"No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones." This was the single-sentence statement issued by Unicef, the UN's children's fund, this week in response to the Syrian government's ongoing siege of Eastern Ghouta. The rest of the statement was left deliberately blank, intended as testament to the inadequacy of language to convey the full horror being experienced by Syria's children. Of the 250 civilians estimated to have been killed in Eastern Ghouta over a 48-hour period, 58 are children. A footnote to the statement asks: "Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?"
The answer is that Bashar Al Assad will not pause to consult his conscience just because the world has been robbed of words. Unicef's speechlessness might be little more than a publicity stunt to generate traction on social media but as the hellish footage shows, the bodies of little girls and boys continue to pile up in Eastern Ghouta as Mr Al Assad stamps out the last remnant of resistance to his rule. Syria, according to a report released by the charity Save the Children at this month's Munich Security Conference, is now the most dangerous place on the planet to be a child. The war there is "the single largest contributing factor to many of the worsening global trends in children and armed conflict" across the world, which over the past two decades has witnessed an alarming rise in the number of children exposed to violence.
A total of 357 million children – equivalent to one in six – live in conflict zones. Children in parts of the Middle East are at the greatest risk of experiencing conflict while Asia has the ignominy of having the largest number of children (166 million) living in constant fear for their lives. The UN toll of "grave violations" of children makes for horrific reading: maiming and killing, sexual violence, abduction, recruitment as child soldiers, denial of humanitarian services and attacks on schools and hospitals. Millions live with the constant risk of being endangered in conflicts not of their making.
Today the world celebrated the 18th year of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Children who grow up witnessing atrocities are haunted by their memories for the rest of their lives. Many who lived through the Second World War as children are still traumatised by it. Boys conscripted as child soldiers in Uganda and Sierra Leone might never outgrow their agonising past. Their experiences give a horrifying indication of what lies in store for children who survive the war in Syria and for the millions more trapped in conflicts elsewhere. Reacting with speechlessness simply doesn't do them justice. The world's silence is complicit in the Syrian nightmare. It is time to atone with meaningful action to protect the most vulnerable members of society and speak up, loud and clear, for those who have been robbed of a voice.