NEW YORK // The United Nations hopes to strike deals with government and rebel leaders to end the use of child soldiers in Yemen, where underage fighters make up as many as half the combatants in a protracted conflict between the government and rebel forces. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN expert on child soldiers, criticised the use of young fighters during the recent bout of conflict between al Houthi rebels and government forces and announced plans to spare children from future conflict.
Yemen appeared in the UN's annual report on child soldiers for the first time last month. Researchers say that at least 684 children fought for the Houthis and a government-linked militia called al Jaysh al Sha'bi, or the Popular Army. The 51-page document warned that the actual number of child fighters could have numbered in the thousands during the so-called "sixth war" of a long-running conflict that re-erupted in August and tailed off after a shaky ceasefire.
"It is important to realise that during the height of that conflict ? the numbers [of child soldiers] were very high, from all our child protection advisers on the ground," said Ms Coomaraswamy, the UN's special representative on children and armed conflict. "Now they have been mentioned in the report, that is the trigger to try and get the country team to begin discussions on action plans with al Houthi rebels - and that is why we are planning a visit to the region to be a catalytic force in that."
The UN has told officials in Sana'a of their concerns about children fighting in government-proxy forces, but has yet to strike deals that ensure children are spared from future conflict, Ms Coomaraswamy said. Yemen's ambassador to the UN, Abdullah al Saidi, said the country takes child protection seriously and has signed treaties, passed laws and opened agencies to ensure youngsters are safe - even during wartime.
The government has, during its clashes with rebels in the province of Sa'ada, seen to the security of all citizens and has acted in a prudent way during clashes to ensure there were no victims among the civil population, especially children, he said. February's ceasefire heralded the end of fighting between government forces, their tribal proxies and the Houthis, adherents of Yemen's minority Zaidi sect who first took up arms against the government in 2004.
Tribal elders train children to respect clan identities, whether Houthi or government-backed proxy tribal groups, analysts say. Teenage boys often see AK47s as status symbols and face pressure to fight alongside adult family members. The recent UN report revealed that 60,000 children were caught in crossfire across conflict-ridden Sa'ada, Amran and Hajja in northern Yemen, with 402 confirmed recruits among the Houthis and 282 more in the Popular Army.
Hilde Johnson, the deputy head of the UN children's agency, Unicef, called for drawing up an "action plan" with Yemen's rebel groups, including a monitoring and reporting mechanism (MRM) to count all demobilised youngsters. "It is only through action plans that we can verify whether all the children have indeed been released and whether there are others that need to be released," Ms Johnson said.
"This is the first time Yemen figures on the report, so we need now to establish the process of the MRM mechanism." UN-backed deals saw 9,500 children released from armed forces last year, including 5,900 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1,400 in Sudan and others in the Philippines. An action plan freed a further 3,000 from Nepalese Maoist forces in January and February. Last month, the UN identified for the first time the most persistent violators, naming 16 armies and rebel groups across Africa, Asia and Latin America that have recruited or used child soldiers for at least the past five years. Recruiting children under the age of 15 is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
"The naming and shaming exercise, along with the possibility of sanctions against persistent violators, has persuaded parties to cease this reprehensible behaviour and should deter others from future offences," Ms Coomaraswamy said. Building on last year's UN Security Council resolution against child soldier recruitment, the 15-nation body held a day-long debate on the scourge this week, ending in a statement of willingness to impose sanctions against persistent violators. These measures included imposing asset freezing, arms embargoes and travel restrictions against individuals who violate international law by recruiting, sexually abusing or maiming and killing children in war - no matter when or where these crimes are committed.