Children Swept Up Into Syria's Violence

The United Nations says President Bashar Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people during the year-long popular revolt. Now, the plight of Syria's children has captured attention. Host Scott Simon talks with Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who is one of the most prominent voices calling for their protection.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The popular revolt in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been grinding on for over a year now. The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people during that time. The Syrian government in turn blames what it calls foreign-backed terrorists for the deaths of 3,000 soldiers and police. Now, the plight of Syria's children has captured attention.

One of the most prominent voices calling for their protection is Navi Pillay. She's the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She joins us from her offices in Geneva. And a caution, some of the issues we're going to talk about may be disturbing, especially for children.

High Commissioner, thanks for being with us.

NAVI PILLAY: Pleasure.

SIMON: And are children in particular in danger in Syria?

PILLAY: Children are a grave risk in Syria. Normally it's adults who are targeted by security forces. In this case, children by the hundreds have been killed, tortured and held in detention.

SIMON: When you use a word like torture, could you help make that concrete for our listeners? What are we talking about?

PILLAY: I'm talking about photographic evidence. One in particular, as a mother, really hurt me just to look at the photographs. It was presented by the father of a 14-year-old boy and you can see his injuries; he's been shot in both knees. And I've heard this as a practice of shooting in both knees, not giving the child any treatment for that but continuing to interrogate the child. So this is the kind of injuries that appeared on the body of that one boy.

SIMON: And to be blunt about this, you are holding the army of Syria responsible.

PILLAY: The military and intelligence get their orders directly from President Assad. And these atrocities are being committed by these security forces.

SIMON: Should President Assad face charges personally?

PILLAY: It seems to me that on proper investigation there may well be grounds to hold responsibility at the highest level.

SIMON: High Commissioner, let me ask you a touchier question. The UN six-point peace plan would deliver what they call a peaceful transition of power. Is it possible to get the Assad government to agree to that peace plan if he thinks he'll just be put on trial?

PILLAY: Well, it don't know what his thinking is, but the world now has a permanent International Criminal Court to hold people liable for failing to carry out their own responsibility to protect their populations.

SIMON: Correct me if I'm wrong. I read between the lines that your concern is charging the right and responsible people, not how it might affect acceptance or rejection of the six-point peace plan.

PILLAY: Yes, because there has to be accountability. There has to be justice. But, of course, in the long term you can't have proper reconciliation unless the component of justice is also included in any peace negotiation.

SIMON: High Commissioner, the UN has also reported that the Syrian Free Army - the rebels - have used children as fighters. What can you tell us about this and should they also face consequences?

PILLAY: Certainly. I have also reported atrocities. Well, not at the same level as the Syrian forces, but definitely abductions, ill-treatment and the use of children as fighters. This is a crime and it has to be properly investigated, the persons responsible brought to justice.

SIMON: High Commissioner, the friends of Syria, and this is a group that includes the United States, are meeting in Istanbul on Sunday. From your point of view what would you like to hear come out of that meeting?

PILLAY: I would like to see an immediate cessation of all violence on all sites. But clearly, the principal onus does lie with President Assad. It is he who could stop the violence and the killing, release the detainees, release the children. If he wanted to he could do that this minute.

SIMON: Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. Thank you so much, High Commissioner.

PILLAY: Thank you very much, Scott.

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