The recruitment and use of child soldiers in Yemen is widespread and entrenched. It is rooted in a complex mix of socioeconomic conditions, high levels of armed violence and cultural tradition. However, the government has also historically failed to establish effective control over and regularise recruitment practices of the armed forces or the tribal militias on which it relies for support in armed confrontations against opponents.
Yemen's armed forces and state-allied armed groups have been engaged in various conflicts in recent years: against the Al-Houthi armed opposition group in the north of the country; against Ansar al-Sharia (a group allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP) in the south; in the cities of Ta'izz and around the capital, Sana'a, against tribal opposition fighters; and in the suppression of anti-government demonstrations in Sana'a and other major cities in 2011. Child soldiers have participated in forces under government control in most if not all of these conflicts or confrontations.
Despite a well established pattern of unlawful recruitment and use of children by state armed forces and allied armed groups, Yemen received relatively little attention from the UN under the Security Council children and armed conflict framework until 2010, when Yemen first featured in the text of the UN Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict. Al-Houthi rebels and state-allied tribal militias were listed in the annual report for the first time in 2011, and state armed forces (along with the defected First Armoured Division, see below) in 2012.
Child soldier use by state armed forces and allied armed groups
Children were reportedly seen in uniform serving as part of armed units mobilised by the state to quell protest against the 33-year rule of President Saleh in 2011. Among these forces were the elite Republican Guard and the paramilitary force nominally under Ministry of Interior control, the Central Security Forces, both of which are reported to have under-18s as members. Under-18s also participated in the violence in the Yemeni army's First Armoured Division whose commander defected to the opposition in March 2011. Children who were already in the Division's ranks were deployed to protect anti-government protestors. Many, however, claimed to have been recruited in previous years to fight for the government in its intermittent conflict with the Al-Houthi forces in the northern governate of Sa'ada. Other units deployed in these wars were also reported to have had children in their ranks.
These regular forces were backed by pro-government tribal militias which were reported to have used boys and girls in various combat, logistical and support roles. There are also reports of forced marriage of girls to members of tribal militias and their Al-Houthi opponents. Both government forces and allied tribal militias are also reported to be recruiting children to fight against Ansar al-Sharia.
Although tribal militias are not formally a part of the armed forces, the linkages are clear. Tribal sheikhs often serve as military officers or collect salaries from the government as a reward for services rendered and the government has frequently incorporated tribal militias into the regular armed forces. Material support, including funds and weapons, has also been provided to tribal militias in exchange for their support. Whether through longer-term alliances or short-term financial incentives, the militias are regularly utilised by the state in a relationship that is openly acknowledged. In October 2010, for instance, the government announced that it would pay tribal militias to fight AQAP in southern Yemen.
Failure to regulate recruitment practices
The government of Yemen has on a number of occasions indicated a commitment to ending the use and recruitment of children – it acceded to the Optional Protocol in 2007 and in 2011 the Minister of Legal Affairs and the Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood (HCMC) reaffirmed in writing their intention to work with the UN on ending the recruitment and use of children. At the same time it has denied allegations of unlawful recruitment by its armed forces. In response to concerns raised by a delegation from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in December 2011, for example, the Ministers for Defence and the Interior challenged allegations of underage recruitment on the basis that recruitment of children below the age of 18 is against the law.
That much is true. The government has established an age limit for both the police and the army of 18 years: a 2002 Law on Child Rights states that "persons under the age of 18 cannot participate in armed conflict or be recruited". A minimum age of 18 years for recruitment by the police and military reserves is also stipulated in other legislation (General Reserve Act No. 23 of 1990 and Police Force Act). However, the legal standards and claims that military recruitment is centrally administered, with the age of recruits requiring confirmation by two witnesses, bear little relation to the practice.
In reality recruitment processes are politicised and personalised, used to secure the support of tribesmen and to reward personal loyalty among officers. No consistent attempt is made to verify ages of recruits. Officers of the First Armoured Division, for example, have admitted to allowing recruitment of 15 year olds and occasionally younger children. This is thought to reflect broader government practice and is not limited to this breakaway Division.
