omran syria
Syria, a war on children?
03:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Gordon Brown is the UN Special Envoy for Global Education and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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Gordon Brown: War crimes against children are rapidly increasing and perpetrators must be held responsible for them

In Syria, schools have even become military targets and Russia has been implicated in the violence, he writes

CNN  — 

It may not have been the dominant headline, but make no mistake – 2016 was the year when mass atrocities against children became the new normal.

Without a doubt, history offers up a multitude of moments when children’s rights have been systematically violated in the course of war. From the scorched earth of Stalingrad during the Second World War to Srebrenica during the Bosnian conflict, time and again children have been thrust onto the front lines of conflict.

But during 2016, a year that was a total war on normalcy, the abuse of children’s rights was pushed to new extremes. From Syria to South Sudan, from Nigeria to Nepal, abuses have become so commonplace – and the world’s response so anemic – that the perpetrators of these atrocities have carried out their violent acts with impunity.

Gordon Brown

Our new year’s resolution for 2017 must be to bring the perpetrators of these crimes against children to justice, and then go a step further and show that never again will the world stand by as the rights of boys and girls are violated. Let us start by naming and confronting the reality that many violations in the Syrian conflict are borne out of military action taken by state actors.

Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and it has ratified the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Claims alleging human rights violations by ECHR Contracting States can be brought before the European Court of Human Rights. Given the evidence of Russia’s involvement in perpetrating atrocities in Syria, Syrian families have a forum in which they can seek accountability and justice for the wrongs they have suffered.

In practical legal terms, a claim before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is one of only a few routes open to those seeking some semblance of rule-of-law accountability. Last week, the UN General Assembly voted to establish an investigative body to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence” and to prepare cases on war crimes. But this initiative may be more symbolic than substantive since we know that no matter the evidence, no case on the Syrian conflict is likely to ever reach the International Criminal Court (ICC) as neither Russia nor Syria are members.

And as long as Russia vetoes the only other route – a referral to the ICC by the Security Council – we can be certain that the victims of the Syrian killing fields will never find justice through such legal recourse.

But we’ve been here before. In 2011, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was established by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to investigate possible war crimes. At its inception, the Commission called unsuccessfully for the Syrian authorities to immediately put an end to all human rights violations, to fully comply with their obligations under international human rights law and heed calls for an immediate end to all violence in Syria.

The Commission is now armed with a list of war crimes suspects. But while it has produced four excellent reports, plus four periodic updates exposing human rights violations in Syria based on interviews with over 1,400 witnesses and victims, prosecutions have never ensued. The Syrian government has prevented the Commission from undertaking investigations inside the country.

And while the Commission’s concern was extended to include investigations of all massacres, the Security Council could not agree on the Commission’s proposal to refer the Syrian case to the ICC. So even after the Commission’s next report to the 47-member Council in February, we may still be at square one.

If international humanitarian law has been found wanting, it is no time to forget the power of international human rights law, which has been built up over decades and which is reflected in the 60-year-old European Convention of Human Rights. Its protections do not cease to apply in situations of armed conflict, and where there is an available forum, such as the European Court of Human Rights, it should be used to bring the cases of Syrian children who have been victims of recent attacks.

The Idlib school bombing of Oct. 26, which tragically left at least 35 children and teachers dead, would make for a strong test case. Most children died as they rushed for safety from the kindergarten, elementary school, two middle schools and secondary school that were part of a single education complex. But the targeting of the schools was no accident: at least six bombs were dropped despite the fact there were no military targets nearby.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Russia said it would support an inquiry. Attempts to persuade the Security Council to call Russia’s bluff failed. And when Tony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF, alleged that a war crime had been committed and there were calls for the Security Council to intervene, Russia claimed there had been no bombing at all.

In the face of growing evidence of the use of Su-24 aircraft in the strikes – the planes typically flown by Syrian and Russian air force pilots – Russia has now taken a third line. They have issued a denial that Russian or Syrian warplanes dropped any bombs in Idlib at any time from October 17 to October 26 of this year.

The ECHR can test Russia’s claims. This can be brought to trial if a Syrian family affected by the violence brings a case to the European Court. Of course, Russia may claim that before any action is taken in the ECHR, domestic courts must first adjudicate the matter. But by the same logic of strategic self-interest that has led Russia to intervene in a foreign conflict, there is a good argument to be made for the ECHR to intervene on behalf of Syrian families highly unlikely to find justice in a Potemkin court.

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    If the bottomless grab-bag of war crimes witnessed against children in 2016 has taught us anything, it is that we must ensure humanity’s common conscience is not just enshrined in our laws, but practically enforced when those very laws are broken. At the outset of the New Year we should resolve that when schools become military targets, we will not stand aside. When violations against children are brought to our attention, we will not just wring our hands. When children become weapons of war, we will not stay silent.

    Only when we send a clear message of hope – that we are prepared to defend children’s rights at all costs – will millions of children begin to feel safe.