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U.N. Grills U.S. on Detention of Accused Child Soldiers in Iraq and Guantánamo

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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May 22, 2008

Today here at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child reviewed the United States for its compliance with the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Ratified by the U.S. in 2002, the Optional Protocol lays out guidelines for the treatment of former child soldiers in U.S. custody and establishes the U.S.’s minimum obligations to protect children under 18 from military recruitment. Twenty-two U.S. officials, including Department of Defense officials overseeing Detainee Affairs, reported to the U.N. Committee during a public review session today.

U.N. officials questioned the U.S. delegation on the basis of “shadow reports” submitted by the ACLU and two other groups, as well as two official reports submitted by the U.S. delegation. A report the U.S. submitted last week contained the explosive revelation that the U.S. has detained 2,500 children under 18 in U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 513 children currently imprisoned in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq alone.

These revelations and other information disclosed in the shadow reports prompted clear concern among the U.N. Committee members, who pointedly told U.S. officials they were concerned about the detention of children in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prosecution of former child soldiers at Guantánamo, and the abusive military recruitment of youth. The Committee pulled no punches, and were extremely forceful with the U.S. delegation, cutting them off when they digressed, pushing them repeatedly on issues, and generally expressing its displeasure with the U.S. record on children in armed conflict.

In particular, the U.N. officials pushed the United States to clarify how it has determined that only eight children have ever been detained at Guantánamo, and it questioned the U.S. on its claims that only two prisoners currently at Guantánamo were children at the time of their transfer to the prison. U.N. Committee members demanded to know why discrepancies in the figures of child detainees may exist (reports claim as many as 60 children have been transferred to Guantánamo since 2002), pointing out that the U.S. had failed to count a third prisoner currently out Guantánamo, Mohammed El-Gharani, who was only 14 when first captured and has reportedly attempted suicide seven times at Guantánamo. U.S. officials demurred, claiming that it is difficult to ascertain prisoners’ ages and that Department of Defense records indicated El-Gharani was an adult. Committee members asked how it was that the U.S. was unaware that a child was in its custody, and expressed shock that the U.S. did not give these former child prisoners the benefit of the doubt, accepting in good faith their claims they were children, instead of current practice of leaving these children imprisoned until they became adults while in Guantánamo. U.S. officials vowed to look into the case of Mohammed El-Gharani, and provided no satisfactory explanation.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child also questioned the U.S. on its detention of children in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. was detaining 800 children in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq back in September 2007, and following the troop surge in Iraq, the U.S. was detaining 100 new children per month in 2007. The Committee observed that children detained at U.S.-run facilities in Iraq are treated just as adults are, without distinction demanded by international law requiring special consideration to children, and in some cases these children do not receive health and education services, without competent judicial review. The Committee questioned the U.S. about limits on the detention of children in Iraq and Afghanistan, which can be as long as a year without charge or access to an attorney, and in some cases even longer than a year —so long that, in some cases, the Committee noted, the children become adults while languishing in detention.

U.N. officials also grilled the U.S. delegation on U.S. military recruitment policies and abusive recruitment practices that target children under 18. Referencing JROTC cadet corps in which over 470,000 high school students are enrolled and the unprecedented access to public schools guaranteed to recruiters by the No Child Left Behind Act (PDF), one Committee member observed, “Using our education system to promote a military agenda seems to fly in the face of the spirit of the Optional Protocol.” Committee members repeatedly expressed concern about the military’s targeting of children of racial minorities and low-income youth, an issue the U.S. delegation never addressed in its replies to the Committee. U.N. officials also observed that there are numerous reports of aggressive and coercive recruitment practices and asked where the U.S. draws the line, as some well-documented tactics ought to be off limits.

All in all, it was a forceful demonstration of the U.N.’s disapproval of the U.S.’s policies, bookended by a polite opening and closing of the session. It was clear from the review today that the United States stands alone in some of its detention and recruitment policies. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. is capable of embarrassment and will respond to the strong disapproval and, in some cases, shock, over the U.S.’s deplorable record on these issues, by instituting real reforms. Until then, the U.S. stands apart in its failure to respect basic children’s rights standards.

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