The practice of supplying officers with pay and equipment according to the number of soldiers registered in their units creates incentives for officers to increase troop levels, including by recruiting children. According to some reports, growing opposition to the government in 2011 and subsequent military defections resulted in intensification of recruitment efforts in which recruiters have been told to turn a blind eye and falsify documents. Local child rights activists also report that increased levels of violence in the country have led to an increase in child recruitment by all sides, including the state.
The government has taken no action to investigate reports of unlawful child soldier recruitment and use by state-allied tribal militias or to end the practice. Indeed its policy of allowing members of tribal militias, including children, to join the army as a reward for their fighting on behalf of the government seems to indicate that it has condoned the practice.
Putting child soldiers on the security sector reform agenda
Yemen's new government has indicated its intention to undertake military reform but faces internal resistance to its plans. A Military Affairs, Security and Stability Committee has been established to head the military reform process and is charged, among other things, with the responsibility to "rehabilitate those who do not meet the conditions of service in the armed forces" (Article 16.5), which would presumably include under-18s. The Committee has met but has yet to develop a plan to implement this and its other responsibilities. In relation to other elements of the security forces, a letter was sent in April 2012 by the Ministry of Interior to the Heads of all security forces under its control instructing them to adhere to the minimum recruitment age of 18 years for new recruits to the police and to release any underage members.
However, much more is required. Processes to screen all military units and allied armed groups for underage members are urgently needed but will remain difficult until all units are brought under government control. The demobilisation of children from tribal militias will require the regularisation of these forces. Likewise, ending ongoing or future unlawful recruitment of children will require the regularisation of recruitment processes and the introduction of effective age verification mechanisms. Impunity for violations against children, including their recruitment and use as child soldiers by state and state-allied forces, must also be challenged. The first step towards this should be the introduction of criminal sanctions for child soldier recruitment and use in national law.
Donor support to the government will be critical to the success of any reforms aimed at protecting children from recruitment and use by state security forces. This will require a shift of emphasis away from the focus on counter-terrorism operations to a broader program aimed at establishing security which incorporates safeguards against human rights abuses.
1 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Yemen, UN Doc. A/HRC/19/51, 13 February 2012 and Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the visit by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to Yemen, UN Doc. A/HRC/18/21, 16 September 2011.
2 Confidential source. See also Children and armed conflict, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/66/782-S/2012/261, 26 April 2012 and Catherine Shakdam, "Child Soldiers in Yemen", Foreign Policy Association, 8 August 2011, http://foreignpolicyblogs.com.
3 See Human Rights Watch, "Yemen: Stop Using Children in Armed Forces: Child Soldiers Recruited by Army Now Deployed by Opposition", 14 April 2011 and All Quiet on the Northern Front? Uninvestigated Laws of War Violations in Yemen's War with Huthi Rebels, March 2010.
4 Children and armed conflict, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/65/820-S/2011/250, 23 April 2011.
5 Children and armed conflict, Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/66/782-S/2012/261, 26 April 2002.
7 Villagers from different parts of Sa'ada and 'Amran told Human Rights Watch that "the government provided weapons, money, and promises of future assistance" in exchange for support from fighters. Human Rights Watch, All Quiet on the Northern Front? Uninvestigated Laws of War Violations in Yemen's War with Huthi Rebels, March 2010.
9 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Yemen, UN Doc. A/HRC/19/51, 13 February 2012.
10 Law No. 45 (2002) on Child Rights, Article 149.
11 Third periodic report of Yemen to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/129/Add.2, 3 December 2004.
12 E-mail communication with Ahmed Algorashi, Executive Manager, Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection, 13 July 2011.
14 Human Rights Watch, "Yemen: Stop Using Children in Armed Forces: Child Soldiers Recruited by Army Now Deployed by Opposition", 14 April 2011.
18 E-mail communication with Ahmed Algorashi, Executive Manager, Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection, 13 July 2011.
19 The Committee was set up in accordance with the implementing mechanism of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative which was signed in November 2011 and resulted in the transfer of power to the Vice-President. According to the implementing mechanism, the new government would appoint a committee to "restructure" the security forces, including the army, the police and the intelligence services. An English translation of the GCC implementing mechanism is available at: http://www.yemenpeaceproject.org.
20 Confidential source.