Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: UN agencies keep up pressure on rebels over under-age recruitment

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COLOMBO, 23 May 2007 (IRIN) - Over the past year, UN agencies in Sri Lanka have tried to keep the national and international focus on one of the most unfortunate aspects of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war - under-age recruitment of children as soldiers in the conflict.

According to the United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF), currently there are 1,832 outstanding cases of under-age recruitment by non-state entities.

"There has been some improvement in the numbers, but still there are outstanding cases and even one child recruited is an issue for us," William Kollie, a UNICEF child protection specialist told IRIN.

On 10 May, the chairman of the Working Group of the UN Security Council on Children in Armed Conflict released tough statements regarding the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Karuna group - two parties UNICEF says still indulge in child recruitment and abductions in Sri Lanka.

The chairman of the Working Group strongly condemned the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the two factions and urged them to release all under-aged recruits and halt new recruitments. There are 1,634 outstanding cases of under-age recruitment by the Tigers and 198 by the Karuna group, according to UNICEF figures.

Warning

"The Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict calls the attention of the leadership of the LTTE to the fact that on 20 December 2006 the Security Council received a report by the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Sri Lanka, describing inter alia a continuous, ongoing and even increasing pattern of abduction, recruitment and use of children by the LTTE, in spite of previous commitments," Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sablière, the chairman of the Working Group, said. He warned that if the LTTE did not curtail such practices, "further steps may be taken."

Dispute over numbers

The Tamil Tigers reject UNICEF's figures on the under-age recruits it still holds: "We have received only 20 or so complaints from parents about their children being within our ranks. We are now trying to figure out why there is a discrepancy," military spokesperson Rasiah Illanthariyan told IRIN.

UNICEF agrees there are differences over the numbers. "We will only list a child as released when we have verified the information. Just because a name is given to us, we can't adjust the lists," says William Kollie.

The Tigers also say UNICEF should not include in its tally those recruits who are now over 18, although they were recruited at a younger age. They have also said children engaged in non-combat tasks should be excluded. UNICEF disagrees with this reasoning.

According to UNICEF, at the end of April there were 550 people within Tamil Tiger ranks who were under 18.

Disagreements over rehabilitation

UNICEF and the Tamil Tigers also disagree on procedures for rehabilitating under-age recruits.

In 2003 the Tigers agreed to an action plan under which three rehabilitation centres run by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), with some UNICEF support, were to be established for former child recruits in areas under the control of the Tigers in the north and east. Only one, in Kilinochchi District, the political headquarters of the Tigers, ultimately became functional.

However, Kollie says UNICEF and the Tigers disagreed on a variety of issues regarding the rehabilitation centre, including the time children should spend there. Only 173 children were released through the centre, which stopped functioning after about a year.

"We don't encourage the opening of the centres," says UNICEF's protection specialist, Kollie. "We feel the best option is for the children to return to their parents."

Karuna faction

The allegations against the Karuna group, which consists of former LTTE members who broke away in 2004, are more recent. UNICEF and other organizations say Karuna continues to abduct and recruit children, especially in the country's east where it is strongest.

Last month, UNICEF issued a press release complaining that Karuna had not honoured pledges to allow its protection staff to visit camps to follow-up on allegations of abductions. UNICEF said its officials were taken to a hastily established camp where no children were present. The UN agency's requests to gain access to other camps were turned down. Karuna says it cannot allow UNICEF unrestricted access for security reasons.

"Our supposed cooperation is obscured by the faction's apparent determination to delay, frustrate, and mislead the process to end the use of children as combatants in this country's conflict," UNICEF Chief Protection Officer Andrew Brooks says.

"The Vanni Tigers (LTTE) are a threat. They want to eliminate us. As long as the threat is there, we cannot give such access to UNICEF," Karuna group spokesperson Azad Moulana told IRIN. "What if something happens at a camp when UNICEF is there, then who is responsible? Once that threat is gone, they are welcome everywhere," he added.

Tigers "more open for dialogue"

UNICEF, nevertheless, feels that the renewed international attention - especially in the aftermath of last year's mission to Sri Lanka by Allan Rock, special adviser to the UN special representative for children and armed conflict - has brought about some improvement in the situation. "With the Rock visit, the Tigers have been more open for dialogue and regular meetings," William Kollie says. Karuna group spokesperson Moulana also said that after the visit they had opened proper communications with UNICEF, saying "We want to continue working with UNICEF."

But Kollie was also quick to add that until all children are safely out of the ranks of the Tigers and the Karuna group, pressure should persist. "Zero tolerance, that is what we want, and we want to hold the parties responsible to commitments they make," he said.

ap/bj/cb

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