By Rachelle Kliger, Media Line
U.N. says children made to fight on both sides of conflict between the Yemeni government and rebels.
Children are being recruited in the battle between the Yemeni army and local rebels in the north of the country, a United Nations expert has said.
The United Nations’ expert on child soldiers has begun an investigation into the use of underage combatants by both sides of the conflict in northern Yemen.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict said she was concerned that “large numbers” of teenage boys were recruited in the fighting in contravention of international law.
“There are unfortunately no statistics, official or unofficial, as to the scope of child recruitment,” Ahmad Al-Qurashi, Director of the Sanaa-based Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection told The Media Line.
“What I can say is that children are taking part in the fighting. From the initial information that we have, it’s clear that the Houthis are using children as fighters and for carrying out war operations.”
Al-Qurashi said there were tribes who were voluntarily fighting alongside the government as unofficial combatants and they too were using children.
“We know that among these tribes, on a regular basis, more than 50% of the combatants are under the legal age,” he said.
The legal age of joining armed forces in Yemen is 18. The use of children under the age of 18 as soldiers is against international law and is defined as a war crime by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
UNICEF, the U.N.’s child organization, is currently on the ground collecting data and building a base of evidence.
The problem of child soldiers is especially noticeable in more rural parts of Yemen, where education, development and health services are lacking. Children often leave school after sixth or seventh grade to become either farmers or fighters.
“I think that recruiting children for any war in the world is a big challenge for the government and for society, and it’s not just restricted to Yemen,” Al-Qurashi said. “I think that to stop this, we need more than just the Yemeni government. It needs to be taken care of by the international community.”
Al-Qurashi added that in the Saada district – the focal point of the conflict – children were being displaced and were suffering from a dire humanitarian situation, including a bread shortage.
“The situation is very bad and humanitarian aid can’t get there because of bad access,” he lamented. “Humanitarian organizations must intervene, whether by raising awareness or taking measures that will make both sides understand they are not free to behave in a way that’s against international law.”
The conflict in northern Yemen, which began five years ago and intensified last August, has so far claimed the lives of hundreds of fighters and civilians. The Al-Houthis, who belong to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, wish to restore the Zaidi imamate to Yemen after it was overthrown in a 1962 coup. They accuse the Yemenite government of being too closely allied with the United States.