The United Nations Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism in Iraq

A young girl in a displacement camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Her parents and two oldest sisters went missing when her family fled Sinjar. © UNICEF/Iraq/2015/Mackenzie

The UN Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on grave violations against children in situations of armed conflict (MRM) is a Security Council-mandated mechanism which requires the UN to collect information on grave violations committed against children by armed parties to a conflict. In collaboration with all relevant stakeholders the MRM aims to end and prevent violations against children, hold parties to conflict accountable for such violations, and provide appropriate responses to children affected by the conflict.

The United Nations Security Council has identified six grave violations against children in times of conflict. They are: killing and maiming of children, recruitment or use of children, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, abduction of children and denial of humanitarian access.

With support from generous contributions from the people of Belgium and Germany, UNICEF has strengthened monitoring, reporting and responding to grave violations against children in Iraq.

UNICEF Iraq Chief of Child Protection Brigid Kennedy Pfister discusses the main threats facing Iraqi children, and what is being done to address them.

1. In what ways are children affected by the current conflict in Iraq?

As the situation in Iraq deteriorated over the months since June 2014, increased numbers of children have been killed and maimed, abducted, exposed to rape and sexual violence, as well as recruited and used for different purposes by armed forces and groups involved in the conflict. Schools and hospitals have been damaged and used for military purposes, seriously hampering children’s access to medical attention, and safe learning spaces. In areas with active hostilities and insecurity, access to humanitarian assistance and services is very limited. Conflict and violence force families to flee — often separating children from their loved ones — and destroy social fabric and community structures, which puts children at further risk of being abused, exploited and exposed to grave violations.

2. How prevalent is the phenomenon of child soldiers in Iraq? What are their roles in combat?

The recruitment and use of children in various combat or supporting roles has become a common feature of the conflict. Children are recruited at younger and younger ages, particularly by irregular militia and armed opposition groups and increasingly are used in armed combat and on the front lines. They not only fight in battles, but also treat and evacuate wounded combatants, film and photograph battles, or carry out other tasks which put them in danger and expose them to violence.

3. What groups in Iraq are the biggest offenders when it comes to using children in the conflict?

All irregular militia and armed opposition groups continue to recruit and use children. Widespread recruitment has been documented but it is difficult to validate just how many children are being used by which groups. Most of the information UNICEF gathers comes from families who report their children were taken or children themselves when they escape. Sometimes evidence comes from photographs and videos of children in military roles released by these groups.

4. What is unusual about the abuses perpetrated by groups in Iraq?

Extremists in Iraq and Syria justify their actions on ideological, religious and sectarian grounds, which are often in conflict with humanitarian law and flaunt globally accepted standards for how children and civilians are treated in times of conflict. The indoctrination of children among various armed groups in Iraq and Syria is unique in that it is systematic, refined and embodied as a manifestation of their ambitions of statehood.

Within this ideological framework, these groups openly promote the recruitment and indoctrination of children and use children for propaganda purposes, glorifying their combat roles and “martyrdom”. They also expose children to extreme violence to desensitize them as children who learn to fight at an early age are converted for life. For example, children have not only been encouraged to attend, but also participate in public executions. In some areas the appropriation of schools and introduction of a radical curriculum has been a key way to influence children. And children are sometimes arrested and punished for not complying with strictly enforced rules — such as failure to pray, or for smoking.

Another unique feature emerging in Iraq is the legitimization of systematic sexual exploitation of girls, particularly minorities, through early, multiple and forced marriages. There is evidence that this has become common and families are coerced to comply. Reports indicate that once married, fighters frequently abandon or divorce their child wives, and the girls are then expected to re-marry other fighters.

5. Why do armed groups in Iraq use children, and what effect does this have on them?

Children have historically been present in battle situations, but usually as attendants or in other secondary roles. With the proliferation of light weapons, children have become viable as combatants. In the past, children were not particularly effective as front-line fighters since most of the lethal hardware was too heavy and cumbersome for them to manipulate. This is no longer the case.

Children are also easier to intimidate and they do as they are told. They are also less likely than adults to run away, and they don’t demand salaries.

Their lesser cognitive and emotional maturity leave them much more susceptible than adults to indoctrination. Adolescent boys in particular are vulnerable to social norms which, particularly in conflict, romanticize combat and associate these actions with “being a man”.

Violence affects children’s short- and long-term physical and psychological wellbeing. It undermines their ability to learn and develop in a healthy manner, to socialize and become loving parents and contributing members of their communities. Ultimately it jeopardizes their capacity to constructively participate in their society. When young people experience violence, their chances of becoming future victims or of acting violently themselves increases.

6. What will UNICEF do for girls and women who have been captured and subjected to violence once they are free?

Girls and women who have suffered sexual and physical violence require specialized services, psycho-social support and protection. This might in some cases require relocation and safe living spaces. UNICEF is working closely with government, partners and communities to address these issues now, and to be ready for those who might be released in the future. This also includes boys who have escaped or been released from armed groups, as they will be needing assistance in reintegrating back into their communities and support to deal with the potential trauma and negative experiences.