x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UN berates Yemeni rebels for recruiting child soldiers

Hundreds of child soldiers fight in Yemen’s conflicts, with a fifth of Houthi militia under-age, while abuses also take place in Iraq.

Tribal leaders and Shiite al Huthi rebels in northern Yemen: the UN has added al Houthi to its 'list of shame' of 57 armed groups that recruit child soldiers.
Tribal leaders and Shiite al Huthi rebels in northern Yemen: the UN has added al Houthi to its 'list of shame' of 57 armed groups that recruit child soldiers.

NEW YORK // The UN has added al Houthi rebels and a pro-government tribal militia in Yemen to its "list of shame" of 57 armed groups that recruit child soldiers or commit other wartime abuses against youngsters.

Yemeni militias deploy boys in fighting and logistical roles while girls, some of whom are allegedly recruited by forced marriage, are used for cooking, gathering intelligence and moving detonators, according to the UN's annual report on child soldiers.

The 55-page document adds Iraq's al Qa'eda wing, including the youth "Birds of Paradise" brigade, and the Islamic State of Iraq, to its list of offenders. It also gives updates on abuses in Somalia and Afghanistan.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN's special envoy for children and armed conflict, said the al Houthis and a pro-government tribal militia are now subject to an "intense monitoring system" and could face UN Security Council sanctions.

"Once you are listed, the UN then has the mandate to go and negotiate with the al Houthis or tribal militias and try and enter into an action plan with them and get children released," Ms Coomaraswamy said. "We know the war has ended and some children may have gone back, but we hear that some children are seeping through the cracks and joining the traditional forces."

The UN noted the use of child soldiers during the so-called "sixth war" of a recurring conflict between government forces, their tribal proxies and al Houthi rebels that erupted in August 2009 and tailed off after a ceasefire in February last year. The report describes "sporadic fighting" since then, and warns that children still make up one fifth of al Houthi fighters and 15 per cent of the ranks of their enemy, a government-linked tribal militia called al Jaysh al Sha'bi, or "Popular Army".

Researchers counted 123 children fighting around Sa'ada and 75 more in al Jawf region last year. Conflict across the north led to the deaths of 42 children and 55 injuries last year. A further 34 children were killed and 24 injured by unexploded ordinance.

Al Houthis follow the Zaydi Shiite sect and have taken up arms against Yemen's Sunni-dominated leadership six times since 2004. Yemen's young clansmen see AK-47s as a status symbol and face pressure to fight alongside adults.

Ms Coomaraswamy said al Houthis and other militias should continue demobilising young fighters against a backdrop of Yemen's political crisis, with protests against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh now in their third month.

Last month, the New York-based Human Rights Watch warned that child soldiers recruited by the Yemeni army were being used by a breakaway unit, under the command of General Ali Mohsen, to protect protesters.

Joe Stork, the group's Middle East analyst, said: "The Yemeni government has for too long placed children at grave risk" and urged anti-government groups to "not perpetuate the problem by using children for security on the field of protest".

In Iraq, the UN said al Qa'eda has used children to spy, scout, transport weapons, videotape attacks, plant explosives and act as suicide bombers, sometimes without even knowing it, in raids on security forces and civilians. The group has created a wing of children under the age of 14, called the "Birds of Paradise" but also known as the "Paradise Boys" and "Youth of Heaven", to carry out bombings. It targets orphans, street children and the mentally disabled as potential recruits.

Ms Coomaraswamy said that she has not tried to reach out to either of the newly listed Iraqi insurgency groups because they are "against the UN in a very virulent way". There may come a time when they are willing to negotiate, she said.

The report detailed "grave violations" against children in 22 countries and listed 57 rogue armed groups that are subject to monitoring by the world body and face possible sanctions or other coercive measures from the Security Council.

The UN's 15-nation Security Council has toughened its stance against wartime child abuse and is prepared to impose travel bans, arms embargoes and asset freezes against individuals who recruit, maim, kill or sexually abuse children during conflict.

The list includes the Lord's Resistance Army, a theocratic guerrilla group in northern Uganda led by Joseph Kony that routinely abducts children, and al Shabab, which forced 2,000 children into army training camps last year in its war against Somalia's central government. Although the report presented widespread abuses, it noted gains in some war-zones. Deals between the UN and the governments of Afghanistan and Somalia's transitional leadership will see fewer children recruited into national forces.

"Despite the negative developments in 2011, such as attacks on schools and the number of parties that continue to commit grave violations, it is encouraging that more and more parties are approaching the UN to enter into an action plan to get off the list of shame," Ms Coomaraswamy said.