The African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) and the country’s army are in the spotlight for using child soldiers.
According to a new United Nations report, Amisom, the Somali National Army and militias allied with it had a combined total of 223 children in their ranks as at the end of 2013, while the Al Shabaab insurgency included 908 children as members.
The findings are a huge embarrassment to the UN, whose Security Council authorises Amisom’s operations. Both the US and the European Union, which roundly condemn military roles for boys and girls, contribute substantial funding for Amisom and Somalia’s army.
The report, issued by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was compiled by Leila Zerrougui, his Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict.
“Of particular concern are 14 cases of association of children with the African Union Mission in Somalia in various capacities, including to man checkpoints and as cooks ... The United Nations has been regularly engaging with the Amisom leadership with a view to addressing these cases and enhancing the mainstreaming of child protection,” it states.
The report also expresses concern over “the arbitrary arrest and detention of 1,009 children by the national army, including during operations against Al Shabaab,” noting that in 11 cases, girls who had been arrested were also raped.
At least 237 Somali children were reportedly killed last year, mainly as a result of indiscriminate shelling and crossfire during clashes, the UN reports.
It attributes 98 deaths of children to the Somali National Army and allied militias and seven child deaths to Amisom. Al Shabaab was responsible for the deaths of 47 children.
“The rape of 21 children in 19 separate incidents by national army and unknown armed elements inside internally displaced persons camps was a particular concern since the camps were supposed to be a safe place for displaced children,” the report states. It also notes that Al Shabaab fighters raped 31 children.
According to the report, the UN is engaging with the federal government of Somalia to ensure implementation of plans to end and prevent recruitment and use and the killing and maiming of children by the national army.
Mr Ban says in the report: “I welcome the commitment of the federal government of Somalia to become party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, in particular in respect of the involvement of children in armed conflict, and urge the government to ratify them.”
The Optional Protocols prohibit the forced recruitment or use of persons under the age of 18 in armed conflict. The agreement, which has the force of a UN treaty, took effect in 2002 and has been ratified by 156 countries.
Large numbers of children are also serving in military capacities in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the report indicates.
“I saw children with guns — with the government, but also with armed groups,” including rebel forces associated with Riek Machar, Ms Zerrougui said at a UN press briefing last week following a visit last month to South Sudan.
Ms Zerrougui said, however, that she is unable to estimate the number of child soldiers in either government or rebel ranks.
“Thousands of children were reportedly mobilised in Upper Nile and Jonglei States by the Nuer ethnic group aligned with opposition forces, also known as the ‘White Army’,” the report states. “Thousands of children were killed or maimed, raped, displaced or orphaned in South Sudan.”
In the DRC, the UN says it has documented a total of 910 children (783 boys and 127 girls) newly recruited or in the ranks of armed groups in 2013.
“Almost half of the children were reportedly used as combatants, but children were also used as porters, cooks, informants and in other support roles. Most of the girls were subjected to sexual slavery,” the report states.
A total of 209 cases of conflict-related sexual violence against girls, some as young as four years of age, were documented in the DRC last year, the report adds.
“Mayi Mayi [rebel] groups and FARDC [the DRC’s state army] were identified as the main perpetrators, with 91 and 43 verified cases, respectively,” the UN says.