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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home Human Rights & Humanitarian Law > Humanitarian Laws of Armed Conflict > Child Soldiers and the Law > Children and Armed Conflict in Sri Lanka: Politics, Human Rights & the Law  > Grow Up, UNICEF - Playing political football with child soldiers

Children and Armed Conflict in Sri Lanka:
Politics, Human Rights & the Law

Playing political football with child soldiers

 J.T. Janani, Tamil Guardian, 28 June 2006

"The �Convention on the Rights of the Child� is not a universal standard that is to be extended to the Tamils; it is merely a stick to beat them with when convenient..."

Last week UNICEF finally �called for immediate action to halt the abduction and forced recruitment of children by the Karuuna group.� UNICEF�s gesture, although somewhat late in the day, is appreciated - as are all such moves by the plethora of international actors who take an interest in the Tamil situation. But the timing of UNICEF�s statement is noteworthy. For, like other Sri Lanka observers, UNICEF has known about the Army-backed Karuna Group�s forcible recruitment of teenagers for at least the fifteen months before its June 2006 statement.

In any case, in November 2005, the matter was directly raised by the Tamil diaspora organisation, the International Federation of Tamils (IFT), which issued a press release unambiguously titled: �Sri Lankan Army accused of abduction and forced military training of children from army controlled Tamil areas.� It was based, moreover, on the personal accounts of three former child soldiers who had been kidnapped by Karuna Group paramilitaries and held in Sri Lanka Army camps in the east.

"We came here as children. We married in the camp and had children here"
- Sivarajah Sashikala, refugee, Nilaveli, 2003 (picture by ADB)

The IFT followed up its press release with a complaint to the UN�s Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children & Armed Conflict. The complaint was copied to UNICEF and the Coalition to Stop the use of child soldiers, among others. The youth, who had surrendered to the Liberation Tigers having deserted the paramilitaries when they were sent out on missions, are available for interview and cross examination.

But there was absolutely no interest whatsoever. Indeed, no response. The complaint wasn�t even acknowledged.

The lack of response was astonishing, not least because the complaint was supported by examinable evidence. Moreover, the accusations were not new to Sri Lankans or the UN agencies. There had been reports and photographs in the Colombo press as far back as early 2005. On March 20, The Sunday Leader newspaper carried an article titled �Karuna camp in govt. controlled area.� On the subject of child soldiers, the article said �(Sri Lankan) Military sources said that they believed that around 60 cadres operated out of Thivichchenei including under-aged cadres. While The Sunday Leader was at the village entrance, a youth who appeared to be around 12 years walked past carrying a firearm and ammunition.�

Amid reports that Tamil children in Sri Lanka Army-controlled areas were being abducted or openly being seized by unidentified gunmen, the Liberation Tigers were repeatedly blamed. Not once did UNICEF acknowledge that anti-LTTE paramilitary groups operating in government controlled areas were responsible.

One would not normally expect a United Nations agency tasked with the protection of the interests of children to willingly turn a blind eye to the issue of child soldiers, particularly where the armed forces of a member government are allegedly involved.

But UNICEF said absolutely nothing on the subject of the Karuna Group�s use of child soliders until June 2006, over one year later. In the intervening period, as it had done in the past, the agency continued to issue press releases blaming the LTTE, refusing to acknowledge the movement�s efforts to investigate and address complaints against it.

In fact, in the wake of Sri Lankan press reports of Karuna Group activities being stepped up in the east, UNICEF pointed a finger at the LTTE instead. �In June this year, there were 18 cases of child recruitment reported from the eastern Batticaloa region and in July so far we have received complaints of 28 cases in the same area,� Jeffrey Keele, UNICEF spokesperson, told the BBC in 2005. Batticaloa is, of course, where the Karuna Group is predominantly active.

The UNICEF statement was especially puzzling. To begin with, the LTTE, which had been negotiating on a tsunami aid-sharing mechanism, was said to be urgently seeking international legitimacy for their administration. It seemed contradictory that it would step up recruitment of under-18s at the same time.

From a pragmatic perspective, such moves defied logic. The Sri Lanka armed forces were recruiting heavily and acquiring weaponry from abroad. International actors were reiterating their support for the Colombo government. Could the forcible recruitment of a few dozen teenagers be the LTTE�s build up for a war?

And all this amidst persistent claims, both in the Sri Lankan media and by Tamil organisations, that Army-backed paramilitaries were responsible. This is not to deny that the LTTE has recruited fighters under the age of 18, but to ask why the movement was being singled out.

Some suggested that UNICEF was resorting to �bashing the Tiger� in response to strong and understandable criticism from Sinhala rightwingers that its staffers, like those of other NGOs, were riding the gravy train in Sri Lanka. Indeed, Tamil aid workers had joined the chorus of protest at the enormous overheads that their international colleagues seemed to labour under. Amid reports of UN staffers living the high life in Colombo � even, it is alleged, barely days after the December 2004 tsunami, there were grumbles about the gleaming fleet of vehicles many INGOs race about the Northeast in.

Pique at the Tamil criticism and hope of ingratiating itself with strident Sinhala critics, some argue, were a key motivator in UNICEF�s Nelsonian approach to underage recruitment by the Karuna Group � which, as Sri Lanka watchers know, is a darling of the southern nationalist press.

