Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Saving children the UN way



Some delegates attending the World Conference on Youth (WCY) in Colombo demonstrate on Friday (May 9) at the BMICH demanding international action to secure the release of girls abducted by Boko Haram terrorists in north-eastern Nigeria. They urged the international community to act swiftly and decisively to prevent Boko Haram from carrying out further abductions. The organisers prevented the demonstrators from entering the media centre though they assured a peaceful protest within the building.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorists earned the wrath of some western powers for abducting over 200 girls on April 14, 2014.

The US and the UK pledged to support Nigerian efforts to locate the girls.

The AFP quoted an aide to British Prime Minister, David Cameron as having said that the UK would send a team of experts to help locate the missing girls. The times revealed that Abuja based liaison officers from the elite Special Air Services (SAS) too, would join the rescue mission. The agreement came in the wake of Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck having a telephone conversation with Premier Cameroon.

Six US Senators moved a resolution supporting Nigerian efforts to find the abducted girls. They called for the immediate release and return of the girls.

"We and our African allies should do everything to help the Nigerian government rescue innocent girls and return them to their families," senator Dick Durbin, one of the six sponsors of the resolution tweeted, while calling the Boko Haram action "an affront to the civilized world."

US First Lady Michelle Obama expressed sympathy for the missing girls in a personal message on twitter. She was responding to the mass kidnapping, in the wake of President Obama calling the seizure ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘outrageous’. The US too sent military experts to help locate the girls.

People demonstrated outside the Nigerian embassy in Washington, demanding swift action to track down the girls. In Colombo, some delegates spearheaded by Nigerians attending the World Conference on Youth (WCY) on May 9 protested at the BMICH to highlight the plight of the Nigerian students.

All leading western news agencies targeted Boko Haram for the abductions. The media quoted state department spokesperson, Marie Harf as having said that the as feared, many of the 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped in the northern part of the country had been moved out of the country. The US asserted that they could have been taken to nearby Chad or Cameroon, last Friday.

Protests by some delegates to the WYC demanding tangible measures to secure the release of the missing evoked memories of brutal LTTE tactics – the use of teenage girls as cannon fodder.

The LTTE freely used child soldiers even in high intensity combat operations.

Although the LTTE continued with this despicable practice for many years, the international community turned a blind eye to what was going on in the ground. The five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), ahead of parliamentary election in December 2001, recognised the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. The so-called civil society didn’t even bother to voice their concern over the LTTE-TNA partnership. In fact, no other terrorist groups had used children on combat operations as well as suicide missions the way the LTTE did.

The LTTE carried out its forcible recruitment campaign until the very end. Let me reproduce a paragraph (No. 98 – Page 28) in Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ on Accountability in Sri Lanka" to highlight the LTTE strategy.

"In spite of the futility of its military situation, the LTTE not only refused to surrender, but also continued to prevent civilians from leaving the area, ensuring their continued presence as a human buffer. It forced civilians to help build military installations and fortifications or undertake other forced labour. It also intensified its practice of forced recruitment, including children, to swell their dwindling ranks. As LTTE recruitment increased, parents actively resisted, and families took increasingly desperate measures to protect their children from recruitment. They had their children in secret locations or forced them into early arranged marriages. The LTTE cadre would beat relatives or parents, sometimes severely, if they tried to resist recruitment. All these approaches, many of them aimed at defending the LTTE and its leaders, portrayed the callousness towards the desperate plight of civilians and a willingness to sacrifice their lives."

Report of the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict released on April 13, 2010, dealt with the situation on the Vanni East front.

Having recorded 397 cases of child recruitment, including 147 girls during Jan.1, 2009 – May 19, 2009, period, the UNICEF admitted that the actual number of abductions was much higher. Among the child victims was a 16-year old girl dependent of a UN national staffer.

With Sri Lanka facing an international inquiry over accountability issues, it would be pertinent to examine the issue of child soldiers in the backdrop of international condemnation of Boko Haram for abducting over 200 girls.

At the onset of Indian intervention is Sri Lanka, its intelligence services encouraged the use of child soldiers. All Tamil groups, including these now in the Illankai Tamil Arosu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA running the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), recruited children.

The TNA consisted of the PLOTE, EPRLF, TELO, ITAK and TULF.

India forced the then President TRJ to invite the Indian Army in July 1987. When India decided to call off its operation, it formed what was known as the Tamil National Army (TNA), to protect the EPRCF – led NE provincial administration. The Indian army provided training as well as weapons to the TNA cadre, including many child soldiers.

The international community ignored the Indian actions. Thousands of child soldiers died in fighting among Indian sponsored Tamil groups, fighting between the LTTE and the Indian Army (Oct 87 – March 90) and the war involving the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. Due to negligence on the part of successive governments of Sri Lanka, those who had supported the use of child soldiers never faced legal action. The Tamil National Alliance, which openly backed the LTTE throughout the conflict (2001-2009), hence supportive of the despicable use of child soldiers, are now recognised as human rights defenders. Even 5 years after the end of the conflict, the government is yet to conduct a survey to estimate the number of child soldiers in accordance with an overall plan meant to counter lies propagated by interested parties.

