NEW YORK // The UN has confirmed long-held fears that large numbers of children were dragged into the bitter Yemeni conflict with Shiite rebels and has called for recruiters to be brought to justice. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN's special representative for children and armed conflict, said many underage teenagers were enlisted to fight and die among adult troops.
"There is large-scale recruitment going on, primarily among the rebels, but also among some of the forces backed by the government - not the government army but the militias backed by the government," Ms Coomaraswamy said on Friday. "We hope the Yemeni authorities will prosecute those who recruit children. That would be the first step. I will be approaching the ambassador of Yemen to discuss some of the findings - within the next month."
Rights activists have warned about the use of child soldiers in Yemen's mountainous north for months, but evidence has remained patchy and anecdotal and estimates of the number of child soldiers vary greatly. Until a ceasefire was announced last week, the government had fought a six-year war against a northern tribe of Zaidi Shiites called the Houthis. A UN news agency reported that youths between 14 and 15 made up 40 per cent of the fighters during combat between two tribes in Amran province last month, and that as many as 600 armed Yemeni adolescents die in combat annually.
Brooke Goldstein, director of the US-based Children's Rights Institute, recently warned that Yemeni "tribes are in the crude habit of using children to staff their troops" and suggested that more than half of the combatants in cross-tribal fighting were children. The most recent Yemen report by the Coalition To Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, from 2008, highlighted an underage Houthi faction, known as Shabab al Moumineen, or Believing Youth, accused of launching attacks against government and western targets.
Tribal elders train children to respect clan identities, whether Houthi or government-backed proxy tribal groups, analysts say. Teenage boys often see AK-47s as alluring status symbols and are under pressure to fight alongside adult men in their family. Children up to age 14 make up 46 per cent of Yemen's 23 million people; the average age is less than 17, so the use of child soldiers is not a surprise to many. The Arab world's poorest country is said to be awash with guns, with perhaps as many as nine million, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in 2003
Using children under the age of 15 as soldiers breaches international laws, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols, and is defined as a war crime by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court. Christoph Wilcke, a regional expert for the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, spoke of the difficulty in counting the number of child soldiers when he conducted research on the Yemeni war in October.
He found little evidence to confirm claims that the Houthis had 3,000 child soldiers among their estimated 11,000 fighters, and only confirmed a handful of "concrete examples" among the rebels and other tribal militias. But he accused Yemen's army of breaking its own rules and employing under-18s in its ranks, often because a lack of birth certificates and other documentation in Yemen means the actual age of recruits is unknown.
"The Yemeni government should do two things: review its [army] recruitment policy and immediately take steps to prevent child soldiers [fighting] in its allied tribal militias," he said. He called for research into the number of Houthi child soldiers. While the UN calls for Yemeni prosecutors to launch cases against recruiters, Mr Wilcke warned that the government had been reluctant to investigate atrocities committed during the war and cast doubt on the country's judicial process.
Brendan O'Malley, who wrote a UN report on attacks against education, said if Yemeni officials failed to launch prosecutions against recruiters, then the matter could be transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Yemen's ambassador to the UN, Abdullah al Saidi, was not available for comment, but has previously asserted that the national army sticks to the rules about child soldiers. "The law stipulates that no one can be drafted who is under 18. That is the law and it is implemented," he said.