The US Treasury Department has accused the Islamic Republic of Iran of war crimes for the first time in the regime’s 40-year history. In particular, it accuses Iran of using child soldiers to fuel its military interventions in the Middle East.

As part of its re-imposition of sanctions on Iran on November 4, the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it was taking action “against a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force (Basij), a paramilitary force subordinate to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”

The Treasury’s press release read: “Among other malign activities, the IRGC’s Basij militia recruits, trains, and deploys child soldiers to fight in IRGC-fueled conflicts across the region.”

According to international laws, the new US sanctions are categorized as being specifically related to human rights or war crimes. Recruitment, training and dispatching children for deployment in armed conflicts are deemed to be war crimes and can have serious international consequences for those found guilty. 

“Normal governments do not employ children as soldiers to send them to conflict zones,” said US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin. “This is child abuse…countries and companies across the world must remember that in making deals with the outlaw government of Iran they are also probably giving financial support to such brutalities as well.”

The Basij and New US Sanctions

The US had previously placed the Basij paramilitary organization on its sanctions list for violations of human rights in Iran, but now the Treasury Department says that the new sanctions specifically single out Iran’s use of child soldiers.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has identified the Basij Cooperative Foundation, comprised of at least 20 corporations and financial institutions, as the financial supporter of the paramilitary organization. One of the institutions the sanctions targets is Parsian Bank, because of its financial dealings with the Basij Cooperative Foundation. The bank has played a vital role in importing food and medicine to Iran.

Basij activities “include indoctrinating schoolchildren and providing combat training to children as young as 12 years old,” the OFAC statement declared. “In addition to its involvement in violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuses in Iran, the Basij recruits and trains fighters for the IRGC-QF [the expeditionary Quds Force], including Iranian children, who are then deployed to Syria to support the brutal Assad regime…In addition to Iranian nationals, the Basij also recruits Afghan immigrants to Iran, including children as young as 14 years old, to join the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia made up of Afghan fighters under the control of the IRGC-QF in Syria.”

There have been reports that some of these young soldiers have escaped to Europe in order to avoid having to fight for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Iran’s Persistence in Using Child Soldiers

Iran is a signatory to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids employing any person under 15 for war and armed conflicts. An “optional protocol” to the convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000, increases the age by three years and asks that “parties to conflict take every feasible step to ensure that children below the age of 18 years do not take part in hostilities.”

In 2010 the Islamic Republic signed this protocol and six years later, in 2016, President Rouhani’s cabinet approved it and sent a bill to the parliament to make the joinder official [Persian link]. But the bill met with the opposition from members of the parliament.

“Ratification of this protocol would put an end to the activities of the Students Basij in attracting and training forces under 18 and the parliament is against it,” said Hossein-Ali Haji-Deligani, a conservative member of the parliament [Persian link]. And Mohammad Reza Naqdi, a former commander of the Basij, stated that Iran’s membership to the convention is “against sharia and against [our] interests.”

This protocol “makes the mere act of recruiting children under 15 or their active participation in domestic and international wars a crime,” said Kobra Khazali, the head of the Women’s Cultural and Social Council, which forms part of the Iranian president’s establishment [Persian link]. “Since currently many Islamic countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen are engaged in armed conflicts, it does not appear prudent that the government be forced to treat it as a crime because it would redouble the injustice suffered by children and adolescents of the countries under pressure by terrorist groups.”

Eventually the Iranian parliament’s Research Center also joined the opposition to approving the protocol, asking rhetorically: “Does joining this protocol also means that joining the Basij violates children’s rights?”

Besides the “optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict,” the charter of the International Criminal Court in the Hague also bans using persons under 15 in armed conflicts and considers this to be a war crime. Iran has signed this document as well, but the parliament has not approved it. Nevertheless, Iran is obliged to refrain from gross violations of both conventions as long as it remains a signatory.

Another international document that criminalizes recruiting children for armed conflicts is the 2005 UN Security Council Resolution 1612 on children and armed conflict [PDF].

 

Likely Consequences of US Action against Iran

The US government initially raised the subject of Iran’s deployment of child soldiers in regional conflicts in the US Department of State reports on human trafficking across the globe. One of the reports states that Iran recruits children by engaging in human trafficking and uses them in regional armed conflicts involving the Revolutionary Guards.

In 2017, in addition to the US government, the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) also reported that the Revolutionary Guards Corps had recruited Afghan immigrant children as young as 14 to fight in Syria. “Human Rights Watch researchers reviewed photographs of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries where the authorities buried combatants killed in Syria, and identified eight Afghan children who apparently fought and died in Syria,” said the report. “Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than preying on vulnerable immigrant and refugee children, the Iranian authorities should protect all children and hold those responsible for recruiting Afghan children to account.”

And in May 2018, a report [PDF] on “children and armed conflict” by the UN’s secretary general to the General Assembly stated that persons under 18 were being recruited and used as soldiers in hostilities in Iraq. Previous to this, the US had accused Iran of taking part in the recruitment of child soldiers in Iraq.

When these — various reports by the US State Department and Human Rights Watch, new US sanctions over Iran’s deployment of child soldiers and Iran’s inaction in challenging the accusations, the UN secretary general’s report to the General Assembly and the reference to Iran in a case accusing the Syrian government of war crimes against its own citizens — are taken together, it appears that a new international case against Iran is taking shape.

If the situation continues the way it is now, the case could end up on the agenda of the Security Council — and the Security Council has the power to take preventive actions against Iran. For example, according to the charter of the International Criminal Court, the Security Council can ask the court to place people on trial or prosecute them if the council believes they are guilty of war crimes and of using children in armed conflicts. The charter also gives the Security Council the power to independently investigate the cases.

In recent years the issue of child soldiers and the fight to put an end to the practice have increasingly gained international attention and formed a part of the United Nation’s agenda. Considering the position in which the Islamic Republic currently finds itself and the US’ new approach to Iran in this regard, it is unlikely that the issue and debate will go away anytime soon — unlike some crises that the Islamic Republic has had to deal with over the last 40 years. This time the accusation is brand new: war crimes.

 

Related Coverage:

US Sanctions Against Iran: The War of Calculations, November 6, 2018

The Humanitarian Cost of Sanctions on Parsian Bank, October 23, 2018

For Some Afghan Soldiers, Fighting in Syria was their Dream, October 9, 2018

Iran Fools Afghan Recruits into Fighting in Syria, September 26, 2018

The Secret Training Camp for Iran’s Afghan Soldiers, August 17, 2018

The US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report – 2017, July 31, 2018

The Fight Against Human Trafficking: What are Iran’s International Obligations?, July 26, 2018

Human Trafficking: A Brief Glossary of Legal Terms, July 24, 2018

Who are the Main Victims of Human Trafficking in Iran?, July 23, 2018

Human Trafficking and Iranian Law, July 21, 2018

Iran Betrays its Stand Against Chemical Weapons, July 4, 2018

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