UNITED NATIONS – A network of human rights groups on Wednesday criticized plans to include Chadian troops in a new U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali while Chad's military remains on a U.N. 'list of shame' for child recruitment. But U.N. officials made clear they had no intention of excluding a country whose soldiers are considered among the best African desert fighters.
Chadian troops fought alongside French forces that ousted Islamic jihadists from major towns in northern Mali in January. The participation of the Chadians, now part of an African-led peacekeeping force in Mali, is considered crucial because of their familiarity with the region's arid, desert terrain.
But Chad's inclusion in the new peacekeeping mission poses an uncomfortable dilemma for the United Nations because Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon included the country on its annual 'list of shame' of child recruiters last month.
The Watch List on Children and Armed Conflict said in a report Wednesday that Chad's inclusion "would be a harmful, precedent-setting action," especially given the need to reintegrate hundreds of children recruited by armed groups during Mali's conflict.
"Really what we are calling for is a U.N.-wide policy that listed parties should not be incorporated in peacekeeping," said Layal Sarrouh, who researched and authored the report for Watch List, whose advisory board includes Human Rights Watch, Care International, and World Vision International and Save the Children International. "We think it's a credibility issue."
U.N. officials stood by plans to include Chad in the mission, which is set to deploy July 1 pending final Security Council approval next week. U.N. Deputy Spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Chad and other African countries transferring to the U.N. mission will be given a four-month grace period to meet U.N. standards for peacekeeping, including on the issue of child recruitment. He said the U.N. and Chadian authorities are taking aggressive measures to ensure no minors are among their peacekeepers.
Top U.N. officials have repeatedly visited Chad in recent weeks to ensure implementation of a two-year-old plan to end child recruitment. Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict, said last week that "the fact that Chad will be in Mali is an opportunity" to deepen its commitment to protecting children.
In his report, Ban said Chad last year "did not recruit children as a matter of policy." Still, the U.N. chief noted that 34 children were found at Chadian army training centers, apparently enlisted as part of a drive that gained 8,000 new recruits. Ban said Chad needs to improve its screening process and take disciplinary actions against child enlisters.
In an address to the Security Council on Monday, Chad's Ambassador Allam-Mi Ahmed protested his country's inclusion in the 'list of shame.' He said Chad had verified that it no longer had children in its army in 2011 and the cases discovered last year were "isolated."
"It seems unfair to us that because of procedural reasons, our army has been denigrated and sullied before the eyes of the entire world," Ahmed said.
Sarrouh said she did not believe there were any minors among the Chadian soldiers now in Mali. Still, her report noted that in April, there were accounts of Chadian forces detaining and questioning children for more than three weeks in April before handing them over to French forces. Sarrouh said that points to an urgent need to establish "standard operating procedures" on the handling of child combatants for all military forces in Mali.
Watch List, which visited Mali in February and March, found that all three of the main Islamic armed groups and the main Tuareg rebel force recruited hundreds of children last year, some as young as seven years old and so small that "they couldn't carry their guns and had to drag them." Most of the children disappeared after the Islamists were driven out and their fates are unclear.