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(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should impose an arms embargo and other targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on the Syrian leadership in response to widespread killings and other grave violations against children. A report from the secretary-general to the Security Council on June 11, 2012, on children and armed conflict highlights violations against children by Syrian Armed Forces, intelligence forces, and pro-government militias. The violations, in a climate of total impunity, include targeted killings, torture of children in detention, the use of children as human shields, and attacks on schools and their use for military operations.

The report also cites credible allegations that armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are recruiting children as soldiers. Human Rights Watch called on the leaders of Syrian opposition groups, including the FSA, to immediately stop any recruitment or use of child soldiers, to discipline all those responsible, including commanders, and to cooperate fully with any investigation into the use of child soldiers.

“Children are paying a horrendous price in the military confrontations in Syria,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The secretary-general’s report reinforces the need for targeted sanctions by the Security Council to stop widespread violations against children.”

Children are increasingly victim to Syria’s conflict. According to the Syria Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a network of Syrian activists, at least 1,176 children have been killed since February 2011. The VDC reported that on June 6, at least nine children were killed in the village of Qubeir  in Hama province, and that on June 9, 10 children were killed near the town of Al-Haffa, though the identity of the killers has not yet been established. The United Nations reported that 49 children were killed in the May 25 massacre in Houla, nearly half of the 108 victims.

Three people who survived the Houla killings told Human Rights Watch that the killers were pro-government forces, possibly members of a pro-government militia. Herve Ladsous, the UN under-secretary-general and head of the Peacekeeping Department, said that the government was responsible for the May 25 casualties caused by shelling and that people killed individually on the ground were probably killed by pro-government militias, locally called shabiha.

Since 2004, the Security Council has adopted several resolutions stating that it will consider targeted sanctions, including arms embargoes, against those responsible for grave violations against children. It has imposed travel bans and asset freezes for the use of child soldiers on violators from the Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. It considers grave violations against children to include killing and maiming, recruitment and use of child soldiers, attacks on schools and hospitals, denial of humanitarian access, abduction, and sexual violence.

The secretary-general’s new report named Syrian government forces, including the Syrian Armed Forces, intelligence forces, and shabiha, on its list of perpetrators committing such violations, specifically citing killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals. This is the first year Syria has appeared on the list in the annual report.

The secretary-general also cited reports that armed opposition groups, including the FSA, are recruiting children as soldiers, but does not include specific groups in its list of perpetrators. Human Rights Watch called on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria appointed on September 12, 2011, to further investigate these allegations and publish its findings.  Should there be clear evidence of recruitment of child soldiers by the FSA, countries should investigate and prosecute any alleged perpetrators within their territory and the Security Council should consider imposing targeted sanctions against any those found recruiting child soldiers.

Human Rights Watch has documented killings and other violations against children by Syrian government forces and shabiha throughout the Syrian conflict. Among the violations described by witnesses are the recent summary executions of children in Houla and Taftanaz. Children have been killed bysniper fire in residential areas, and some have been maimed while taking shelter in their own homes. Deserting army officers have told Human Rights Watch that they were ordered to attack protesters regardless of their age.

Syrian security officers have detained boys as young as 13 in horrific conditions and subjected them to torture. Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch have said that security officers severely beat children, used electric shocks on them, burned them with cigarettes, and left them to dangle from metal handcuffs for hours at a time. Children have been kept in solitary confinement and denied medical treatment, adequate food, and water; and boys have been raped.

“We take both children and adults, and we kill them both,” a state security officer told one 13-year-old boy from Tal Kalakh, according to his account of his detention.

Security forces have arrested children at schools, and have used schools across the country for military purposes, including as detention centers, sniper posts, and military bases or barracks. The secretary-general’s report states that schools are regularly raided and used as military staging grounds and “centers for torture.” It says that guns have been installed on roofs while children were attending school and that schoolchildren have been killed during military operations on school grounds.

“All parties should refrain from attacks on children, or any use of schools for military operations,” Becker said.

Human Rights Watch also reiterated its call to the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and urged other countries to join the calls for accountability by supporting a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria. The Syrian government should also give the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Annan plan, access to all places of detention to monitor abuses against children.

The Security Council has not imposed an arms embargo on Syria. According to the Congressional Research Service, Syria was the world’s seventh largest global recipient of conventional weapons in 2010, when it signed deals worth US$1 billion. Russia is currently one of the main arms exporters to Syria through the Rosoboron export company. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple accounts by witnesses that Syrian government forces have used large-caliber machine guns, tanks, mortars, and explosive weapons to fire indiscriminately on buildings and people in the street, killing civilians, including children.

“The secretary-general’s report shows that Syria’s children need the world’s attention and protection,” Becker said. “The other countries of the world shouldn’t be looking the other way as armed forces and groups in Syria are torturing and killing children, using them as human shields, or arming them as soldiers.”

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