Thursday, May 22, 2008

Child soldiers in Sri Lanka and their rehabilitation

The problem of child soldiers has been a recurrent nightmare for Sri Lanka, since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam made almost a fetish of using children in their forces. Their baby brigade was a source of pride during the nineties and, even though they tried in the course of that decade to establish themselves as a respectable military organization, the issue of child soldiers reveals most clearly perhaps their rejection of civilized norms.

Though the issue had been noticed previously, it became a focus of attention following the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. Child soldiers became the symbol as it were of continuing LTTE militarization. According to UNICEF data, there were a total of 6,183 cases of child recruitment by the LTTE in five years after the February 2002 CFA. Out of this 3,732 were boys and 2,451 were girls. Although these numbers appear high, these are still probably lower than the actual numbers. It is not possible to accurately determine the full extent of under-age recruitment for several reasons. Some parents are not aware of existing reporting mechanisms. Others fear reprisal and so do not report. Most families suffer from intimidation and threats if they contravene LTTE orders.

During the same period, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which ruled after examination on Ceasefire Violations, declared that there had been 1743 confirmed cases of child recruitment by the LTTE (out of 2062 allegations). There were none of course by the Government of Sri Lanka, which has never used child soldiers - though there was a single accusation of child recruitment made against the government, which was dismissed.

Though the Sri Lankan government has never used child soldiers, there have been allegations against it of complicity with former members of the LTTE in recruitment of child soldiers during the last few years. UNICEF has maintained a database of recruitment of children in the Eastern Province by the Karuna faction, which broke away from the LTTE in 2004. It should be noted that, immediately after the split, an estimated 1,800 children were released by the Karuna group. However, there was widespread re-recruitment of these children by the LTTE in mid-2004 and the Karuna faction then claimed that it was forced to take in children who were otherwise in danger.

UNICEF data confirmed a total of 351 children overall recruited by the Karuna faction, mostly boys. There is no confirmation at all of government involvement, and the only allegation made by UNICEF was of soldiers at a checkpoint waving through cadres including children. Investigation revealed that, when the matter was brought to the notice of authorities, disciplinary action had been taken against the soldiers involved. No other allegations were made and, though a UN official recorded assertions of complicity in a report in 2006, he did not respond to requests for evidence. Significantly, the UN Secretary General, in his own report, only mentioned allegations against government forces in a few instances, while categorically condemning the LTTE for several instances of child recruitment and the Karuna faction in a few.

The government has tried to ensure release of all children held by the Karuna faction, and initially set a target date of 2007 for this. This was not achieved, but the number is only in double figures now, and these cases too should be resolved soon. One problem however, as became clear when arrangements were being made to take over several late last year, was the inadequacy of arrangements for rehabilitation. The Karuna faction had little faith in UNICEF, and this was understandable in the past, though recently with a new head of UNICEF plans for a productive partnership between government and UNICEF are in train.

Most recently, government has been able to instil confidence in the TMVP, the democratic political party into which the former Karuna faction has been transformed, with regard both to collaboration with UNICEF and general safety in the East, following the successful conduct of peaceful and pluralistic elections in the region. Two sets of former combatants have now been restored to their parents or to government custody for a rehabilitation programme, in which UNICEF has agreed to partner the government.

The failure of rehabilitation in collaboration with the LTTE

Unfortunately, following the Ceasefire Agreement, UNICEF thought it could work with the LTTE to rehabilitate former child soldiers. The then government accepted this position, in its anxiety to display commitment to the peace process, and these attitudes continued for several years despite continuing evidence of LTTE violations of the CFA.

Thus GOSL institutions such as the NCPA which has the mandate to uphold the protection rights enshrined in the CRC was left out of planning because they had advocated strongly against child recruitment, which led to strong objections to their involvement by the LTTE. Instead of the NCPA, the partner GOSL institution in rehabilitation projects was the Ministry of Social Welfare which was acceptable to the LTTE but without much experience in this field.

Though UNICEF continued to advocate against child recruitment with the LTTE and attempted to get them to honour their commitments to cease recruitment and release all child soldiers, this advocacy did not yield the desired outcome. As part of the Action Plan for Children, UNICEF in collaboration with the GOSL planned a mass media awareness campaign on child rights emphasizing advocacy against child recruitment. According to reports by UNICEF, the mass media campaign was indefinitely postponed since January 2004 as the LTTE did not approve of the key messages. It was subsequently not implemented.

More importantly, the demobilisation of already recruited child soldiers by the LTTE and the prevention of new recruits faced serious constraints. The programme on rehabilitation and reintegration which was planned by the GOSL in collaboration with UNICEF and the LTTE in 2003 was not effectively implemented. The LTTE agreed to the programme only on the basis that the main implementing agency was an NGO, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), which was the only organisation acceptable to them. The GOSL was represented by the Ministry of Social Services at that time.

