Attacks by Syrian-Russian forces in an area near the Damascus in late October and early November 2017 killed eight children and destroyed or damaged four schools, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks on Eastern Ghouta, 15 kilometers from the Syrian capital, resulted in the closing of schools, depriving many children in the besieged area of access to education.
Impunity for unlawful attacks and a deadly siege of Eastern Ghouta by government forces mean that children in the enclave are at grave risk. The Syrian government and affiliated militia are on the United Nations’ “list of shame” of parties responsible for serious violations of the rights of children in armed conflict.
“Syrian and Russian forces appear to view the lives of children in Eastern Ghouta as utterly disposable,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council should demand an immediate end to all unlawful attacks, not least those killing children and destroying schools, under threat of targeted sanctions against those responsible.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to nine witnesses in November and reviewed photographs, videos, and reports by Syrian human rights and media organizations of the school attacks. The attacks were apparently indiscriminate, in violation of the laws of war.
The Syrian-Russian military alliance has attacked many of the towns in Eastern Ghouta repeatedly. Attacks on the enclave intensified after anti-government armed groups attacked Syrian forces at a frontline location in the area in mid-November, including the use of cluster munitions, and re-started after a brief lull in December. The Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian nongovernmental group, reported that Syrian and allied forces killed 45 boys and 30 girls in the Damascus suburbs from November 1 to January 3.
On the morning of October 31, a mortar round hit the entrance gate of a primary school in Jisreen, a town in the besieged enclave, killing six schoolboys and a man selling sweets from a cart. Half-an-hour later, two mortar rounds landed almost simultaneously, on either side of a school in the town of Mesraba, killing two adults and two children, including a father and his son. Attacks on November 8, including at least one airstrike, destroyed a kindergarten in the town of Hamouriyeh, and badly damaged two elementary schools in the towns of Saqba and Kafr Batna.
Residents and an education official from Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch that in October schools in the area rescheduled and shortened class time from about 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. to keep children safe by reducing the time they were gathered together in classrooms. But attacks continued to kill and maim schoolchildren and forced emergency evacuations of schools and kindergartens. In November, local councils closed public schools in response to these dangers. In one community where a school was attacked, residents opened an “alternative” school in the basement of a residential building for greater safety, but an airstrike destroyed the building in December.
Anti-government armed groups, Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam, control the towns where the schools were attacked. But residents said the armed groups did not have materiel or personnel in the towns, under agreements with local civilian councils. Witnesses and residents said that the mortar attacks originated from areas controlled by Syrian government forces that had been the source of previous and continuing attacks on the towns.
Syrian government forces have besieged Eastern Ghouta, which has a population of about 400,000, since 2013. In October 2017, the government restricted the only entry point for commercial merchandise, exacerbating a scarcity of food and medical supplies. The government has refused to allow in adequate humanitarian aid, which reached only about a quarter of the enclave’s residents in 2017, and unnecessarily hindered the evacuation of people with urgent medical needs.
At least three children died in November after Syrian authorities refused to permit their urgent evacuation for medical treatment unavailable in the enclave. UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, stated in December that 137 children needed immediate medical evacuation. But the government allowed the Syrian Red Crescent to evacuate only 17 children and 12 adults with life-threatening health conditions, and their family members, from December 27 to 29, reportedly as part of a deal in which Jaysh al-Islam released detainees. One of the children on the list of those due to be evacuated had already died, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a nongovernmental group.
The laws of war that apply to all parties to the conflict in Syria prohibit attacks that target civilians or civilian infrastructure like schools, fail to distinguish between civilians and military objects, or disproportionately harm civilians. Parties are required to take all feasible measures in conducting operations to avoid, or in any event minimize, loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. The laws of war also prohibit siege warfare if it causes disproportionate harm to the civilian population, and require the parties to provide access for humanitarian aid for civilians in need. Anyone who commits, aids, or abets serious violations of the laws of war intentionally or recklessly may be prosecuted for war crimes.
Russia has repeatedly used its veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block accountability for war crimes by all sides in the Syria conflict. Russia and Syria should end their unlawful attacks on schools and civilians. The Security Council, which on December 19 renewed its mandate for cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of desperate Syrian civilians, should demand that the Syrian government immediately end unlawful restrictions on aid to Eastern Ghouta or face targeted sanctions against those responsible.
“In 2017 a mortar blew off a boy’s legs at his school gate, a warplane flattened a kindergarten, and children died from illnesses that could have been treated just a few kilometers away,” Van Esveld said. “The suffering of children in Eastern Ghouta should shock the conscience, but it continues unabated in 2018 as Russia and Syria persist in their unlawful attacks.”
Read the full article here. Published on HRW on January 11, 2018
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.