Islamic State militants are systematically mass-executing and abusing children, including by crucifying them, burying them alive, and using mentally disabled youth as suicide bombers and shields in battle, according to a United Nations review of atrocities committed against children in Iraq.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reviewed Iraq for the first time since 1998 and found "severe violations of children's rights" as a result of ongoing sectarian warfare in that country, exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State terror group (also known as ISIS/ISIL), which has routinely murdered and enslaved children in areas under its control.
"We are really deeply concerned at torture and murder of those children," Renate Winter, an independent expert on the CRC panel, told reporters after the committee's findings were released on Wednesday. "The scope of the problem is huge."
The committee determined that children belonging to religious and ethnic minorities are especially at risk of being killed or sexually enslaved by the Sunni Muslim group, which has sought to establish a caliphate and impose a strict brand of Islamic law across the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.
"The CRC observations constitute the most thorough review of the child rights situation in the country," Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF's Middle East and North Africa advisor on child protection told VICE News, adding that the report was "long overdue."
Chapuis said that children have been used to perform support functions since the start of the conflict — working as guards, messengers, spies and to man checkpoints — and are now increasingly being used in armed combat roles.
"This includes not only fighting in battles, but also working on the front lines to treat and evacuate wounded combatants, and to film and photograph battles," he said.
The CRC report also formally validated reports that the militant group had established slave markets where women and children are bought and sold.
VICE News previously reported on video that purportedly showed Islamic State fighters, including a young boy, discussing the selling of Yazidi slave girls at such bazaars, mentioning that age and eye color might have an effect on the price of the girls at market. The Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority group in Iraq, have been subjected to some of the most extreme violence and persecution at the hands of the insurgents, including summary executions, rapes, torture, and forced conversions.
The recent findings were consistent with a Human Rights Watch report from last October that detailed the personal accounts of women and girls, some as young as 12, who had been sold, beaten, raped, forced to marry militants, or killed. The CRC also addressed the "sexual enslavement of children detained in makeshift prisons," including the former Badoush prison near Mosul.
The committee's report said that many of the children "are severely traumatized from witnessing the murder of their parents and are subjected to physical and sexual assault."
The CRC, which based its findings on information it received from the Iraqi government, non-governmental organizations, and talks it had with Iraq's UN delegation, said that it had received reports that the group had also used mentally disabled children as suicide bombers — "most probably without them even understanding," Winter told Reuters.
The report did not just focus on atrocities committed by the extremist organization, but also mentioned the "very large number of children killed and severely injured, as a result of the current fighting, including by air strikes, shelling and military operations by the Iraqi Security Forces, and as a result of land mines and explosive war remnants."
"This includes deaths from dehydration, starvation and heat in conflict affected areas," the report added.
Erin Evers, an Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that while the report does a good job of condemning honor killings of women and girls both by militants and armed groups, it does not focus enough on the perpetration of other child abuses on the part of Shia militias working under the Iraqi government, which are at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State.
"The main shortcomings of this report is that it didn't treat the abuse of children by Shia militias," Evers said. "We have seen evidence that they are recruiting children, but there's been very little reporting on it. ISIS advertises its training and abuse of children, whereas it's harder to research on what the militias are doing."
Evers said that there is no comparison to the "aberrant and horrific" acts committed by the Islamic State, but called for an examination of the maltreatment of children at the hands of government-linked forces, "particularly in the detention of minors being held on terrorism charges."
Chapuis said that while the "recruitment and use of children by all parties has become a common feature of the conflict… there are a number of unique features with regards to ISIL's recruitment and use of children."
"ISIL openly promotes the recruitment and indoctrination of children, and more so than other groups, has instrumentalized children for propaganda purposes," he said.
To do this, militants have exposed children to extreme violence as a means to desensitize them, as well as encouraged them to attend and participate in public executions. "The appropriation of schools and introduction of a revised radical education curriculum in areas under Islamic State control has also been a key mechanism to indoctrinate and influence children to join their cause," Chapuis said.
Because Iraq's government is ultimately responsible for the protections of its people, the CRC has urged it to take measures to "stop the use of excessive and lethal force against civilians and prevent further violence against children." The committee believes the government should rescue children who are forced into these conditions, and prosecute those who commit abuses.
Despite the recommendations, widespread corruption, a lack of accountability, and certain ingrained cultural and social factors continue to have a detrimental impact on children's rights in Iraq at a time of national crisis.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter:@lianzifields