Victimisation of Iraq’s children continues
London - A perennial problem afflicting war zones around the world is that the first victims of barbarity and brutal violence tend to be those who are most vulnerable and who represent the futures of their communities.
Most people are instinctually predisposed to preserving the lives and health of children, particularly their own offspring, yet too often children are targeted by those for whom short-term victory trumps the need for a more lasting, peaceful future.
Iraq is a glaring example of this inhuman treatment of children. According to report released by UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, 3.6 million children in Iraq are at “serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups”. It is the latter of these crimes against children that has reared its ugly head again in recent days.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning report that exposed how militias aligned with the Iraqi government recruited child soldiers from the Debaga refugee camp south of Kurdish-controlled Erbil.
HRW said the child soldiers were sent to staging grounds in preparation for the expected assault on Mosul, the Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold. Militias responsible for this egregious crime against children’s rights were members of Sunni tribal factions that are part of the larger Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Sunni armed factions within the PMF command structure represent a relatively minor power but the Shia militias that comprise the overwhelming majority of PMF manpower have a long and shameful history of recruiting and using children as killing machines and cannon fodder.
In July 2015, the Associated Press reported that the Iran-backed PMF had set up camps to train children to take up arms and fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). When asked about why they were training to fight, one of the children boldly stated: “We’ve been called to defend the nation. I am not scared because my brothers are fighting alongside me.”
These reports were corroborated by a UN Security Council report in November 2015 that blamed both ISIS and the PMF for using children as soldiers.
To those familiar with the Iran- Iraq war, Iranian-sponsored and -trained paramilitary units using child soldiers should come as no surprise. In that brutal eight-year conflict, Iranian children were frequently pressed into military service and asked to wear necklaces bearing the “keys to paradise”.
Iranian Shia extremists were promised much the same as their more modern Sunni extremist counterparts with the mullahs enticing the jihadists of the Iran-Iraq war with fantasies of martyrdom and being rewarded with virgins in heaven.
Therefore, it is only normal that the constituent militias of the PMF, which is inspired and modelled after the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), should follow suit. It seems that in this war there are no sides that do not see children as a military resource. That includes ISIS, which established a “Cubs of the Caliphate” youth military wing and has forced families to hand over children to fight its gruesome wars.
While no one expects ISIS to adhere to international standards of humanity and basic human rights, it is gravely disturbing when the Iraqi government seemingly sanctions the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers across Iraq’s hellish battlefields. Indeed, in July, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi officially made the PMF one of Iraq’s formal military forces alongside the army, much like the IRGC in Iran, and it is therefore an official part of the state’s organs and institutions.
As such, the Iraqi government is directly liable and culpable under international law for the PMF using child soldiers. Protocols I and II of the Geneva Conventions specifically ban the recruitment of children into armed forces. A statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) considers the recruitment and enlisting of child soldiers a war crime.
Although Iraq does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, it is a party to other international laws and should be held to account.
Sadly, and tragically for Iraq’s children, there is simply no appetite to hold Baghdad to account for its complicity in turning Iraq’s children into killing machines. The international community is so obsessed with the short-term victory of defeating ISIS in Mosul that it is willing to allow yet another generation of Iraqi children to be scarred by incessant violence and warfare rather than giving them a chance at a peaceful future.
It is almost impossible to be able to accurately predict the long-term sociological effects of the use of child soldiers but Iraq’s next generation needs to be sheltered from violence and sensitised to its dangers, not desensitised to its ubiquitous presence and taught that it is a method for solving political and social problems.