(New York) – The Taliban’s use of children as suicide bombers in Afghanistan is an egregious affront to humanity that should cease immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. In the latest incident, on August, 27, 2011, residents of Baharak district in northeastern Badakhshan province captured a 16-year-old wearing a suicide vest as he was on his way to blow up a local mosque.
There has been an alarming increase in recent months of suicide bombings, and attempted suicide bombings, by children, Human Rights Watch said. Younger and younger children have been involved. Children as young as 7 have reported that they were deployed as suicide bombers. Surviving children who trained as suicide bombers describe having been given amulets containing verses from the Quran that they were told would protect them from the explosion. They said they were told that when the bomb they carried detonated, everyone around them would die but they would survive.
“The Taliban’s use of children as suicide bombers is not only sickening, but it makes a mockery of Mullah Omar’s claim to protect children and civilians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Any political movement or army that manipulates or coerces children into becoming human bombs has lost touch with basic humanity.”
The Taliban has pledged to respect the laws of war, published a code of conduct, and recently released a statement by its leader, Mullah Omar, renewing a commitment to protect civilians. The Taliban has denied using children as suicide bombers or for other military purposes.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has collected evidence that the Taliban has been recruiting children ages 11 through 17 to carry out activities including armed combat, planting improvised explosive devices, and smuggling weapons across the Pakistan-Afghan border. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission confirms increasing use by the Taliban of child suicide bombers. The Afghan government has reported that as many as 100 children who were recruited as suicide bombers by the Taliban are in the custody of the National Directorate of Security.
Recent incidents of suicide bombing involving children include:
- On June 26, an 8-year-old girl was killed in central Uruzgan province when a bag of explosives that the Taliban had instructed her to carry to a police checkpoint detonated.
- On May 20, in Nuristan province, a suicide vest strapped to a 12-year-old boy exploded prematurely, killing several suspected insurgents, including the boy.
- In early May, five children, all under age 13, from Logar and Ghazni provinces who had allegedly been trained as suicide bombers were arrested by the National Directorate of Security.
- Around May 3, a 14-year-old boy who said he had been coerced by the Taliban into carrying a bomb under threat that he would otherwise have his hand cut off surrendered to international troops in Ghazni province.
- On May 1, a 12-year-old boy blew himself up in a bazaar in the Barmal district of eastern Paktika province, killing four civilians and wounding 12 others.
- On April 13, in Kunar province, an explosive vest detonated by a 13-year-old boy killed 10 people, including 5 schoolboys.
“Growing up in the midst of war, struggling with poverty, illiteracy, and instability, Afghan children are already facing untold challenges,” Adams said. “Mullah Omar and the Taliban fighters he commands should respect their own code of conduct and stop strapping bombs to children and sending them out to commit suicide in a war they are too young to understand.”
In February 2010, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict documented cases of Taliban child suicide bombers. Journalists have documented reports of children being trained by the Taliban in Pakistan to act as suicide bombers against NATO targets in Afghanistan. Children as young as nine have been apprehended crossing the border into Afghanistan allegedly for this purpose. Children as young as five are reported to have been used to plant bombs in southern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which prohibits non-state armed groups under any circumstances from recruiting or using in hostilities anyone under the age of 18. The use of children as fighters is a war crime.
In addition, suicide attacks that target civilians, do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, cause disproportionate civilian loss, or are carried out with perfidy – that is, when the attacker feigns being a civilian – are serious violations of the laws of war. Those who carry out, order, or are involved in such attacks as a matter of command responsibility are likewise liable for war crimes.
The Taliban’s use of children as suicide bombers also directly contravenes its code of conduct, the Layha, which was created in 2006 and has since been revised twice. On May 11, the Taliban issued a statement saying that it had “strictly banned participation of adolescents in Jihadic operations as per its policy [and that] the mujahideen [Islamist fighters] [are] not allowing youngsters to join their ranks.”
The use of children also contradicts the message released by the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, on August 28 to commemorate the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr in which he instructed Taliban fighters to respect civilians, including children, and to strictly obey the Taliban code of conduct. He urged Taliban fighters to:
Observe obedience to your amir [leader] and see to implement the codes of conduct of mujahideen which have been delivered to you… You should strictly observe the precautionary measures which are told to you by your leaders... You should be very careful about conduct with the common people. Gain the heart of people through good conduct and behavior.
On May 11, the Taliban denied using child suicide bombers, saying:
As in the past, the propaganda outfits of the enemy claim now time and again that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan uses children and adolescents in its Jihadic operations. They also claim that there are a great number of children in the ranks of the Mujahideen. We would like to make it clear for all that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has strictly banned participation of adolescents in Jihadic operations as per its policy.
“The Taliban’s code of conduct was seen as a positive step, but five years on it seems to be little more than a public relations tool,” Adams said. “Every time a suicide vest is strapped to a child, the code and Mullah Omar’s pronouncements will be seen as meaningless.”