More than 200 Afghan teenagers have been captured and detained by the US military, the United States told the United Nations in a very troubling report distributed this week.
In recent years, the US has received criticism from a number of human rights organizations for failing to meet commitments to protect children in war zones.
The report was written in response to questions raised earlier this year by the United Nations committee charged with implementing the international treaty on the rights of children in armed conflict, formally known as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC).
According to the report, the State Department detained the children for up to a year at a time at a military prison next to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Characterized as "enemy combatants," the purpose of detention was "not punitive but preventative: to prevent a combatant from returning to the battlefield," the report said.
Though the US military estimates that most of the juvenile Afghan detainees were about 16 years old, their age was not usually determined until after capture.
"I've represented children as young as 11 or 12 who have been at Bagram," said Tina M Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, which represents adult and juvenile detainees.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's human rights program, added that it was "highly likely that some children were as young as 14 or 13 years old when they were detained by US forces."
In regards to the inexplicably long detention, Dakwar added, "This is an extraordinarily unacceptably long period of time that exposes children in detention to greater risk of physical and mental abuse, especially if they are denied access to the protections guaranteed to them under international law."
Allison Frankel of the ACLU human rights program wrote Saturday that there were significant and troubling lapses in information in the report:
The U.S. still has not provided any specific information about where these children were transferred to, or what forms of rehabilitation and reintegration assistance has been made available to them. Although this support is mandated under OPAC, evidence suggests that the U.S. has thus far failed to provide such assistance, let alone remedies for wrongful detention and abuse in U.S. custody.
According to the Associated Press, the State Department filed a similar report in 2008, providing a "snapshot" of the "US military's effort in the endgame of the Bush presidency":
In 2008, the US said it held about 500 juveniles in Iraqi detention centers and then had only about 10 at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A total of some 2,500 youths had been detained, almost all in Iraq, from 2002 through 2008 under the Bush administration.
Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 in part on winding down active US involvement in the Iraq war, and shifting the military focus to Afghanistan. The latest figures on under-18 detainees reflect the redeployment of US efforts to Afghanistan.
The report was issued within the same week as an objectionable article in Military Times entitled "Some Afghan Kids Aren't Bystanders," quoted a senior officer who said that the military isn’t just out to bomb “military age males,” anymore, but kids, too:
“It kind of opens our aperture,” said Army Lt. Col. Marion “Ced” Carrington, whose unit, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was assisting the Afghan police. “In addition to looking for military-age males, it’s looking for children with potential hostile intent.”
Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah specializing in counter-terrorism, said Carrington's remarks reflected the shifting definitions of legitimate military targets within the Obama administration, the Guardian reports.
He is articulating a deeply troubling policy adopted by the Obama administration.
The decision about who you consider a legitimate target is less defined by your conduct than the conduct of the people or category of people which you are assigned to belong to … That is beyond troubling. It is also illegal and immoral.
The U.S. will undergo formal review by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in January 2013.
Afghan children stand near German army soldiers as they patrol in the village of Qeysar Kheyl.
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