How can International Organizations Hold the Houthis accountable for child soldier recruitment?

A recent video seminar organized by Dr. Wesam Basindowah and the Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women drew attention to the central problem of aggressive Houthi recruitment of minors, even young children, to the front lines of combat in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. In addition, it also looked at other related issues involving the Houthis’ exposure of children to violence.

The political activist Dr. Wissam Basendouh discussed in the symposium the phenomenon of child recruitment in Yemen and the ideology of entrenching sectarianism and the theory of ethnic selection by the Houthi militia … explaining that the number of child recruits in the ranks of the Houthi militia reaches more than 30 thousand children under the age of 15 years. Many of them are in the barricades and other types of operations, and also patrolling the streets and the traffic. She further noted that the Houthi militia is soliciting the people, paying them money and exploiting their material needs, and through the seminars that guide the brainwashing of children and charging them with sectarian, racist, and transcendent ideas of jihad and fighting.

Yemen had ratified the International Convention on Children’s Rights outlawing all uses of children in combat. However, the Houthis are not only hiding this use of children in the conflict, but are proudly showing it to the public. Why are Houthis recruiting these young children? They are the easiest to recruit; they are the cheapest, and often they come from radicalized families. They are ideologically predisposed to the indoctrination and are easier to train. Dr. Basendouh further drew attention to what blackmailing children are subjected to, their exposure to dirty work and physical terrorist booby-trapping due to the ideological and intellectual indoctrination similar to the formation of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

For his part, the CEO of the group (Mosecon), the anti-terrorist advisor in Germany, Professor Jan St. Pierre, pointed out the ways in which children are used in wars by rebel groups or terrorists … noting that the Houthi militia takes children from families and exploits their need for money and throws them into combat. He confirmed that the Houthi militia, coinciding with the spread of the Corona virus, closed the largest number of schools and encouraged children to join the front lines. Dr. St. Pierre noted that the conflict has many unique modern elements and includes many moving pieces and complex issues, which makes both the resolution and the discussion of post-conflict measures to address children’s issues much more complicated than other conflicts, such as with Al Qaeda, ISIS, or Boko Haram, which had also used child soldier recruitment.

Worth noting is that the first common denominator present in the strategy among Houthis and other mentioned child recruiting organizations and movements is the requirement to make an emotional break with the family parents. This is often done over the course of many months; children not only abandon the family but are made to pledge fealty to the organization as a new family (in loco parentis). In addition to ideological brainwashing, they will often be forced to take measures to show that they are cutting ties with their previous life, by engaging in acts of violence, witnessing the deaths of their families, or even being forced to murder their parents.

This psychological component is central to forging a child soldier’s new identity and takes place even before any further ideological indoctrination. This cut with the family further creates an emotional dependency on the new environment and is essential to the successful integration of the child soldiers into the structure of their new society. Once that is complete, then the goal of the organization becomes the sole purpose of the child’s life. The second shape is reforging the entire emotional identity of the child around the cause itself, rather than any members of the organization.

The third phase is creating an artificial state in which children can simply act out a function without having to think. This can be done with a mixture of drugs, and a carrot/stick approach of gratification and use of fear and violence as motivations. The children become mere functionaries responding to commands and conditions and do not question what they are told. Because it is a lengthy process that takes place over the course of many months, creating conditions that will reinforce it is essential. The children then need to be subjected to repeated bouts of involvement in fighting, violence, and operational experience in order to become combatants as part of their identity, not just something they “do.” And the more fighting and killing they do, the higher their status in the organization becomes. And with the rise in rank, the identity is strengthen, evolving from an artificially imposed situation to an organic identity. These children are then trained from childhood to become hardcore highly ideological fighters and will then be much more difficult to deradicalize than someone who joined voluntarily at an adult age and for what could be any number of reasons.

The goal here, then, is not only to break down individual children but to reshape the entire society by taking away these boys at a young age and forcing them to grow up in this structure. What is unique about the Houthi strategy is unlike other child recruiting organizations that randomly attack villages and enslave and abduct whomever happens to be in the way, Houthis strategically target particular areas, for instance where there is concern about the loyalty of a particular region or village, so they take these children to make the village more compliant over the concern for their family members or in order to ensure generational fealty in the future. They are thinking about Yemen several generations ahead, which is only possibly if the children are indoctrinated from a very young age.

The recruiting is targeted even if it looks random. This is a very novel dynamic, particularly for the Middle East. Interestingly, while unofficially boasting about this recruitment strategy, when speaking to official international organizations such as the UN, Houthis deny taking part in any of this. The Houthis are very opportunistic with adapting their strategy to the circumstances. For example, during the ongoing outbreak of the corona pandemic, while the schools are closed, the Houthis are pushing the parents to send the children to Houthi training camps.

