SANAA, Yemen – Houthi rebels in Yemen have agreed to rid their ranks of child soldiers who have been fighting by the thousands during the country’s seven-year civil war, the United Nations said on Monday.
The Houthis signed what the United Nations called a “Plan of Action” to end and prevent the recruitment or use of children in armed conflict, but also the killing or maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the rebels had pledged to identify children among their ranks and release them within the next six months.
Houthi Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein al-Azey and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative Philippe Duamelle posed for the media during a signing ceremony in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. The Houthis called the deal a child protection plan.
Yemen’s internationally recognized government-in-exile has made similar commitments in several documents signed since 2014, the UN said.
Virginia Gamba, the UN’s top official for children in war zones, called the Houthis’ decision “a positive and encouraging step” but stressed that “the hardest part of the journey begins now.”
“The action plan must be fully implemented and result in concrete measures to improve child protection in Yemen,” Ms Gamba, who signed in New York as a witness to the Houthis’ involvement, said in a statement.
The United Nations says nearly 3,500 children have been recruited and used in Yemen’s civil war. However, a senior Houthi military official told The Associated Press (AP) in 2018 that the group then integrated 18,000 child soldiers into its army.
Former child soldiers also told the AP that boys were recruited as young as 10. At the time, a Houthi military spokesman denied any systematic recruitment of anyone under the age of 18 and said there were orders to turn away children attempting to recruit.
150,000 dead so far
According to the United Nations, more than 10,200 children were killed or maimed in this war. How many of them might have been combatants is not known.
Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthis seized Sanaa and exiled the government. A Saudi-led coalition that included the United Arab Emirates went to war in early 2015 to restore the government to power.
Observers estimate that the conflict has killed more than 14,500 civilians, out of a total of 150,000 dead when combatants are counted. The fighting has also created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The warring factions agreed on the first national ceasefire in six years earlier this month. The two-month pact was set to begin during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and raised hopes of building momentum for peace in that country.
Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned last week, saying a new presidential council will lead the government-in-exile and conduct negotiations with the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries have welcomed the leadership change after years of power struggles between anti-Houthi factions. However, a Houthi spokesman dismissed the development, calling the president’s decision “illegitimate” and far from the country.