Child Soldiers in Yemen: One Element of a Humanitarian Disaster

Five years of a bloody war in Yemen have left the Yemeni population in shambles. The country faces what has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis marked by a horrific cholera outbreak, increasing malnutrition and famine, and complete economic desolation. Yemen continues to serve as the battleground for a proxy war between powerful regional players. While the Saudi-led coalition employs US weapons and pumps resources into stifling the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, all parties involved appear guilty of crimes against humanity. Furthermore, in looking more closely at the individual soldiers fighting this proxy war on the front lines of the conflict, one finds both perpetrator and victim, one who epitomizes the only fleeting innocence left in a war of utmost devastation: the child soldier.

A Proxy War in Yemen

While many initially suggested the conflict would last only a few weeks, the war in Yemen has raged for far too long. What began as a civil war in 2014 has evolved into an all-out proxy war after Saudi involvement in 2015 and with Iran’s unofficial backing of the Houthis against the Saudi-Emirati coalition. The mutual contempt between Saudi Arabia and Iran reflects a decades-old feud between the predominantly Sunni and Shia states, respectively, with the two locked in a struggle for regional dominance. This competition appears on several other fronts including the civil war in Syria and the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Houthi clan, leading Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, began the post-2014 troubles after the collapse of a national reconciliation conference convened to address Yemen’s political arrangement following the country’s version of the 2011 Arab Spring. The Houthis struck an alliance with Yemen’s former president, the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, who lost his post after the 2011 events. Many in the Yemeni army remained loyal to Saleh as the Houthis began taking control of the country, all the way south to Aden in 2014. As Houthi control expanded, the Saudi-Emirati coalition intervened with an air campaign in March 2015 in response to the threat on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Until November 2017, the Houthis’ alignment with President Saleh allowed them to capture large quantities of weapons from Yemeni army stockpiles and to fight back. Though Iran has denied involvement, the United States has accused Tehran of providing weaponry to the Houthis. Many analysts argue that the Iranians view their involvement as only marginal, since Iran does not give enough direct support to impact the internal equilibrium in Yemen. Indeed, this fuels the perception that it is an asymmetrical war between one of the richest states in the world and the small non-state rebel group.

Many analysts argue that the Iranians view their involvement as only marginal, since Iran does not give enough direct support to impact the internal equilibrium in Yemen.

Exploiting Desperation to Recruit Child Soldiers

In the poverty-stricken villages along the Yemeni-Saudi border, locals have been hit the hardest as a result of the war ravaging the countryside. In October 2018, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child released a statement claiming that children are “being killed, maimed, orphaned, and traumatized” as a result of military operations that are “aggravated by an aerial and naval blockade” by the Saudi-led coalition, which has exacerbated the poverty and food shortages within Yemen. This blockade of Yemen by air and sea, starting in 2015, resulted in widespread starvation and sparked what the United Nations has speculated could be the deadliest famine in decades. Not only are Yemenis dealing with a broken economy and food scarcity but also with rampant disease outbreaks which, though treatable, the country does not have the capability to control. Between October 2016 and February 2019, the World Health Organization concluded that the number of suspected cases of  cholera in Yemen has reached approximately 1.5 million people, 29 percent of whom are children under five years old—a statistic that only continues to grow.

Both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebel forces learned early in the war to take advantage of the humanitarian crisis at hand, exploiting the desperation of locals to their military advantage. Beginning as early as 2015, the Saudis and Emiratis were known to visit villages and offer young boys well-paid kitchen jobs for the men on the front lines of fighting (it is noteworthy that under both Yemeni and international law, 18 is the minimum age for military service). Yet unbeknownst to the desperate boys signing up for kitchen work, arrival at the Saudi coalition’s Al-Buqa’ camp entailed fighting on the front lines of the war without any formal training. Many boys are barely taller than the machine guns with which they are forced to fight.

Both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebel forces learned early in the war to take advantage of the humanitarian crisis at hand, exploiting the desperation of locals to their military advantage.

In an attempt to ameliorate worsening conditions and a seemingly never-ending war, the Saudis have even gone so far as to recruit boys from Sudan as ground troops. The Janjaweed militia in Darfur, responsible for the atrocities of the past two decades in Sudan, plays a large role in the recruitment of children because of the Janjaweed’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. The brutal militia in Sudan is led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and the Saudi-led coalition has used its oil wealth to outsource the war, hiring what Sudanese soldiers say are “tens of thousands of desperate survivors of the conflict in Darfur to fight, many of them children.” The probable reasoning is that without thousands of foot soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fighting and dying in another country, the Saudi-Emirati coalition diminishes the possibilities of domestic opposition to the proxy war. In Darfur and war-torn Sudan, some families are so eager for the money that they bribe militia officers to let their sons—many ages 14 to 17—go to fight in Yemen. According to The New York Times, two fighters who had returned from Yemen claimed that children made up more than 40 percent of the soldiers fighting in their units.

