The United States Department of State recently added Egypt to its list of countries implicated in using child soldiers. The unprecedented step was based on independent reports that the Egyptian military conducted joint operations with allied militia groups in North Sinai that recruited children, including some used in hostilities against the armed group Wilayat Sina, which is linked to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
In August, the Egyptian rights group Sinai Foundation for Human Rights reported that army-aligned militias in North Sinai recruited boys – some as young as 16 – for logistical and combat operations. Some of those children were injured or killed. The Egyptian military has increasingly relied on these militias, created by local clans, in its fight against Wilayat Sina.
The North Sinai militias have openly published photos and videos of child soldiers on Facebook and TikTok.
The United Nations Security Council has identified child recruitment as one of six grave violations against children in times of war. International human rights law prohibits the recruitment or use of children younger than 18. The use of children under 15 is a war crime.
Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses committed by the Egyptian military and pro-army groups in Sinai since 2013. Some of these abuses, such as extrajudicial and summary executions of detainees, could amount to war crimes.
In 2008, the US Congress passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which withholds certain types of US military assistance from governments using children in their forces or supporting militias that recruit children. The law is designed to pressure governments to end child recruitment and release children from their forces.
Listing Egypt on the child soldiers list is significant step towards scrutinizing abuses by Egypt’s military in North Sinai. But it will not have immediate military consequences for Egypt because the Biden administration waived the Child Soldiers Prevention Act’s provisions that would have barred Egypt from receiving at least US$1.3 billion in US military assistance. On September 14, the Biden administration announced it would allow Egypt specifically to receive military assistance, despite ongoing government repression.
But the child soldiers listing puts Egypt on notice. The US government should live up to the intent of the law and only provide military assistance to Egypt if the government holds its security forces to account and ends their abuses.