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Recognizing the plight of children on Universal Children's Day

By Peter Salama
UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa on Universal Children's Day

Twenty-six years ago today, the world made a solemn promise to the children of the world, to protect and promote their rights to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and to reach their full potential.

But for children caught up in the different conflicts now gripping the Middle East and North Africa, that pledge – formalized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- is being broken, day in and day out.

Across the region, levels of violence are reaching unprecedented levels, tearing apart the social fabric of whole societies and bringing basic services and vital civic infrastructure to the point of collapse.

From Syria to Sudan, from Libya to Iraq, from the State of Palestine to Yemen, children find themselves under attack. In no other part of the world have children’s rights been violated on such a scale.

According to United Nations data, in 2014, armed conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and the State of Palestine claimed the lives of 1,900 children. The actual number was certainly much higher. But even this verified figure is more than three times the number killed in 2013.

Conflicts in this region are not just multiplying – they are becoming ever more protracted and brutal, affecting millions of people. As a result, growing numbers of people are resorting to ever more desperate measures to survive, including by fleeing.

Half of those who have taken the dangerous journey to Europe in the last year are from Syria. Others come from Iraq and other violence-ridden societies.

The plight of those who stay behind is increasingly desperate: girls are being married off early, other children are being put to work to help out their impoverished families.

Worse still, the number of children being recruited by warring parties has increased by almost three times. Children take on a variety of roles, including carrying weapons, manning checkpoints and in extreme cases participate in the actual killing.

On this historic day, it’s time for all those involved in the region’s conflicts, together with those who influence them, to recognize that this situation is simply unacceptable.

Moreover, those that perpetrate these violations need to understand that sooner or later they will be held accountable. Even amid the turmoil sweeping this region, children must be given the chance to be children again. That’s something all of us can contribute to by giving substance to the eloquent words of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.