Syrian Rebels Using Children For Combat: Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused armed Opposition groups fighting in Syria of using children for combat and other military operations.

Children as young as 14 have served in at least three Opposition brigades, transporting weapons and supplies and acting as lookouts, the New York-based rights watchdog said in a news release on Thursday.

HRW claimed to have found children as young as 16 carrying arms and taking combat roles against government forces. It urged Opposition commanders to make public commitments to end this practice, and bar children under 18 from military duties -even if they volunteer.

HRW interviewed five boys aged 14 to 16 who said they had worked with the armed Opposition in Homs, Daraa, and Khirbet al-Jawz, a small Idlib town near the Turkish border. Three of the boys, all aged 16, said they carried weapons. One said he received military training and participated in attack missions. Two boys aged 14 and 15 said they, together with other boys, supported Opposition brigades by conducting reconnaissance or transporting weapons and supplies. In addition, HRW interviewed three Syrian parents who said their sons under 18 had remained in Syria to fight.

"All eyes are on the Syrian Opposition to prove they're trying to protect children from bullets and bombs, rather than placing them in danger," said Priyanka Motaparthy, children's rights researcher at HRW. "One of the best ways Opposition military commanders can protect children is to make a strong, public commitment against use of children in their forces, and to verify boys' ages before allowing them to enlist," she added.

HRW recalled that the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, to which Syria became party in 2003, states that, "Armed groups, distinct from the armed forces of a State, should not under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years."

The Syria Violations Documenting Center, a Syrian Opposition monitoring group, has documented the deaths of at least 17 children who fought with the FSA, or Free Syria Army. Many others have been severely injured, and some permanently disabled.

Ongoing initiatives to have armed Opposition groups adopt and enforce codes of conduct that promote respect for human rights and international humanitarian law should include provisions making clear that children should not participate in the armed conflict, HRW said.

International law sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in direct hostilities. Under the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute, it is a war crime for armed forces or groups to conscript or enlist children under 15, or to use them "to participate actively in hostilities."

In August, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report in which it "note[d] with concern reports that children under 18 are fighting and performing auxiliary roles for anti-government armed groups." It added: "The commission received assurances from Colonel Riad al-Asaad that an FSA policy not to use children in combat is in place. There is evidence to suggest, however, that this policy is not uniformly being adhered to by the FSA and other anti-government armed groups."

"Even when children volunteer to fight, commanders have a responsibility to protect them by turning them away," Motaparthy said. "Children are easily influenced by older relatives and friends, but their participation in armed hostilities places them in grave danger of being killed, permanently disabled, or severely traumatized."

HRW called on countries financing or supplying arms to Opposition groups to urge the FSA to prohibit the use of those under 18 for military purposes.

Boys who served the armed Opposition groups interviewed by HRW came from particularly vulnerable segments of the Syrian population.

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