Somali boys wave flag of al-Shabab. Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
On Wednesday’s NewsHour, we heard from The New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman about strained conditions in Somalia, where the civil war-ravaged country’s transitional government is now battling Islamist rebels known as al-Shabab.
One of his reports from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu describes how children, as young as 9, are carrying assault rifles and operating checkpoints for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.
“We knew the insurgents were drafting children, plucking them off soccer fields, throwing them out on the front lines, even turning young children into suicide bombers,” Gettleman told the NewsHour. “But it was surprising to us that the transitional government, which gets a lot of money from the U.N. and U.S., was doing the same thing.”
U.N. and non-governmental human rights officials estimate that children comprise up to one-quarter of the Somali government’s forces, and as much as three-quarters of al-Shabab’s fighters, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
The United Nations for the first time in May listed 16 militaries and rebel groups, including those in Somalia, as persistent violators of using children in conflict. The United States joined other U.N. Security Council countries condemning the violations at a meeting on children and armed conflict in mid-June.
At the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice spoke specifically about Somalia, in addition to citing the practice in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, and by the Lord’s Resistance Army with roots in Uganda:
“The United States is particularly concerned about the situation in Somalia,” Rice said. “Active recruitment of child soldiers has placed several thousand children in the line of fire. We strongly condemn the use of child soldiers by any group and we call upon parties to the conflict in Somalia to immediately cease child recruitment and release those who remain within their ranks.” (Read her full statement)
The Somali government has vehemently denied that its armed forces includes children. Government spokesman Abdurisaq Qeylow said all Somali soldiers were at least 20 years of age and said the government was willing to investigate the matter, according to the Voice of America. In addition, Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed has ordered a probe into military recruitment and told his military chief to demobilize any underage recruits, VOA reports.
But because the United States, European Union and United Nations back the transitional Somali government, groups such as Human Rights Watch believe those nations and international bodies should take a stronger stance against the Somali government.
“The U.S. could and should stop funding the transitional government unless it immediately stops accepting child soldiers into its ranks and releases any child soldiers who are currently active,” said Letta Tayler, researcher of terrorism and counterterrorism for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. She co-authored a report in April about alleged abuses by al-Shabab, the transitional government and the African Union Mission in Somalia.
The United States also should sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a set of guiding principles on the treatment of children that the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 2000, Tayler said. Neither the United States nor Somalia has ratified the convention, which 194 other countries signed.
The U.S. later ratified an optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which establishes 18 as the minimum age for compulsory recruitment and requires signatories to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a direct part in hostilities, said Tayler. However, the original convention sets out broader protections for children, she added.
Tayler also noted that although her group’s research found that Somali transitional government forces are recruiting or using child soldiers, “we did not get the sense that they are the worst violators (in Somalia). Our strong impression was that al-Shabab is the worst violator when it comes to child soldier recruitment. Al-Shabab means ‘the youth’ in Arabic, it’s all about a youth movement. … But that shouldn’t let the Transitional Federal Government forces off the hook.”