New evidence has emerged of how the Houthi armed group is actively recruiting boys as young as 15 to fight as child soldiers on the front lines of the conflict in Yemen, said Amnesty International today after speaking to the families of three boys targeted this month by the appalling practice which violates international law. The families also confirmed the recruitment of a fourth local boy.
Family members and an eyewitness told Amnesty International that the four boys, aged between 15 and 17, were recruited by fighters of the Houthi armed group, also known as Ansarullah locally, in the capital, Sana’a. They only found out that their children had been taken away after being alerted by local residents, who described seeing them and as many as six other children boarding a bus at a local Houthi centre in mid-February.
“It is appalling that Houthi forces are taking children away from their parents and their homes, stripping them of their childhood to put them in the line of fire where they could die,” said Samah Hadid, Deputy Director at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office.
“This is a shameful and outrageous violation of international law. The Houthis must immediately end all forms of recruitment of children under 18 and release all children within their ranks. The international community should support the rehabilitation and reintegration of demobilized children into the community.”
The families of the four boys taken in mid-February later received news that their children were at an unnamed location on the Yemeni-Saudi border.
Recruitment method and incentives
Interviewees have described how Houthi representatives run local centres that hold activities such as prayers, sermons and lectures where young boys and men are encouraged to join front-line battles to defend Yemen against Saudi Arabia.
According to an eyewitness, two of the four boys were recruited by a local Houthi representative after they were sent to a Quranic school near Sana’a for an initial religious induction in January, before they were returned to their families, who had not been aware of their whereabouts. One father said that his son told him the curriculum included the history of world wars and what was described as the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s war on the Yemeni people.
Some family members said that there had been an increase in child soldier recruitment in their neighbourhoods due to the fact that many children no longer attend regular schools. The war has taken its toll on the economy and many families can no longer afford the transportation costs needed for the children to get to classes. In many places, classes are no longer running. Some teachers are on strike because they no longer receive their salaries.
According to one family member, the Houthis have imposed recruitment quotas on local representatives, which are sometimes accompanied by threats if results are not delivered.
One family member whose 16-year-old brother was taken said about the boys who are recruited: “They’re just excited to shoot Kalashnikovs and guns and wear military uniforms. They [the Houthis] have been saying that there are so few fighters [at the front line], they are going around taking one [recruit] from each family. If the son dies at the front line, a monthly salary and a gun are given to the father to keep them quiet.”
Many families fear reprisals against their children who have been taken by the Houthis or against other children or family members if they dare speak out about the recruitment.
One father said, “Many children [are recruited] but people don’t dare to talk or follow up. They’re afraid of being detained.”
Two of the interviewees told Amnesty International that the Houthis promise monetary incentives to families to appease them, pledging 20,000 to 30,000 Yemeni riyals (approximately 80 to 120 US dollars) per child per month if he becomes a martyr at the front line. The Houthis also honour the families by printing out memorial posters for their boys to be put up locally as a tribute to their contributions to the war efforts. Two of the interviewees highlighted that children who are recruited are usually from poorer backgrounds.
The names of child soldiers, family members and other interviewees, as well as the exact dates of the boys’ recruitment, have been withheld to protect their security.
As of February 2017, UN agencies have been able to document nearly 1,500 cases of children recruited by all parties to the conflict since March 2015. Human Rights Watch previously documented the recruitment, use and training of child soldiers by the Houthis in May 2015.
In 2012 Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi met with the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, and pledged to work towards ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers. However, during its last six field missions to Houthi-controlled Yemen, between January 2015 and November 2016, Amnesty International has observed the use of armed children at checkpoints. Some were carrying books in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other.
For the last few years, several parties to the conflict in Yemen have been listed in the annual report of the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict as actors that had violated children’s rights in conflict, including through recruitment and use of child soldiers. This includes the Houthis, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), several divisions of the Yemeni armed forces and certain pro-government militias.
The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition was also listed as an actor that had violated children’s rights in conflict until former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon removed it as a result of direct diplomatic pressure from Saudi Arabia. The removal flies in the face of clear evidence of the coalition violating the rights of children during the conflict in Yemen.
According to the annual report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict issued in April 2016, since the start of the conflict in Yemen in March 2015, 60% of the children killed and injured were killed or injured by actions attributed to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and 20% by actions attributed to the Houthis. Amnesty International has repeatedly documented violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by coalition members during the conflict, including against children. This includes air strikes on schools and the use of internationally banned cluster munitions which have killed three children and maimed nine.
The recruitment or use of children under 15 by parties to a conflict is a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and customary international humanitarian law. Commanders who knew or should have known of such violations and took no effective action can be held criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility. Yemen is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which prohibit recruitment and use in hostilities of children. The Optional Protocol sets 18 as the minimum age for any participation in armed conflict by armed forces or non-state armed groups.