Questioning the UN’s child torture charges against the Syrian regime

by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb -  13/June/2012

Like NATO and the GCC countries, the UN (and I don’t just mean the Security Council here) is increasingly becoming a party to this conflict and an instrument of military intervention in Syria. Along with mainstream media, the UN’s human rights bodies, and “international” (i.e. western multinational) human rights organizations, are providing the requires “humanitarian” cover for further militarization of the Syrian crisis—whether that means a NATO invasion or increased military assistance to the rebels—and hence, a cover for a far graver humanitarian catastrophe.

The latest episode of this information warfare campaign is the UN’s Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict which charges the Syrian regime with the most unthinkable crimes against children. Although the report was published before the Houla massacre, the timing of its release will undoubtedly score a major PR victory for the foreign and domestic enemies of the Syrian regime, and further facilitate the interventionists’ agenda.

There is no doubt that the regime is a repressive one and there have been isolated and confirmed instances of torture, most notably the case of the now sacked Governor of Deraa who was responsible for torturing of children writing anti-regime graffiti . But in and of itself, such a heinous crime does not render all unsubstantiated charges of child torture as fact, least of all when a UN body linked to the Security Council is making the charges and doing so based on the flimsiest of evidence.

Indeed, these latest accusations are far-fetched to the point of absurd, and one step away from a baby-incubator narrative a la the “Nayirah Testimony” hoax. The report itself acknowledges that this is the first time Syria has been included in the “shame list.” Yet the Syrian regime seems to have made the leap from first-time offender to worst offender in one go. As described by the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy:

“I have never seen such terrible action against children. We have cases of children really being - things that usually do not happen in conflict areas, where children get killed in the crossfire, but actually torturing children or putting children on tanks and using them as shields. Or summarily executing children. These are things that normally don’t happen in warfare.”

Exactly, these are things which don’t normally happen in warfare because they don’t really need to happen. The full report itself acknowledges that the FSA and other opposition groups are also guilty of committing human rights violations against children, including recruiting child soldiers. This begs the question of why the Syrian Army would use children as human shields when the rebels clearly place no sanctity on children’s lives. An accusation of this kind presupposes that groups which themselves abuse children—presumably the children of their supporters—will somehow be neutralized upon seeing the Syrian army use those same children.

More damning still are the criteria for what constitutes “evidence” in the UN report. Items #119-125, which are devoted to the section of the report on Syria, are all based on eye witness accounts. According to item 119: “My Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict sent a technical mission to the region to conduct interviews with victims and witnesses in refugee camps, villages and hospitals in the region in March 2012.”

It should now become patently obvious to anyone observing the Syrian crisis, from whichever side of the political divide, that there are competing eye witness accounts on every single incident or war crime, so much so, that they effectively cancel one another out. A case in point is Rainer Hermann’s now widely disseminated article for the conservative German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine. Hermann claims that the Houla massacre was committed by forces opposed to the regime. In a private e-mail correspondence which I have been granted permission to reproduce, Hermann told me:

“Still, what two sources (from the opposition) had told me about Houla I found more convincing than the propaganda from the regime or from the FSA. However, they do not want their names disclosed - because then they would be killed….It makes sense: that there had been a long fight between the army and the rebels all around Houla, so that the Shabiha could not have entered, at least not easily without having been drawn in to the fighting. At the surroundings of Hula at least 12 soldiers had been killed, also 35 rebels. At the same time, inside Houla, Alawi and Shii civilians got slaughtered by their Sunni neighbours with a possible back-up from Talbiseh. I do not claim those had been attackers from opposition. More probable is that is was local feud which benefited from the prevailing lawlessness. The videos which were sent abroad obviously show the dead of all three groups of dead. The first day General Mood said the UN observers did not see children’s throat cut, the official report says then the opposite. That is what makes reporting on Syria so difficult. Of course, there is a chance that what I was told about Houla is not correct. But I find it more convincing and less propaganda-like than the other versions. Names (as on facebook) are easy to (re-)write. I trust my sources from the region that the dead civilians had been the from-Sunna-to-Shia converted, then also Alawis, and the MP’s family. Since nobody can prove 100% his/her version, several versions will continue to compete with each other.”

Not only do these versions compete with one another, but the sole means of determining their accuracy and the value of eye witness accounts is which political narrative they fit into and whose political agenda they serve. Thus for example, the UN Human Rights Council which regards phone call interviews with witnesses as “evidence”, has already decided that the regime was behind the Houla massacre and should be referred to the ICC, even before completing its investigation. Again, the problem of “whose” witnesses arises here, eyewitnesses don’t just spontaneously appear at UN investigators doorsteps but are recommended by third parties. Given the deep political polarization in Syria today, those third parties are not neutral bystanders in the conflict but activists, fixers, and others who are on one side of the divide or the other. Given that the UN is going to ignore the suggestions of pro-regime third parties, it goes without saying that their sources are all from the opposition camp.

Further detracting from the credibility of the UN Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict is its reliance on “interviews with former members of the Syrian Armed Forces and the intelligence forces” for evidence. Former soldiers and security officers, means defectors who would by necessity have switched to the rebel side, either because they were pressured and threatened into doing so, or, in order to protect their own security after having defected from the regime. The UN report therefore counts as evidence, the testimony of an armed party to the conflict, which is itself accused of war crimes and human rights violations, not only by the regime, but by human rights organizations and the UN report itself!

To cite one sample paragraph, defectors “indicated that civilians, including children, were targeted by Government forces if they were residing in villages where members of FSA or other armed opposition groups were believed to be present or where deserters were hiding, or if they were seen fleeing the country seeking refuge. In one instance, a former member of the Syrian Armed Forces stated that, during protests in Tall Kalakh in December 2011, he was given an order by his commander to shoot without distinction, although the soldiers were aware that there were women and children among the protesters. During the armed break-up of the demonstrations, the witness saw three girls between approximately 10 and 13 years of age who had been killed by the Syrian Armed Forces. In another similar incident in Aleppo in the fourth quarter of 2011, a former member of the intelligence forces witnessed the killing of five children in a secondary school during demonstrations.”

This, despite the fact that the introduction to the report asserts that “References to reports, cases and incidents in the present report refer to information that is gathered, vetted and verified for accuracy. In situations where the ability to obtain or independently verify information received is hampered by factors such as insecurity or access restrictions, it is qualified as such.”While such qualifications are made for several other countries listed in the report, they are not made for Syria which suffers from far greater instability and insecurity than many of them.

In the final analysis, this highly unprofessional report which relies on selective observation and biased information as the basis of its findings amounts to little more than a quasi-legal weapon with to inflict heavy PR damage on the regime thereby providing the UN Security Council with further ammunition against it. This should come as no surprise given that its authors are answerable to the UN Security Council as clearly stipulated in article 1: “The present report, which covers the period from January to December 2011, is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 1998 (2011), by which the Council requested me to submit a report on the implementation of its resolutions…” Moreover, the political agenda behind the report is hardly concealed considering that Coomaraswamy herself clearly spells out the purpose of Syria’s inclusion in the list: “We have a security council which aims at identifying persistent perpetrators against children, violations against children, those who recruit children, those who kill and maim children, those who commit sexual violence against children…. The idea is to identify them, name them, shame them and then maybe apply sanctions to them. And that’s a process the Security Council has in its hands.”

The new imperialism is exercised by a host of actors ranging from governments to intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations as well as civil society actors like the mainstream media, academia and NGOs. The Syrian crisis is one of the clearest examples of how all of these hegemonic actors can operationally converge and unite in purpose to manufacture the reality that best suits Empire’s geostrategic interests.

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