Is this one of the reasons why the Houthis are denying the prevalence of cases and understanding the numbers? Pandemic certainly plays into their plans of reshaping the society, even if the society is ultimately less educated, and dysfunctional. Indeed, the Houthis even encourage the closure of schools to increases their pool of potential recruits. This is not an ad hoc spontaneous way of work; this shows a very long term process and a strategic approach to the takeover of the society and the spread of the ideology and alignment with the Houthis among the rest of the population.

The additional problem, of course, is that in other regions with this issue, there were fewer parties to the conflict, which created more of a choice for the families in how to address the situation and how to survive. With the chaos in Yemen, there is increasing pressure to agree to this pressure in exchange for some level of protection of less predictable and less controlled elements, even if it is a mirage or not, in fact, any lesser of the evils. Indeed, the manipulation of optics is one of the tools the Houthis use to create the perception of offsetting this price of their presence with some limited public benefit.

The recruitment of child soldiers is not the only form of vioolence imposed by the Houthis on children. The president of the Yemeni Women Empowerment Foundation, Zafaran Zaid, spoke about the child victims of recruitment by the Houthi militia and the physical and sexual violence that children are exposed to in their areas of control … a message to the militia storing weapons in schools and training children to fight and violence during the period of summer activities and cultural lectures. It is clear that approximately 9,000 children and women victims were the result of shells, sniping and mines laid by the Houthi militia. After returning from combat, the children also becomes sources of crime in their neighborhoods, sometimes slaughtering their families, or those of the locals with whom they have ideological problems or disputes, and even become strangers in their own homes.

The other issue is of course protecting families becoming victimized by Houthis as a result of speaking out over the child abduction. Houthis suffer no impunity for these crimes, including child prisoners and abuse of migrant children such as Somali children. These two groups also end up being recruited, even by force and deception. She gave two heart-wrenching examples of other impositions of violence: the story of a child who was forced to kill his entire family by the Houthis to prove loyalty to them, and a little girl who was raped repeatedly by the Houthis; the family, living in a society, where rape raises the specter of the honor/shame culture, killed her to cover up for what happened.

The Houthis additionally use exposure to weapons in schools even among girls as part of their recruitment and indoctrination strategy. In some cases, additionally, the Houthis will host school ceremonies with hundreds of pictures of children supposedly from that school, and then tell the school students that all these children are now martyrs in paradise. Essentially, they are luring the children into the recruitment with promises of a better afterlife. Meanwhile the process of the rehabilitation of these children is extremely long and complicated.

What child recruitment says about the Houthis themselves is that unlike other groups such as Daesh or John Konye, which are only recruiting children as an act of desperation when they are losing ground and have trouble recruiting, this is not the case with Houthis. For them it’s an affirmative strategy to victory. They are not losing ground and they are not having trouble recruiting and furthermore they are at the height of their authority and international legitimacy. THe Houthis are in control of a large portion of the territory. However, they use the children to discredit the Arab Coalition which in the field is faced with the impossible choice when faced with children recruitment. This is a strategy that has also been implemented successfully by other Iran proxies, including Hamas, and which constitutes a form of human shield and hostage taking. All such episodes are, of course, war crimes.

But what can be done about them? What role can the international institutions play in resolving this central issue of the conflict? Arguably, until international organizations stop being part of a problem, they cannot be counted upon to be a part of any real solution. And right now the international institutions are definitely exacerbating, if not creating the problem, first and foremost by legitimizing Houthis as authorities and counterparts to a political dialogue, while turning a blind eye to these gross abuses. Unless Houthis are treated as war criminals, they have no incentive not to continue abusive practices, and quite frankly by treating war criminals in a neutral impartial manner, international organizations are being delinquent in imposing any semblance of moral authority and basic ethics, and cannot be expected to play a constructive part in resolving this conflict.

Additionally, there is evidence that the UN and other agencies and institutions have not only ignored but concealed these violations, and in fact facilitated grotesque and corrupt exchanges, such as the UNESCO acceptance of funding from Qatar, which has been played an unwelcome role in the conflict as a Houthi informant and accessory. Qatar’s charitable foundation has funded radical textbooks in Yemen, which have been denounced by the government, and which are playing the role in Houthi and Islamist indoctrination of school students.

THese sectarian books are corrupted by the Houthi militias and facilitate the spread of Khomeinist ideology in the region. Qatar also supports the Houthis financially and through the media, despite claiming not to be siding with them. All of that is ignored by the international community and institutions, who have worked to conceal the evidence of Houthi use of child soldiers, just as the UN has chosen to ignore, question, and deny well established evidence of Iran’s supply of Houthis with sophisticated ballistic missiles used against civilians & Saudi Arabia and presented jointly by the Arab Coalition and the United States.

Even without these corrupt institutions which work with equally corrupted Houthi-linked local organizations to distribute aid, thus facilitating the worst abuses and strengthening and empowering war criminals, there is much that can be done to hold the Houthis accountable for these unconscionable practices.

