(Beirut) – The parties to the conflict in Yemen should release captured children and make a commitment to not re-enlist child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said today. Houthi forces, government and pro-government forces, and extremist armed groups have used child soldiers, who are an estimated one-third of the fighters in Yemen.
In mid-May 2016, pro-government forces and opposing Houthi forces agreed to exchange half of all prisoners in early June, before the holy month of Ramadan, as part of ongoing peace talks.
“All parties should ensure that children, who never should have been on the battlefield in the first place, are released during this prisoner exchange and demobilized,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides should stop recruiting and placing children in danger and return them immediately to their families.”
UNICEF has verified that more than 900 children were killed and 1,300 injured during 2015, a rate of six children killed or maimed each day since the escalation of hostilities in March 2015.
On May 30, the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, announced on Twitter that he had received lists of prisoners from both sides, later reported to include 2,630 on the government side and 3,760 on the Houthi side. However, the sides differed as to the number of prisoners to be released, with Houthis saying 1,000 and government sources saying all detainees, according to reports citing sources close to the negotiations. Separately, Houthi and anti-Houthi forces in Taiz exchanged 35 prisoners on June 2.
A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, militarily supported by the United States and the United Kingdom, has waged an aerial and ground campaign against Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh since March 2015, in support of the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The parties declared a cessation of hostilities on April 10, and began peace talks in Kuwait later that month, but airstrikes and fighting on the ground have continued. Houthi and Saudi forces conducted two prisoner exchanges in March.
Human Rights Watch has documented that parties to the conflict have detained children suspected of loyalty to enemy forces, and that they have abused prisoners and held them in poor conditions. In August 2015, Human Rights Watch observed that southern armed groups were detaining 140 suspected Houthi forces, including at least 25 children who appeared to be under age 15, at a school they had taken control of in Aden. In July and August, extremist armed groups carried out multiple summary executions of captured Houthi forces in Aden whose ages were not known. Human Rights Watch has also documented Houthi forces arbitrarily detaining civilians and holding prisoners in harsh conditions.
The Paris Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups (2007) states: “The unlawful recruitment or use of children is a violation of their rights… The release, protection and reintegration of children unlawfully recruited or used must be sought at all times, without condition and must not be dependent on any parallel release or demobilization process for adults.”
Human Rights Watch is not aware of the total number of children in detention by parties to the conflict.
Some children have been released in previous prisoner exchanges. Pro-government Popular Committees detained scores of children and released about a third of them, apparently during a December 2015 prisoner exchange of 360 Houthi fighters for 265 civilians and members of pro-government forces.
The UN documented nearly 850 cases of child recruitment in 2015, a five-fold increase over 2014. Houthi forces recruited a majority of these children, but Popular Committees and the extremist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which at times reportedly fought alongside pro-government forces, also recruited children. In 2013, the UN secretary-general cited reports of young boys being recruited by Al-Qaeda, also called Ansar al-Sharia, for sexual exploitation.
Impoverished families have enlisted their children with Houthi or pro-government forces in exchange for 1,000 to 2,000 Yemeni Riyal per day (US$7-15), Al Jazeera reported in January 2016. In some cases children are not paid but given food and qat, a mild stimulant. In March 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven boys, the youngest aged 14, who said they had volunteered for the Houthis. They said they had fought or performed other military tasks – including carrying ammunition to the front-line and retrieving the bodies of fighters killed in battle.
In November 2012, the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Badr al-Deen al-Houthi, pledged to work toward stopping his group’s use of child soldiers. But Human Rights Watch has observed the Houthis using children as uniformed soldiers and at checkpoints as recently as March 2016.
Government forces have used child soldiers for years – in some cases, army commanders who recruited child soldiers brought these child recruits with them when they defected to the opposition – even though Yemeni law sets 18 as the minimum age for official military service. On May 14, 2014, the Yemeni government signed an action plan with the UN to end recruitment of children by state forces, intended to achieve the withdrawal of all children from government security forces, their reintegration into their local communities, and an end to further recruitment. The outbreak of major hostilities put the action plan on hold.
Authorities on the ground, with donor support, should work to reintegrate released children based on the Paris Principles, which call for steps including family reunification, psychosocial support, access to education, and ensuring the children’s families and communities can care for and protect them.
The recruitment or use of children under 15 by parties to a conflict is a war crime under international law. Commanders who knew or should have known of such abuses and took no effective action can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, to which Yemen is a party, sets 18 as the minimum age for any participation in armed conflict by armed forces or non-state armed groups.
It obliges governments and armed groups to demobilize children in their forces and provide assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration, which can include access to education and psychosocial – mental health – support. Saudi Arabia and the US, who are parties to the conflict, are also parties to the protocol, which calls on states parties to cooperate in carrying it out, preventing unlawful activity, and rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers.
All US military aid to Yemen was suspended in 2015, but President Barack Obama gave Secretary of State John Kerry authority to restart aid that would otherwise be prohibited by the US Child Soldiers Prevention Act. The act prohibits several categories of US military assistance to governments that use children in armed conflict or support paramilitaries or militias that use child soldiers.
“The parties to the conflict in Yemen could send a message that they want to do what’s right by releasing captured children before Ramadan and implementing long-broken promises to end the use of child soldiers,” Van Esveld said.