GENEVA - United Nations experts on child rights criticized the United States on Friday over detention of juveniles at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and voiced concern that some may have suffered cruel treatment.
They also called for an end to recruitment of under-18s into the U.S. armed forces and for a halt to enlistment campaigns aimed specifically at young people from minority groups and poor or single-parent families.
The strictures were issued in a report from the 18-member Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors performance under U.N. pacts, including two signed by Washington on children and armed conflict and on child prostitution.
On under-18s -- defined by the U.N. as children -- held in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Committee said it was "concerned over reports indicating the use of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment."
The 18 experts, nominated by governments but expected to be independent of them, said they had similar reports on abuse of young prisoners held for several years at the U.S. naval base in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay.
They declared themselves "seriously concerned that children who were recruited or used in armed conflict, rather than being considered primarily as victims, are classified as 'unlawful enemy combatants'," and face military tribunals at the base.
In a presentation to the Committee last month, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense Sandra L. Hodgkinson said the United States did detain juveniles who fought its troops so as to protect its forces and innocent civilians.
But it went to great lengths to attend to their special needs while they were held in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo, she said. At the base in southeastern Cuba, there were no more than 8 juveniles held, only two facing criminal charges.
Hodgkinson said U.S. youths aged 17 could join the military if they had the written permission of their parents or legal guardians, but the Committee said it was concerned "over reported misconduct and coercive measures used by recruiters."
Most members of the Committee are lawyers. They come from countries ranging from South Korea, which provides the chairman, to Canada, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Qatar and Italy.
The American Council for Civil Liberties (ACLU), which made a presentation of its own to the Committee, said the report made clear that the United States was breaking global agreements on children in war.
"The message from the U.N. Committee....leaves no doubt that U.S. policies and practices violated universal standards aimed at protecting suspected foreign child soldiers from unlawful treatment and prolonged incarceration," it said.
The United States was also failing to protect its own young citizens "from abusive military recruitment," said ACLU human rights program director Jamil Dakwar in a statement sent to Reuters in Geneva.
"To claim the high moral ground and assert leadership on the issue of human rights, the U.S. government must take vigorous action to bring its current conduct in line with the Committee's recommendations," declared Dakwar.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials in Geneva. Another U.S.-based group, Human Rights Watch, said last month that the United States was holding 513 juveniles under 18 in prisons in Iraq as "threats to security". Some were interrogated for days or weeks, it added.
Editing by Stephanie Nebehay
© 2008 Reuters