x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A responsibility to children in conflict

In the armed conflicts raging in the Middle East, children are increasingly becoming targets and not just "incidental casualties".

A 13-year-old boy tortured to death; a young girl with the side of her face blown off by a shotgun; and scores of other children killed by indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. The atrocities taking place in Syria every day will make many observers want to turn away.

On Monday, Syrian government forces pounded the neighbourhood of Karm El Zeytoun in Homs, killing at least 45 people; of those, 28 were children. Such incidents are now becoming the norm rather than the exception. Opposition groups claim that shabbiha - "thugs" that support the regime - have been systematically torturing anti-government protesters, forcing hundreds of families to flee. On Monday, news agencies released pictures of young children with their throats slit that supported even the worst rumours and allegations.

The ghosts of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in 1995, remind us that these acts are never forgotten.

It is not just Syrian children who are being targeted. On Sunday, a lone US soldier murdered 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar, nine of whom were children. Washington argues this was the rogue act of a madman, but its war in Afghanistan - and drone strikes in Pakistan - have put children at increasing risk.

In Gaza, air strikes over the last week have claimed 25 lives, one of whom was a 12-year-old boy. As is often the case, Israel discounts the lives of Palestinian children as not worth protecting.

As we have said in these pages, state crimes against civilians, in particular against children, can only be justified by a fictional narrative that dehumanises the targets. The more horrific the deaths, the more that this delusion has to be maintained.

The "terrorist" refrain so often heard in Israel is now perversely the same language justifying the Syrian government's violence. We can only accept these are "armed terrorist gangs" if we believe small children are terrorists.

Accurate figures for child deaths in war are almost impossible to gather. According to Unicef, children are increasingly becoming targets and not just "incidental casualties".

In this unrest in the Middle East, it is children who are most vulnerable. It is the responsibility of observers not to turn away - but to insist that murderers of children be held accountable for what they are.