The question here, is about UNICEF�s commitment to the principles enshrined in the �Convention on the Rights of the Child.� Many argue that the UN agencies � and many other NGOs � operate in a broad framework dedicated to preserving the status quo vis-�-vis states and non-state challengers. In short, that in Sri Lanka (and probably elsewhere), UNICEF is playing political football with the emotive and sensitive issue of children�s rights. Apart from its own local interests, UNICEF�s Tiger-bashing serves the wider geopolitical interests of key international actors.

UNICEF is not alone in this regard. Many �expert� organisations involved in �promoting/defending child rights� in Sri Lanka operate in a similar framework. Before going further, I am not denying the presence of under-18s in LTTE ranks � the movement itself regularly releases batches of under-age fighters and attempts to engage with UNICEF and other actors on the problem.

The point here is that all these efforts are ultimately futile, because none of the international actors are interested in the actual facts. An illustrative example is what happened when I recently met with a well known London-based international affairs think-tank. The Asia Desk head � who is also a consultant to Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers � claimed expertise on Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and on child soldiers in particular. But not only had she never been to the North or East, she had little hard data to back up her assertions against the LTTE. Simple questions as to how many under-18s were in LTTE ranks, of these how many were under-16s, how many were forcibly recruited, how many had joined out of poverty or after suffering violence by armed forces, how many were in combat units as opposed to civil administration, etc could not be answered. The point here is that having no answers to these questions does not prevent this analyst from being an expert on �the LTTE and its use of child soldiers.�

There is also a key discrepancy that underscores the role UNICEF and the logic of child soldiers plays in reinforcing the international pro-state status quo. Not recruiting under-18s is supposed to be a universal standard of behaviour. But the UN applies different age standards to state and non-state armies. State armies can may not recruit persons under sixteen years, whereas non-state armies may not recruit below eighteen.

Of course, this discrepancy has been criticised by some � and by no means all - of those campaigning on child soldiers (indeed when asked for her views, the Asia Desk head tartly pointed out I should ask the UN that). But, by any standard, the criticism against states is mild compared to that levelled against organisations like the LTTE. Equally, there is much readiness to accept a government's justification for breaching the �universal� norm. One former UN staffer told me that when Britain was asked to explain its recruitment practices, her Ambassador simply declared that in British culture, there was nothing wrong with taking recruits in at the age of sixteen.

This ready acceptance of contextual peculiarities, however, does not extend to all actors. That there are a myriad reasons, both structurally underlying and immediately motivating, for which Tamil youth join the LTTE are irrelevant to those campaigning against the movement. There is a concomitant lack of interest in acquiring an understanding either. The experts are short on facts and numbers, but their views are emphatic. And in the international regime against child soldiers, that�s apparently not problematic.

To return to the silence over the Karuna Group�s forcible recruitment of children, international interests are at play here, too. To begin with, Karuna is part of the �democratic� alternatives that the international community insists the Tamils are backing. Given the repeatedly alleged link between the paramilitaries and the Sri Lankan armed forces, how could the United States stand emphatically behind an army complicit in the abduction and conscription of child soldiers? Just this week an Indian website ran a story that Tamil paramilitaries are recruiting children from refugee camps and orphanages in southern India � how are these recruits being moved into Sri Lanka without the knowledge of both governments?

The question, meanwhile, is what does all this mean for the �standard� of not recruiting children?

The LTTE having agreed to comply with UN standards in the context of the peace process, finds itself frustrated by the deliberate refusal to recognise its efforts - it even gets blamed for the child recruitment by its enemy. Conversely, the paramilitaries, secure that their violations will be ignored as part of the wider objective of countering the LTTE, will continue their recruitment � last week, Tamil paramilitaries accompanied by Sri Lanka troops openly abducted over a hundred teenagers in a brazen breach of UN �standards.�

Against this backdrop one can speculate as to why UNICEF would link the Karuna Group and child soldiers now - as opposed to say November 2005 when Tamil activists were hammering on UN doors, and there was much more hope for the peace process. To begin with, the ultimate political sanction has been served on the LTTE � it has been proscribed by the European Union, leaving pretty much little by way of further political coercion. Yet the violence is not decreasing, but escalating.

Yet it is difficult to bring open pressure on the Sri Lankan state � in the wake of the EU ban, there is no longer much incentive for Colombo to reign in the paramilitaries or, for that matter, their armed forces. Frustration with Sri Lanka�s inability to play in step within a broader international framework to contain the LTTE [i.e. the GoSL's lack of any viable political plan], key international actors are starting to exert pressure. The sense � voiced by many sympathetic to the Sri Lankan government � that the Karuna Group and covert operations sections of the military are operating free of political authority may also be playing a role. Note the EU�s threat that it is now considering proscribing the Karuna Group � apparently murdering a Tamil parliamentarian in Church at Christmas Mass was not quite reason enough.

On a concluding note, it must be remembered that UNICEF�s brief is not child soldiers alone, but the welfare of children. In this regard, UNICEF, whilst focusing on the thousand or so under-18s it says are in the LTTE�s ranks, has still not got around to doing much of anything about the child rights issues faced by the many hundreds of thousand of Tamil children in the Northeast: a large population of children live in refugee camps, few schools function normally, many � particularly teenage girls - run a gauntlet of Sri Lankan troops every day.

But we shouldn�t expect this to change. It is simply not in the interests of UNICEF�s stakeholders right now. The �Convention on the Rights of the Child� is not a universal standard that is to be extended to the Tamils; it is merely a stick to beat them with when convenient.


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