Recruitment of Child Mercenaries in Yemen

To Congress: Calling on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to end recruitment of Mercenaries and child Mercenaries

The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs implores Congress to consider the following:

(1) Condemning the failure of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to respect basic child rights where it has recruited considerable numbers of child mercenaries and sent them to the war on Yemen.

(2) Calling on UAE and Saudi Arabia to secure safe return of all child fighters to their home countries including Sudan and other parts of east Africa.

At any time for nearly four years, 14,000 Sudanese militiamen have been fighting in Yemen in tandem with the local militia aligned with the Saudis, according to several Sudanese fighters who have returned and Sudanese lawmakers who are attempting to track it. Hundreds, at least, have died there. Almost all the Sudanese fighters appear to come from the battle-scarred and impoverished region of Darfur, where some 300,000 people were killed and 1.2 million have been displaced during a dozen years of conflict over diminishing arable land and other scarce resources.

Most belong to the paramilitary, Rapid Support Forces, a tribal militia previously known as the Janjaweed. They were blamed for the systematic rape of women and girls, indiscriminate killing and other war crimes during Darfur’s conflict. Veterans involved in those horrors are now leading their deployment to Yemen —albeit in a more formal and structured campaign. Some families are so eager for the money that they bribe militia officers to let their sons go fight. Many are ages 14 to 17. In interviews, five fighters who have returned from Yemen and another about to depart said that children made up at least 20 percent of their units. Two said children were more than 40 percent.

Many of the Sudanese fighters in Yemen from the Janjaweed (armed horsemen) militias are made up of ethnic Arabs from western Sudan, eastern Chad, and the Central African Republic (CAR). Although established in the mid-1980s, the Janjaweed gained global attention after Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s regime sponsored the militias to fight armed groups in Darfur during the 2000s. The human rights violations carried out by the Janjaweed in Darfur led to International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against Bashir of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. As the Atlantic Council’s Nabeel Khoury explains, some of the “worst elements and the poorest elements” of Sudan went to Yemen to fight on the Saudi/Emirati payroll. Sudan has also opened its borders to mercenaries from other African countries to join the fight in Yemen.

One example of the exploitation of child mercenaries is the case of Hager Shomo Ahmed who was robbed of almost any hope as a result of the civil war in Darfur. Raiders had stolen his family’s cattle and a dozen years of bloodshed had left his parents destitute. Then, around the end of 2016, Saudi Arabia offered a lifeline: the kingdom would pay as much as £7,869 if Hager joined its forces fighting 1,200 miles away in Yemen. Hager, 14 at the time, could not find Yemen on a map, and his mother was appalled. He had survived one horrific civil war – how could his parents toss him into another? But the family overruled her.

“Families know that the only way their lives will change is if their sons join the war and bring them back money,” Hager said in an interview last week in the capital, Khartoum, a few days after his 16th birthday. The United Nations has called the war in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An intermittent blockade by the Saudis and their partners in the United Arab Emirates has pushed as many as 12 million people to the brink of starvation, killing some 85,000 children, according to aid groups. In interviews, five fighters who have returned from Yemen and another about to depart said that children made up at least 20 percent of their units. Two said children made up more than 40 percent.

Decades of social injustice and marginalization in Sudan triggered the months-long protests that ousted President Omar al-Bashir from power in April. They are also the reason that between 8,000 and 14,000 Sudanese paramilitary forces are fighting in Yemen. Sudanese mercenaries, many of them children from Darfur, have been lured into fighting on the ground in Yemen in exchange for financial compensation. Suffering harsh social and economic difficulties at home, these Sudanese soldiers join the war in Yemen out of desperation. Without prospects for improved socio- economic well-being in Sudan, especially under the authoritarian rule of the recently ousted al-Bashir, Gulf countries offer them up to $10,000 to fight a war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Yuri Neves, of Georgetown Security Studies Review spoke of Saudi Arabia’s Sudanese Mercenaries in Yemen. He argued that on February 4th, the United Nations Security Council held a high-level debate on mercenary activities in Africa, demonstrating that some in the international community are taking this issue seriously. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, cautioned that mercenary groups are “exploiting and feeding off other ills such as transnational organized crime, terrorism and violent extremism.” Leaders from Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda and other African nations, highlighted the dangers to stability caused by such groups and the inadequate protections that currently exist in constraining these activities. While the 2001 UN Mercenary Convention prohibits the use of these foreign fighters, the treaty has only been ratified by 36 states. Nations with powerful militaries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, India, Japan and Russia have not ratified the treaty. Attempts by states, such as South Africa, to ban the use of private military contractors have failed as they are seen as essential to many militaries, including that of the United States.

The lack of proper definitions and regulations of mercenary activity means individual perpetrators are challenging to identify, and their crimes are difficult to investigate. In the case of Sudanese in Yemen, the nation in which they are fighting will not have the capability to bring them to justice, nor will the impoverished countries that they come from. Saudi Arabia already has a dismal human rights record in Yemen and is unlikely to seriously punish any excesses committed by these troops. Any sort of progress on this issue would most likely come from the auspices of the African Union (AU).

