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Qatar's Sheikha Mozah urges UN to protect children and schools

Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, a UN education envoy, told dignitaries at UN headquarters yesterday that 42% of the children who are denied access to classrooms are living in conflict-ridden countries.

NEW YORK // Qatar's first lady warned that rogue armed groups are launching evermore attacks on schools and hospitals, urging the UN Security Council to increase the penalties against those who harm children during wartime.

Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, a UN education envoy, told dignitaries at UN headquarters yesterday that 42 per cent of the children who are denied access to classrooms are living in conflict-ridden countries.

She described an "increasing trend of direct and physical damage to schools, the closure of schools as a result of threats and intimidation, and the military occupation and use of schools as recruiting grounds in armed conflicts across the globe".

The comments from Sheikha Mozah are part of broader efforts to tighten the rules against armed groups that recruit child soldiers and launch attacks that could target children.

The UN compiles an annual report to "name and shame" the worst offenders. The list features 57 rogue groups that recruit children into their ranks, kill or maim youngsters or commit rape and other sex crimes against them.

It blacklists the Lord's Resistance Army, a theocratic African guerrilla group led by Joseph Kony that routinely abducts children, and Al Shabab, which forced 2,000 children into army training camps last year in its war against Somalia's government.

Last month, the world body added four Middle Eastern armed groups to the list - Yemen's Al Houthi rebels and a pro-government tribal militia, as well as the Iraq-based branch of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq.

Listed groups are monitored by the UN and their ringleaders face asset freezes, travel bans and other UN Security Council sanctions. Commanders must demobilise all child soldiers as part of a UN plan to get their names removed.

Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, has circulated a draft resolution that will create another "trigger" by which armed groups can be added to the watch list - deliberately attacking schools and hospitals.

German diplomats say they hope the resolution will be adopted following a debate on July 12.

Sheikha Mozah, the chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, said: "We must ensure that attacks against schools are also a trigger for listing parties that violate human rights.

"We must add to the trigger list those who hold schools hostage to military conflicts through occupation, destruction or intimidation."

Of the 22 countries that were monitored for wartime crimes against children last year, raids on schools and hospitals took place in 15. Education centres and clinics face attacks, military occupation and are targeted by army recruiters, the UN says.

Attacks on schools and hospitals are a major concern in the Middle East. Israeli forces destroyed or damaged 298 schools during the 2008-09 attack in Gaza, while all 725 schools in Yemen's Sa'ada region were closed during the 2009-10 Al Houthi uprising.

Instability and fighting meant more than 500,000 primary school age Iraqi children were denied an education, while about 110,000 Palestinian youngsters are kept out of the classroom because of "bombs and blockades", the UN's education and cultural agency, Unesco, says. The wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa has seen children suffer during the shelling of Libyan cities and in Syria, where Hamza Al Khatib, 13, became a symbol of the revolution after his torture and execution, the UN says.

The UN's special envoy on children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said the suicide car bomb attack on a hospital in eastern Afghanistan last weekend, which claimed at least 20 lives, was "disturbing".

"Attacks on hospitals are two-fold atrocities. Not only do they kill and wound girls and boys, they leave thousands of women and children without access to treatment," she said. "The group or individuals responsible must be brought to justice."

jreinl@thenational.ae

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