Child Soldiers in Libya
Child Soldiers in Libya
By Duha Bedeir
The issue of child soldiers in Africa has been a major concern over the years. Some 12,000 children were exploited as child soldiers in 1999, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet, with the escalation of conflicts in countries like the Sudan, Libya and Burundi, the numbers have soared with thousands more children since recruited to fight in ‘’lost’’ battles in which they have no stake other than their very lives. In fact, among the marginalized, children have been the most affected segment in society arising from ongoing conflicts in Africa.
“A child associated with an armed force or armed group” refers to any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to those boys and girls exploited as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. The term “child soldier” does not apply solely “to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.”
All parties to the conflict in Libya have usedand/or continue to use child soldiers in the ongoing fighting there. According to UN reporting, children as young as seven years of age were used by both the Ghadafi forces as well as by the anti-Ghadafi militias in the conflict. Yet, such is the state of hostilities in Libya that it is almost impossible to acquire accurate statistics about the numbers. Divided as it is into two camps, fighting has continued to rage across the country with children paying a huge price, both as civilians and as underage soldiers. The UN has noted too that many of the mercenaries involved come from Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic and Sudan's Darfur region — all places "with known child soldiers”.
The conflict brought about the emergence of more radical groups, including ISIL. The OHCHR in Libya has suggested that some children have ‘‘pledged allegiance’’ to ISIL, having been subjected to intense training to the South of Sirte. According to the 2016 SG Children and Armed Conflict Report, children, some under the age of 15, “have been recruited, often forcibly, and used in hostilities and as suicide bombers while others are forced to clean clothes, serve food, and are subjected to sexual violence.”
Reportedly, more children were recruited as a result of the 2014 launch of operations by forces of retired general Khalifa Haftar. According to the Anadolu News Agency, Libya’s Tripoli-based government accused forces loyal to Haftar of recruiting child soldiers. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha decried the alleged presence of “minors” fighting within the ranks of Haftar’s forces in his campaign to capture Tripoli. Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Taher Siala has lodged a complaint with the UN Security Council in which he, too, has accused Haftar’s forces of recruiting child soldiers.
The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) defines children associated with an armed force or armed group as “any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including, but not limited to, combatants, cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members.” The definition also includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and/or forced marriage.
To address the escalating issue, the Libyan Bani Walid local council in 2017 affirmed its intention to release, rehabilitate and reintegrate children associated with armed groups, according to a UNICEF statement, as reported by the Egypt Today newspaper. Bani Walid is the third municipality in Libya to try to curtail the involvement of children in armed groups in response to the UNICEF national campaign “Together for Children,” which was launched in April 2015. At the time, Ghassan Khalil, UNICEF Special Representative in Libya, welcomed the decision and urged all municipalities in Libya ”to follow suit”.
According to a report by the London-based Middle East Eye, General Khalifa Haftar’s son Khaled, commander of Libya’s National Force, had been recruiting child soldiers in an attempt to capture the city of Tripoli. Footage released at the time. Reportedly, Khaled Haftar recruited boys under the age of 18, telling them they would be participating in a military parade. Middle East Eye released footage at the time showing eight captured youths answering questions about how they had been recruited to take up arms in Haftar’s army. One said he had been threatened by military police if he refused to join. Another claimed he was duped into attending a so-called military parade. Both youths made a point of saying that they hadn’t been given any arms at the time of their recruitment.
It should be noted that recruiting children to serve as soldiers is prohibited by International Humanitarian Laws and Treaties. Moreover, to do so constitutes a war crime according to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In this context, Libya is a signatory to the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Legal experts point out that protecting children from involvement in armed disputes is a given in all international conventions that relate to human and child rights and would apply even had Libyan laws not referred to the issue or specifically cited the need to protect children “from recruitment in armed disputes.”
It is the responsibility of all parties to any given conflict to ensure that children are spared and saved from the pains of war and that includes not recruiting them to fight, which is prohibited under international law. The onus is on the international community to make sure that parties to a conflict don’t use children to fight someone else’s war. It is up to NGOs and human rights activists to reinforce this and to do so by ensuring that children receive prober education and healthcare rather than being exposed to exploitation by warlords pursuing their own ends for personal gain. Highlighting this issue and urging governments to take action is the best way to stop this pernicious practice once and for all.
Duha Bedeir is a PhD Candidate at Aarhus University, Denmark.