A masked fighter from the Popular Mobilization holds a position on the edge of the Anbar province, northwest of Baghdad, on June 1. Ahmad Al-Rubaye | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – As part of the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to remove Iraq and Burma from a list of some of the world’s worst offenders of the use of child soldiers in conflict areas.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) anticipating today's delisting has called for Iraq and Burma to remain.
“Taking Burma and Iraq off the list when they continue to use child soldiers is both contrary to US law and harms children still in the ranks,” stated Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at HRW.
Reuters reported on Tuesday the decision has already been confirmed by three [unnamed] officials.
“Secretary of State Tillerson apparently believes the list is subject to backroom political calculations, rather than facts on the ground and US law,” Becker added. “Unless Tillerson reverses this action, he will gravely damage US credibility in ending the use of children in warfare.”
The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 is a US law that criminalizes leading a military force which recruits child soldiers including any person, “under 18 years of age who takes a direct part in hostilities as a member of governmental armed forces.”
Iraq was added to the US State Department’s list for the first time in 2016, however former President Barack Obama issued a presidential waiver. Although military assistance should have been prohibited by the law, Iraq has received billions in military financing, training and other defense materials to assist in the war on ISIS.
HRW reported that in Iraq, the Hashd al-Shaabi have recruited children to fight against ISIS. It added that were as young as 14-years-old and plucked from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps near Erbil in 2016.
A 17-year-old who reportedly joined one of the Hashd al-Shaabi units told HRW that as he added his name to a list recruiting soldiers being passed around by fighters, eight of the 31 names on the list before him were under the age of 18.
The Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries (PMUs) formally were brought under the umbrella of the Iraqi military in December 2016 after a vote by parliament. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also serves as commander in chief.
Abadi launched a large international conference in the summer of 2015, highlighting the recruitment and use of children by ISIS and calling on the United Nations to condemn this.
Although, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or its Shingal Protection Units (YBS)-affiliate was not mentioned in this report, the HRW called on the PKK in February to “categorically denounce the recruitment and use of child soldiers.”
The rights organization documented 29 cases in Iraqi Kurdistan in which Kurdish and Yezidi children were recruited by the PKK's armed wing, People's Defense Forces (HPG), and the YBS.
If the decision is made official, it would break longstanding precedent at the US State Department, a move some would view as the current Trump administration prioritizing diplomatic and security interests above human rights.
“The Child Soldiers Prevention Act gives the president some discretion in applying sanctions against countries using child soldiers, but it doesn’t give the State Department discretion to take off countries that belong on the list,” Becker stated.