On the opposing side, the Houthis have also taken advantage of the young and desperate population to augment their own ground troops. In 2017, the United Nations verified 842 cases of recruitment and use of boys as young as 11 years old, nearly two-thirds of which were attributable to Houthi forces. According to the Associated Press, children have described being forced into the service of the Houthis by means of abduction or coercion in exchange for a family member’s release from Houthi-held detention.

Unjustifiable War Crimes

Despite the need for combatants, the use of child soldiers by both groups clearly remains unjustifiable. The practice violates several international covenants, many of which have been signed by all parties involved in the conflict. The use of children under the age of 15 in war is prohibited specifically by the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Officially recognized as a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this applies to both state and non-state actors. The use of children under 15 to fight is also codified in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which officially defined a child as any person under the age of 18 (it is important to note that the United States was the only UN member to sign but not ratify this convention due to a disagreement on the definition of a child). The use of child soldiers was again fully outlawed by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, prohibiting the conscription of children under 18 and the voluntary recruitment of children by non-state actors.

Neither the Saudi-led coalition nor Houthi rebels can be justified in the recruitment of children to fight in this conflict. To be sure, both groups are aware of this.

Under these conventions, neither the Saudi-led coalition nor Houthi rebels can be justified in the recruitment of children to fight in this conflict. To be sure, both groups are aware of this. The Saudi-Emirati coalition has fervently denied any knowledge of this by the forces they fund. UN investigators have issued accusations against both Saudi Arabia and the UAE (who are state actors and members of the United Nations), citing the deaths of thousands of civilians in airstrikes (including the bombing of a school bus and multiple weddings and funerals), torture of detainees, rape of civilians, and use of child soldiers as young as eight years of age. The 2016 Child Soldiers Prevention Act list, a “shame list” designed to identify perpetrators of violations of child rights during war, caused an outrage after then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon removed Saudi Arabia from it for its violations in Yemen after Riyadh reportedly threatened to withdraw UN funding. In 2017, Secretary-General António Guterres hoped to avoid a similar incident and created an “intermediate” category to accommodate the Saudi coalition and preserve the funding. The Saudi Arabian government, in a statement released by its embassy in Washington, DC, also denied any involvement with the recruitment of child soldiers from Darfur, accusing the Houthis of “routinely exploiting child soldiers.”

The US Response

The United States has not responded effectively to the issue of child soldiers, especially given its support for the Saudi coalition. Only until recently has the US government done anything to oppose, meaningfully, the human rights abuses in Yemen.

Indeed, Washington has had a long history of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. Sales under the Obama Administration amounted to nearly $94 billion and the relationship with Riyadh has only warmed under the Trump Administration. Congress began to condemn President Trump’s policies toward Saudi Arabia particularly after the brutal murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, after which Trump refused to acknowledge any role in Khashoggi’s death by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump even approved additional nuclear deals to Saudi Arabia just two weeks after Khashoggi’s murder and in the middle of the investigation. Four months later, even after the release of a CIA assessment of the issue, another nuclear deal was approved.

The US president is now able to bypass Congress with authorizations of over $8 billion worth of arms sales to the Saudis. This emergency authorization now allows Raytheon, a top American defense firm, to partner with Saudi Arabia to build high-tech bomb parts in the country using technology previously guarded by the United States for national security reasons. Even more disheartening than Trump’s declared “emergency” was the report on June 18 that Secretary Pompeo, ahead of unveiling the State Department’s annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, overruled the advice of State Department officials to include Saudi Arabia on the child soldiers blacklist.

Once a leader in the promotion of human rights legislation, the United States has now been accused of facilitating human rights abuses rather than ameliorating them.

Once a leader in the promotion of human rights legislation, the United States has now been accused of facilitating human rights abuses rather than ameliorating them. Senators on Capitol Hill have finally had enough and are introducing a bipartisan bid with over a dozen resolutions aimed at blocking Trump’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Anger from the Senate has been rising, fueled by continuing human rights violations in the region and Trump’s open defiance of congressional review.

With a worsening humanitarian situation and an increasingly desperate population of Yemenis, the risk of children being involved in the warfare between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels increases. Although the United States has a history of human rights advocacy, it is now a confused and paradoxical ally of the world’s most brutal regimes. In light of Yemen’s dire situation, it would behoove Washington to pursue a more constructive role than to ensure a steady flow of weapons sales to the Saudi coalition. Action by the Senate could be an important first step in condemning a war that has profoundly affected the Yemeni population.

Annelise Adrian is a Research Intern at Arab Center Washington DC