Saudi Arabia’s Sudanese Mercenaries in Yemen

Sudanese soldiers are seen as the second part of the Sudan Army forces arrive in the city to support Saudi-led coalition forces in Aden, Yemen on November 09, 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images

By: Yuri Neves, Columnist

A December 2018 report by the New York Times has revealed that Saudi Arabia is utilizing Sudanese child soldiers in the war in Yemen. This story highlights some of the inherent dangers in the use of mercenaries, a reprehensible moral dilemma, and the need for international jurisdiction to reduce the harm caused by such practices.

While the issue of mercenaries has been widely debated in recent years, the use of mercenaries from fragile states such as Sudan and Chad is particularly problematic and poses ethical, moral, security, and political implications for the international community. Many of the young men that end up as mercenaries do so simply because they have no other opportunities. Chadian fighters in Libya have reported that they were drawn into the fighting as they traveled along perilous migration routes to Europe. Unscrupulous warlords in the conflict-torn nation deceive foreigners into fighting on the battlefield with promises of employment.[i] If these individuals survive the battles and attempt to return home, they may pose longterm risks to their nations of origin, deepening the already unstable environment from which they fled.

An estimated 14,000 Sudanese have fought in Yemen, with the majority of these fighters hailing from war-torn Darfur.[ii] The repatriation of thousands of young, battle hardened men with no prospects for employment would likely shatter the region’s fragile peace. In a nation with few opportunities and an inflation rate of 70% these young men may be tempted to use their combat experience for economic gain by resorting to organized crime.[iii] Furthermore, these young soldiers may have suffered physical and mental injuries that their under resourced communities are incapable of treating. Foreign nations are attracting away the young generation that is needed to bring change to Sudan, and returning them with potential trauma and very few skills.

In addition to the potential harm these mercenaries present to their countries of origin, the use of these troops may also pose an impediment to peace in Yemen. The war in Yemen is inundated with external interests that fail to consider Yemenis’ needs. Foreign mercenaries further cloud the war’s objectives and could prove to exacerbate the conflict. Rather than return home to a life of disenfranchisement and unemployment, continued fighting provides them with purpose and salary. To maintain this relative stability, many of these fighters may, against the wishes of their employers, act as spoilers in any potential peace process.

On February 4th the United Nations Security Council held a high-level debate on mercenary activities in Africa, demonstrating that some in the international community are taking this issue seriously. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, cautioned that mercenary groups are “exploiting and feeding off other ills such as transnational organized crime, terrorism and violent extremism”.[iv] Leaders from Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda and other African nations, highlighted the dangers to stability caused by such groups and the inadequate protections that currently exist in constraining these activities. While the 2001 UN Mercenary Convention prohibits the use of these foreign fighters, the treaty has only been ratified by 36 states. Nations with powerful militaries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, India, Japan and Russia have not ratified the treaty.[v] Attempts by states, such as South Africa, to ban the use of private military contractors have failed as they are seen as essential to many militaries, including that of the United States.[vi]

The case of Sudanese child mercenaries fighting in Yemen highlights how a failure to agree upon these standards can lead to tragic violations of human rights. The lack of regulations on the use of mercenaries has enabled Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, to employ children in warfare with zero consequences. At the very least, the United States should put diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia to more carefully monitor the recruitment of foreign fighters. The Trump administration has demonstrated that it will stand by Saudi Arabia despite its brutal practices in Yemen, but the U.S. cannot stay silent while international law is so brazenly violated. In addition to state-level violations, if the mercenaries were to commit atrocities, what sort of repercussions could they possibly face? For one, the lack of proper definitions and regulations of mercenary activity means individual perpetrators are challenging to identify, and their crimes are difficult to investigate. In the case of Sudanese in Yemen, the nation in which they are fighting will not have the capability to bring them to justice, nor will the impoverished countries that they come from. Saudi Arabia already has a dismal human rights record in Yemen and is unlikely to seriously punish any excesses committed by these troops. Any sort of progress on this issue would most likely come from the auspices of the African Union (AU).

With the support of the United Nations, the AU should revise its 1977 Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa to provide for proper screening procedures and oversight of private military contractors from their nations. An October meeting of the AU made progress on this front, but member states lack much needed intelligence sharing with international partners to properly monitor mercenary activity and enforce existing conventions.[vii] Individuals that flout these conventions should be prosecuted by their home governments, as in the most recent case of the Swiss national who fought in Syria.[viii] Such enforcement is necessary to bolster the legitimacy of these documents and draw international attention to the issue. While Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir, is unlikely to follow any such convention, it can set a precedent for other nations on the continent and increase pressure on violating countries.

The use of mercenaries from fragile and impoverished countries such as Sudan and Chad also poses a moral question to the international community. By utilizing soldiers from these countries, wealthy nations can keep political pressure at home to a minimum and utilize and distant human lives as cannon fodder to pursue their strategic objectives abroad. The use of such troops is expected to rise and without any sort of constraint the international community may find itself in a morally reprehensible situation: a world in which wealthy nations send vulnerable young men from impoverished countries to fight and die for their interests.[ix]


[i]Meo, Nick. 2011. “African Mercenaries in Libya Nervously Await Their Fate.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. February 27, 2011.

[ii] Kirkpatrick, David. 2018. “On the Front Line of the Saudi War in Yemen: Child Soldiers From Darfur.” The New York Times. The New York Times. December 28, 2018.

[iii] Ibid

[iv] “Secretary-General’s Remarks to the Security Council on Mercenary Activities in Africa [Bilingual, as Delivered] Secretary-General.” 2019. United Nations. United Nations. February 4, 2019.

[v] Ibid

[vi] “Leash the Dogs of War.” 2015. The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. March 19, 2015.

[vii] Lederer, Edith. “UN chief: Mercenaries are ‘feeding off’ terrorism and crime.’” AP News. Online. February 4, 2019.

[viii] Foulkes, Imogen. 2019. “Former Swiss Officer Johan Cosar on Trial for Fighting IS.” BBC News. BBC. February 21, 2019.

[ix] “Secretary-General’s Remarks to the Security Council on Mercenary Activities in Africa “

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