x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UN concern over use of child soldiers in Yemen

The secretary general's special representative is to pay a visit to investigate anecdotal reports on the use of fighters below 18 years.

A video grab released by Houthi rebels in August shows a tank seized from the army during fighting in north-western Yemen.
A video grab released by Houthi rebels in August shows a tank seized from the army during fighting in north-western Yemen.

NEW YORK // The United Nations' expert on child soldiers has begun investigating both rebel and government forces for using underage combatants in northern Yemen, saying she is concerned that "large numbers" of teenage boys have been dragged into the fighting.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary general's special representative for children and armed conflict, said last week that she was extremely concerned about the use of children as soldiers in the protracted five-year conflict that erupted into full-scale fighting in August. "We have started looking at that situation closely, and have got in touch with the UN resident representative there and we have said we want to monitor this issue and if they can give us information regarding that," said Ms Coomaraswamy.

"We are waiting to get the information, although from anecdotal reports from various parts of the UN system, especially the humanitarian part, we get a sense that there are large numbers of children being used in this war." Ms Coomaraswamy announced plans to visit Yemen and Somalia to gather information, although her colleagues from the UN's children's agency, Unicef, are already on the ground in the turbulent north, monitoring whether children are being used by either side.

"There is anecdotal evidence, but at the moment there is not more than that," said Sigrid Kaag, Unicef's regional head, who completed a three-day mission to visit Al Mazraq camp, in Hajjah province, and other Yemeni trouble spots on Thursday. "We are preparing a report. We have asked staff to look into it and assess and validate what information and facts can be acquired to make a reliable assessment of the situation. If there is a use of child soldiers, to which extent. At the moment we are collecting data, talking to field workers and trying to build an evidence base and that will be forwarded to New York."

Last week, several aid agencies raised concerns about the use of child soldiers by government forces and their northern rebel enemies, who are fighting for the rights of the Houthi tribe of Zaidi Shiites, in a conflict that dates to 2004. Using children under the age of 18 as soldiers is against international laws, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols, and is defined as a war crime by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

The latest report of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on child soldiers documents grave violations against children in 20 conflicts, including in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Uganda. Estimates indicate that, globally, about 250,000 children continue to be exploited by armed forces, with an underage death toll of about two million and a further six million who have been rendered permanently disabled.

Ms Kaag issued a warning to coincide with Eid al Adha that children displaced by fighting in northern Yemen continue to suffer from malnutrition and other health problems during "one of the most important religious holidays in the Muslim world". "Children in northern Yemen have little to celebrate," she said. "They are living in difficult conditions, away from their homes and schools despite significant humanitarian relief efforts."

In al Mazraq camp, the Unicef official met mothers and children who were among the 175,000 civilians to have fled their homes over five years of conflict in which the Houthis claim they have been marginalised by a corrupt government. Yemeni children have historically suffered from high levels of malnutrition, Unicef warns, with 69 children under the age of five dying for every 1,000 births. Some 46 per cent of under-five children are underweight and 58 per cent suffer from stunting.

jreinl@thenational.ae