With the support of the United Nations, the AU should revise its 1977 Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa to provide for proper screening procedures and oversight of private military contractors from their nations. An October meeting of the AU made progress on this front, but member states lack much needed intelligence sharing with international partners to properly monitor mercenary activity and enforce existing conventions. Individuals that flout these conventions should be prosecuted by their home governments, as in the most recent case of the Swiss national who fought in Syria. Such enforcement is necessary to bolster the legitimacy of these documents and draw international attention to the issue. While Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir, is unlikely to follow any such convention, it can set a precedent for other nations on the continent and increase pressure on violating countries.

The use of mercenaries from fragile and impoverished countries such as Sudan and Chad also poses a moral question to the international community. By utilizing soldiers from these countries, wealthy nations can keep political pressure at home to a minimum and utilize and distant human lives as cannon fodder to pursue their strategic objectives abroad. The use of such troops is expected to rise and without any sort of constraint the international community may find itself in a morally reprehensible situation: a world in which wealthy nations send vulnerable young men from impoverished countries to fight and die for their interests.

Sudanese opposition figures have called on their country’s transitional government to bring back Sudanese soldiers fighting for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including child soldiers and mercenaries, according to a report on Tuesday. Spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, El Rashid Saeed urged the country’s new government to work towards ending the war in Yemen and bring Sudanese troops back home.

Sudan’s participation in the Arab coalition has been all about money. Sudanese paramilitary forces have been fighting in the Yemeni civil war because of their dire economic problems at home and their need to earn an income. This practice has kept the number of Saudi and Emirati casualties relatively low but at the expense of hundreds of Sudanese who have lost their lives in this war.

Similarly, in Egypt, the Saudi and Emirati leaders have supported Abdel Fattah el- Sisi’s regime as their only viable option given the alternatives. Many Sudanese fear that their country will turn out like Egypt in this respect, especially as some GCC states worry about Islamists ascending to power in post-Bashir Sudan. If the Yemeni civil war continues, the Saudis and Emiratis will likely use their financial leverage over Sudan’s military rulers to ensure that more Sudanese mercenaries and child soldiers continue to fight against Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, the support that Gulf states give the TMC will embolden Sudan’s military authorities in their crackdown on activists, dissenters, and opposition groups.

In 2015, the Sudanese government agreed to send a battalion of regular forces to serve with the Saudi-Emirati coalition forces in Yemen – its commander was Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, now chair of the ruling Transitional Military Council. But a few months later, the UAE struck a parallel deal with Hemeti to send a much larger force of RSF fighters, for combat in south Yemen and along the Tahama plain – which includes the port city of Hudaydah, the scene of fierce fighting last year. Hemeti also provided units to help guard the Saudi Arabian border with Yemen.

By this time, the RSF’s strength had grown tenfold. Its command structure didn’t change: all are Darfurian Arabs, its generals sharing the Dagolo name. With 70,000 men and more than 10,000 armed pick-up trucks, the RSF became Sudan’s de facto infantry, the one force capable of controlling the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and other cities.

The role of Somalia and Somaliland is even murkier. Somalia made public that it has granted permission for GCC countries to use of its airspace, but it has not confirmed reports that Somali National Army soldiers are, like the Sudanese, deployed in Yemen as mercenaries. And while Somaliland has agreed to rent out port facilities at Berbera it is unknown whether this offer has been taken up. Meanwhile, Djibouti – an established Saudi ally and host of US, French and Japanese military bases – also appears to have permitted the use of its airport infrastructure for some coalition bombing missions, despite some recent tensions in relations.

A prominent Sudanese activist is calling for a peace agreement in Yemen and wants Sudanese troops fighting there brought home. Rashid Saeed of the Sudan Professionals Association says the troops, sent by former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to fight with the Saudi-led coalition, should be sent home. Calls in Sudan for the troops to be withdrawn have grown louder as the number of casualties has increased. The Saudis are also accused of recruiting Sudanese mercenaries and child soldiers, Al Jazeera’s Laura Burdon-Manley reports.

“We do not want the war to continue in Yemen,” said Saeed in a press conference. “We want the talks to go on according to the plan prepared by the United Nations. “I think Sudan can play a role in this regard through giving an ultimatum to its allies in the Arab coalition, for the sake of the peaceful solution that will guarantee the withdrawal of our forces without harming the relations with other countries.” At any time in the past four and a half years, as many as 14,000 Sudanese militiamen were fighting in Yemen with local militia aligned with the Saudis, according to an Al Jazeera report. Many of these, the report adds, were children and mercenaries.

The case of Sudanese child mercenaries fighting in Yemen highlights how a failure to agree upon international standards can lead to tragic violations of human rights. The lack of regulations on the use of mercenaries has enabled Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, to employ children in warfare with zero consequences. The United States should put diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia to more carefully monitor the recruitment of foreign fighters. The Trump Administration has demonstrated that it will stand by Saudi Arabia despite its brutal practices in Yemen, but the U.S. cannot stay silent while international law is violated.


  • NYCFPA Editorial

    The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA) is a policy, research, and educational organization headquartered in New York State with an office in Washington D.C. NYCFPA is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, institution devoted to conducting in-depth research and analysis on every aspect of American foreign policy and its impact around the world. The organization is funded by individual donors. The organization receives no corporate or government donations.

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