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Pompeo blocks inclusion of Saudi Arabia on child soldiers blacklist, dismissing expert advice

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ignored expert recommendations in omitting Saudi Arabia [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 June, 2019

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a list of countries that recruit child soldiers despite recommendations by State Department experts.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a list of countries that recruit child soldiers, ignoring the findings of experts.

Pompeo ignored the recommendation of State Department experts to include Saudi Arabia on the list, Reuters reported, following findings that a Saudi-led coalition has been utilising child soldiers to the Yemen civil war - where it backs the government against Houthi rebels.

The move was met with criticism from human rights activists and a prominent Democratic lawmaker and comes at a time when US-Saudi relations are increasingly scrutinised.

"This decision shows clearly that the Trump administration is using political manipulation and dismissing evidence – at the expense of kids – in order to protect Saudi Arabia," said Sarah Margon, director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office.

Human rights groups and news sources have reported Saudi Arabia's use of child soldiers from Sudan in Yemen's civil war. State Department experts therefore recommended Saudi Arabia's inclusion on the soon-to-be published list, four sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Other State Department officials disagreed, arguing that the child-soldiers could perhaps be under the leadership of Sudanese officers rather than the Saudi-led US-backed coalition.

But the New York Times reported in December that Saudi and United Arab Emirates commanders had directed Sudanese fighters in their fight against the Houthi rebels.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition rejected the reports that the coalition had used child soldiers.

A US State Department official told Reuters, "The United States condemns the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. We place great importance on ending the practice wherever it occurs," not commenting directly on the omission of Saudi Arabia.

Sudan will be put back on the list after being removed last year. The list is due to be published as early as Thursday in the State Department’s annual global Trafficking in Persons report.

Sudan’s infamous paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has contributed fighters to the Yemen war. "Based on Sudanese laws, it does not recruit minors," said a RSF spokesperson.

"This is reprehensible," US Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted.

"Is there no limit to what the Trump Admin is willing to do to cover for #SaudiArabia's human rights abuses and violations of international norms?"

Any country on the US list would be barred from receiving US aid, training and weapons unless the president issued waivers based on "national interest".

Thousands of Sudanese troops joined the Saudi-led coalition when it intervened against the Houthis in the Yemen civil war in 2015.

Since the end of 2016, the coalition had deployed as many as 14,000 Sudanese at many given time, offering payments of up to $10,000 per recruit. The recuits included children as young as 14, the New York Times reported.

A UN report in August 2018 found that all sides in the Yemen conflict "conscripted or enlisted children".

Saudi Arabia's involvement in Yemen has become an area of heated debate in Washington. Republican and Democratic lawmakers are seeking to block Trump's multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has faced increasing international scrutiny since its crown price, Mohammed bin Salman, was blamed for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by a hit-squad in the kingdom's Turkey-based consulate.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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