GENEVA – The United Nations children's agency said Tuesday it was "profoundly disturbed" by reports that children may have been abused in prisons in Iraq.
"Any mistreatment, sexual abuse, exploitation or torture of children in detention is a violation of international law," UNICEF (search) spokesman Damien Personnaz said.
"UNICEF is profoundly disturbed by news reports alleging that children may have been among those abused."
NBC reported last week that unreleased videotapes, apparently shot by U.S. personnel, showed Iraqi guards at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison (search) raping young boys. British newspapers have reported that children were tortured under interrogation.
Personnaz said UNICEF so far has no independent confirmation of the reports but has decided to speak out nevertheless.
"If the reports are wrong, then we will say so," he said. "But this is also a way for us to make sure that it doesn't happen in the future."
UNICEF stressed that mistreating children breaches the U.N. treaties on children's rights, torture and civil rights, as well as the Geneva Conventions (search) on the conduct of war.
Under international law, detention of children should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time, the agency said. Children should never be incarcerated with adults, and they should have access to legal, medical, emotional and other assistance.
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF's chief spokesman in New York, said the agency felt that there was "a critical mass" of reports in the Western and Arabic-language media, so it should speak out.
UNICEF plans to investigate but is hampered because there are few U.N. staff in Iraq following the August bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq, Ironside said.
"We have a limited set of eyes and ears on the ground," he said. "Things we are normally able to do we can't do here. But we are following up informally through channels with various parties inside Iraq."
UNICEF also would be investigating whether there has been sexual abuse of women in Iraqi detention centers, Ironside said.
There is no mention of the sexual abuse of women and children in a report produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross (search) that highlighted the mistreatment of prisoners in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities.
ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari said, however, that the report is not necessarily exhaustive.
"We base our findings on discussions with prisoners, but they don't tell us certain things or sometimes we don't see certain things," she said.