According to UNICEF as of 31 March 2006, the estimated number of children released was 1,614, out of which 173 had been sent to transit centres and 1,441 directly to their homes. UNICEF reported that the following activities took place1:

(a) A transit centre, managed by UNICEF in collaboration with the TRO, was opened up in Kilinochchi (October 2003). However, it functioned only for a few months. During these few months, UNICEF maintained a 24-hour presence at the transit centre with both national and international staff. However the centre did not continue to function as no children were released to the centre.

(b) UNICEF allocated resources for land, construction of the centres, supplies and equipment, furniture and recruitment of international and local staff. Two other transit centres were planned in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. These centres were never opened. Substantial resources were provided by UNICEF for both the Killinochchi and the other two centres. The main reason for the non-functioning of the centres was the non-release of child combatants by the LTTE. The very few children released did not justify the cost of running such transit centres.

(c) During the time period between 1 July 2004 and 30 June 2005, only 17 boys and 22 girls were released to the transit centre. During the same period, 269

were considered released from all districts in the North except Trincomalee District.

(d) Between 1 July 2004 and 30 June 2005, the Kilinochchi transit centre accommodated released children for 13 weeks. These released children from this transit centre have been reunited with their families.

(e) In December 2004, UNICEF met with senior level LTTE leaders to discuss the usage of the transit centres. Due to the limited number of children being released it was agreed that the Killinochchi transit centre should be reprogrammed for an alternate use.

(f) UNICEF withdrew all their support to the transit centre, including their staff by the end of December 2004.

(g) UNICEF continued to maintain the hope that the transit centres would be used to accommodate released children, should the LTTE release a sufficient number. However such plans were abandoned since there were too many unresolved issues related to such centres, relating to the type of staff employed to run the centre, how reunification occurs, rehabilitation of child combatants and the quality and access to psychosocial therapy they could hope to obtain.

Other absurdities on the part of UNICEF included the enthusiasm of its Head for the commitment of the LTTE, as late as 2007, to release children under 17. When it was pointed out that 18 was the lower limit, she remarked that the LTTE had told her it needed to introduce new legislation for this purpose, since the limit on its existing law was 17. When it was pointed out that the LTTE could not legislate, she apologized, and referred to regulations. It was clear that she had been totally taken in by LTTE masquerades as to its intentions.

The importance attached by the LTTE to continuing use of child soldiers is apparent from its attempt to remove the topic from discussion at the last sets of peace negotiations held under the CFA in 2006. At a meeting with the Norwegian ambassador held in March 2006, in preparation for negotiations in April, they 'insisted that the issue of child recruitment does not fall within the parameters of the CFA, and should not be part of the agenda at the next round of talks...Mr Bratskar has pointed out that the CFA does mention of the abductions. Since a child cannot voluntarily join the LTTE military force, all recruitment will have to be treated as abduction. He had also argued that looking at the history of the six rounds of talks, there is an acknowledgment that recruitment should not be continued, and that continued recruitment was extremely damaging to the image of the LTTE at the international level.'

After this exchange, the LTTE refused to go to talks in April. In June they went to Oslo but refused to talk. Finally in October they did talk for one day, but not on the second. Though the issue of child soldiers was not the only one they were diffident about, clearly they felt very uncomfortable when it was on the table.

Future Plans
It is apparent now that no reliance can be placed on the LTTE with regard to child soldiers. Recently a large proportion of young girls have been found amongst the dead in LTTE bunkers and, though these may not be children, it is apparent that the practice of putting the vulnerable in the front lines has resumed.

All this however makes it more important that the government, in collaboration with UNICEF and other appropriate agencies, sets in place plans for rehabilitation, that will cater not only to the children now in custody, or who may soon be released by the Karuna faction, but also those who might be able to escape from LTTE clutches.

A Committee set up by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Human Rights (IMCHR), which functions under the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, has developed plans for several rehabilitation Centres, and identified partners who can provide suitable care plus high level training to give former child combatants better opportunities for employment. Working together with UN agencies that move beyond the basic dependency needs of most victims of war seems the best option, and projects have been proposed to ILO and IOM, in addition to bilateral donors.

Providing a positive future is essential for these children who have been so badly abused in the past. If the current intransigent LTTE leadership changes, it is possible that a younger generation, some of whom suffered abuse as children as did many in the Karuna faction, will promote a change of approach that will open up opportunities they were denied. Sri Lanka hopes that the international community, some of which still continues despite all statistical evidence in a state of denial about LTTE brutality in this regard, will contribute to the change that is so urgently needed.

Courtesy: Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP)

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