With regards to the role of the international organizations and institutions, before getting them to play a positive role in stopping these war crimes, we first need to get through to them that they by putting no conditions on Houthis with regards to this issue and treating them as legitimate actors with a possible say in the future of the country, they are actually enabling these war crimes. This needs to be a public and affirmative confrontation directly to these organizations; which, of course, denied any corruption in their own agency, such as in the most recent meeting between Saudis and the United Nations at the Yemen 2020 donor conference.

Every action to be done should be affirmative and offensive, and should not depend on or wait for any further actions by the Houthis or their enablers, whether among foreign states or international institutions.

Legal: Houthis should be taken to court over their violations of international laws and conventions, and assorted war crimes and deliberate targeted atrocities and abuses. There are many different legal options and institutions, but an effective information gathering mechanism needs to be put in place in order in order to document the full extent of pervasive abuses, including cases of child soldier recruitment, and prepare them for effective presentation in courts.

Political : work with allies, including in the West, to sanction individual Houthis linked to these war crimes, and work with international institutions to freeze their assets out of international financial systems, making funding these awful practices much more difficult. Even if the process of designating individual Houthis is time consuming, lengthy in review, and does not do much to stop the perpetration of the crimes, it will add to the process of delegitimizing them in popular view and aid in the breaking down of the narrative normalizing them as a legitimate party for negotiations for Yemen’s future.

Economic: work with international organizations to boycott any institutions, banks, etc dealing with the HOuthis. International human rights NGOs, if they are serious about children’s welfare and not just raising their own profiles to get a cut from the donors for their own salaries, should be doing more than fundraising, they should be actively supporting these campaigns and working day and night to bring attention to anyone facilitating war crimes and abuses.

Media: The Arab Coalition and human rights organizations should be bombarding the press and TV with op-eds, appearances, photographs, videos on this issue, even buying full page newspaper ads and billboards in Times Square and other such places with the pictures of child soldiers asking where is the UN? Where are the human rights NGOs? These ads should also be calling out Western and other virtue signaling politicians, including members of the US Congress, who had been calling for US withdrawal from Yemen citing Jamal Khashoggi as reason to sever the defense relationship with the Saudi coalition (without any evidence in support of wrongdoing by the government) but ignoring ample and documented evidence of mass violations by Houthis and their unconscionable abuse of the most vulnerable segments of the Yemeni population (not to mention torture and assassinations of journalists, etc).

Social/Cultural : Anti-Houthi forces should be giving voice to the victims in the international fora, presenting former child soldiers and their family members and other eyewitnesses at cultural events and exhibits with partner NGOs, univerisities, even at the UN, and COngress. These cultural initiative would include children’s art and diaries, films, meetings with the victims, etc. At the same time, this coalition should be expanding partnerships to include humanitarian and educational initiatives to fight exploitation, deprivation, and sectarianism, as well as the spread of radical and extremist ideologies.

Finally, there is no need to wait until the end of War to start building the infrastructure for healing and reintegrating children into society, as it is a long and painful process. Indeed, effort must be made to reverse this process while it’s still ongoing and in addition to mitigation measures, prophylactic measures must be taken to prevent HOuthis from succeeding in further recruitment and to prevent the general radicalization of the population.

The human rights activist, Dr. Arwa Al-Khattabi, reviewed the methods and tactics of the Houthi militia in recruiting children and throwing them into armed conflicts … asking the United Nations and organizations concerned with childhood to exert pressure on the militia to stop the recruitment of children so that the international community does not wake up to a major catastrophe which is the establishment of a terrorist ideological army that does not differ For ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Indeed, it should be noted that Houthis present a global threat, not just a local danger to Yemenis and Saudis, having threatened other countries including UAE, Israel, and even the United States. The efforts at child recruitment coupled with the model of the Hezbullah which Iran has turned into an international force to be reckoned with point in the direction that one day when the Houthis are cohesive enough of a force, and when the young fighters come of age, they too will likely be turned into an organized well trained paramilitary force to assist and facilitate the advance of Iran’s global agenda around the world, and could be on call for operations, terrorist attacks, and active measures anytime anywhere.

The journalist Mayada Salam pointed out that the children in Yemen were subjected to the worst violations in the world by the Houthi militia, and they need long-term psychological treatment sessions in order to be able to overcome all their crises … confirming that the crimes of the Houthi militia committed against children are against all values, principles and norms International.

The head of the Yemeni People’s Bloc for Peace and Human Rights, Muhammad Qashmar, touched on the role of international diplomacy in the dimensions of criminal suspicion and crimes against humanity practiced by the Houthis against civilians … indicating that all the briefings that the international envoy to Yemen Martin Griffith provides to the Security Council do not even suggest that The Houthi militia violates rights and freedoms and practices various crimes against human rights.

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