(New York)- The Chadian army and its allied paramilitary forces are keeping thousands of child soldiers out of demobilization efforts, despite the government’s promises to release underage fighters from military service, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
On July 19, the UN Security Council’s working group on children in armed conflict will meet to discuss Security Council responses to the use of child soldiers and other human rights abuses against children in Chad’s armed conflict.
In May, the Chadian government pledged to cooperate with UNICEF in identifying and demobilizing child soldiers in the ranks of its military. Since then, several hundred children, some as young as 8 years old, have been released from a military base in central Chad. But none belonged to the national army; all came from a government-aligned paramilitary group. UNICEF’s requests to visit two other bases, both in conflict zones in eastern Chad, have not been granted by Chadian government officials.
“The Chadian government is failing on its promise to remove children from its armed forces,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council should demand that the Chadian government and its allied forces end child recruitment and release children from their ranks.”
The 46-page report, “Early to War: Child Soldiers in the Chad Conflict,” documents how the Chadian army, its allied paramilitary militias and rebel forces have used and recruited child soldiers in both northern Chad and along the eastern border with Sudan’s Darfur region. The report is based on interviews with senior officers in the Chadian military as well as current child soldiers themselves.
Since December 2005, the Chadian National Army (Armée Nationale Tchadienne, or ANT) has fought against Sudanese-backed Chadian rebel groups seeking to unseat President Idriss Déby. When battles raged in northern and eastern Chad in the autumn of 2006, both the government and rebel forces increasingly turned to the recruitment of children, who continue to serve as fighters, guards, cooks and lookouts on the frontlines of the conflict. In recent months, as pro-government forces have gained the upper hand, the government has engaged in peace negotiations with the rebels.
A former rebel group that recruited and used child soldiers, the Front Uni pour le Changement (United Front for Change, FUC), signed a December peace agreement with the government, which is now integrating FUC forces into the national army. However, after the FUC agreed to contribute many more soldiers to the army than it had under arms, it conducted aggressive recruitment drives that brought many children into its ranks.
Despite the Chadian government’s promises to demobilize child soldiers, Human Rights Watch interviews with army commanders indicate that military personnel would attempt to exclude children from the demobilization process.
“Some of the child soldiers will be demobilized, but most will be hidden,” a senior Chadian army officer told Human Rights Watch. “They will be stationed on the frontlines and other places that are off-limits.”
Notably, none of the 413 children demobilized from Chadian government military installations since May have been from the national army. All of them were former FUC fighters who had been integrated into government forces.
“The Chadian government needs to release children from all corners of the military, not just the ranks of its former enemies,” said Takirambudde.
Since January 2006, Human Rights Watch researchers have observed the use of child soldiers by the army and pro-government forces, including integrated ex-rebel forces (namely the FUC), village-level self-defense forces and two Sudanese rebel movements. Each of these groups has forces deployed all along the Chad-Sudan border.
The UN Security Council has proposed a civilian-protection mission for deployment to eastern Chad, but this has met persistent opposition from Chadian government officials.
“The insecurity in eastern Chad leaves children vulnerable to recruitment as soldiers,” said Takirambudde. “An international mission is needed to protect civilians and end this insecurity.”
Both the Chadian government and the government-affiliated FUC are in violation of international law, which prohibits the use of children under the age of 18 in armed conflict. In addition, the recruitment or use of children under the age of 15 is considered a war crime.