Conflicts setting MENA back in child rights, says Amnesty's Shetty

Conflicts in Syria and Gaza undermine achievements for children so far, such as progress against child marriage

Despite progress that has been made in the Middle East and North Africa region with regard to children’s rights over the past 50 years, war and conflict across a number of nations are undermining these efforts, according to Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International.

“The problem is we are engulfed now in the bigger set of challenges, in conflict, which is undermining all the achievements, so now we have to go back to basics,” said Shetty in an interview on the sidelines of the Global Child Forum held in Dubai.

Child marriage, labour, and exploitation; a large number of girls still out of school; sex work; poor quality of education; and children caught up in armed struggle are some of the main challenges facing children in the MENA region, Shetty said.

“The cost of having undereducated youth is very expensive for societies,” he said, adding that the region and the world have also failed when it comes to protecting children during armed conflict, especially when it comes to Syria where 5 million children are currently “in deep distress” and in Gaza where hundreds of children lost their lives during the recent Israeli offensive.

Many children have disappeared in Syria and this is an issue that needs to be looked at, he added.

It is estimated that more than 11,000 children have lost their lives during the war in Syria since 2011, according to the London-based Oxford Research group.

“The main question that I was asking was is it possible to separate the discussion on child rights from the discussion on human rights. So if you don’t have the basic institutions in place and a culture of respect of human rights and fairness I think it’s going to be challenging,” said Shetty.

There is a relationship of mistrust between the security forces, police, judiciary and the population in the region, which calls for an independent body to address individual cases, Shetty explained.

“Legally the Arab Court for Human Rights is an important possibility as long as they allow individual complaints,” he said. “The main issue for the Arab Court is there’s a big argument whether it should be there or not and the second issue is whether it should allow individual complaints. But that’s the most important thing because when national authorities are not doing anything, ordinary people should have an access beyond this.”