also cited many other factors, including being out of school, their fear for the future, poverty, and the loss of family and friends. Many even cited domestic violence, which researchers believe has risen in Syria since the start of the war, possibly a result of the stress of the war and wide-spread exposure to violence. Another report, focused on the mental health of Syrian refugee children, found that almost half of surveyed children showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 44 percent reported symptoms of depression.

While the situation is serious, even relatively limited psychosocial support has been shown to be extremely effective in helping restore children’s sense of safety. Save the Children works with a number of children centers in Syria, which focus on allowing children to express themselves, feel a sense of security, and build normal social relationships with other children. Staff at these centers note that many children have parents who, because of their own struggles during the conflict, are unable to consistently listen to and address their children’s fears. Ensuring that children receive this type of psychosocial support must be seen as a vital aspect of the humanitarian response to the conflict. While SJAC collects documentation on violations committed against children, it will never be able to capture the breadth and depth of how growing up during war is affecting a generation of Syrian youth, but the data indicates that Syrian children desperately need support to help them process these diverse experiences of the conflict.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].