India never acknowledged its shocking role in using child soldiers in combat operations. The TNA constituents too, never commented on the contentions issue of using children as a weapon.

The government should launch a survey to identify those who had died fighting as child soldiers and the circumstances of their death.

The conflict in Sri Lanka would not have lasted so long if the LTTE was deprived of an opportunity to use child soldiers. During the Norwegian government led peace initiative (Feb. 2002 – April 2003), the LTTE brazenly conscripted children.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), did nothing except recording statements from those parents accusing the LTTE of abducting their children.

The records are with the government as well as other Scandinavian countries which contributed personnel to the SLMM.

The SLMM ignored high handed LTTE actions, regardless of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), in place since Feb. 2002.

Sri Lanka’s peace Co-chairs, namely the US, EU, Japan and Norway too, did not take up the issue. No country demanded that the LTTE cease using child soldiers. Had the international community adopted punitive measures against the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran would have been compelled to give up using children as cannon fodder. Instead, the global community engaged in a foolish bid to reach an agreement with the LTTE to stop the conscription of child soldiers. Let me examine the UN-LTTE agreement finalized in May 1998.

On behalf of the UN, negotiations were conducted in May 1998 by Olara Otunnu, the Special Representative of the then UN General Secretary. Otunnu functioned as the top UN Representative in charge of children affected by Armed Conflict. Otunnu was here on the invitation of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The LTTE declared a two-day ceasefire in view of the UN official’s visit. The then Jaffna Commander, Major General Lionel Balagalle told the writer that the LTTE would never give up employing child soldiers.

Having met Otunnu at his headquarters in Palaly, Balagalle asserted that Prabhakaran could not stop using child soldiers, even if he wanted to do so. The very survival of the LTTE remained on the unlimited supply of child soldiers, one-time Director of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) said. (Jaffna security forces commander briefs UN Special Representative. The Island, May 5, 1998).

Otunnu was widely believed to be the first foreign official to meet the LTTE leadership in the Vanni, since the departure of the Indian Army in March 1996. Having met British passport holder Anton Balasingham and Political Wing Leader SP Thamilchelvam, Otunu, in a statement issued through the UN office of the Resident Co-ordinator in Colombo, claimed that the LTTE would not use children below the age of 18 in combat. Otunnu also quoted the LTTE as having said that the group would not recruit children below the age of 17. (Tigers agree to end use of children below 18 in combat-The Island, May 9 1998)

Although the UN claimed it had the LTTE’s consent to set up a mechanism to monitor the commitments made by the group, it did nothing to implement the agreement. The UN admitted that during talks between Otunnu and the LTTE, the latter refused to release under-age recruits or reveal the number of such cadres in uniform at that time (UN, LTTE to discuss modalities with strap line pledge to stop using children in combat – The Island – May 11, 1998)

The UN never made a serious attempt to ensure the implementation of decision taken in the Vanni. International human rights organizations, particularly the London headquartered Amnesty International remained mum, though they knew what was happening on the ground.

Instead of stopping child recruitment, the LTTE launched a major drive to boost its fighting strength. The LTTE needed additional muscle as it prepared to launch a massive offensive on the Vanni front meant to drive the army out of the Vanni region. The LTTE sacrificed hundreds of children in a series of high intensity battles along the Kandy – Jaffna A9 road, north of Omanthai as well as east of the road before overrunning the strategic Elephant Pass base in April 2000.

The LTTE used child soldiers in frontal attacks on army fortifications, regardless of heavy casualties. The LTTE refrained from giving the date of birth of those killed in action.

Sri Lanka should push for a comprehensive probe into the failures of international actions. The UN never examined its failures in Sri Lankan. The reluctance to investigate the circumstances under which UN agreement with the LTTE came into being in May 1998 is a case in point.

The UN never commented on its agreement with the LTTE. The UN was careful not to discuss it. Strangely, the Sri Lankan government too never expressed concern over the failure on the part of the UNP to implement the agreement.

Although, the 1998 Rome Statue for International Criminal Court (ICC) listed enlistment of children under the age of 18 into the armed forces of a sovereign country and their deployment as a was crime, the LTTE was given the freedom to exploit children.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan government, it never resorted to conscription in spite of a severe shortage of fighting men. Successive governments refrained from introducing conscription, though some felt the need to bring in compulsory military service to meet the LTTE challenge.

Throughout the campaign in the Vanni (1998 – April 2000), the LTTE issued media statements from its International Secretariat based in London. Of course, statements from London never made any reference to heavy sacrifices made by child soldiers on the front.

Today, Adele Balasingham, who threw her weight behind the LTTE recruitment campaign at the onset of the Oslo-arranged ceasefire, lives comfortably in the UK. Adele played a high profile role in the recruitment of girls, for frontline fighting units. The Colombo based diplomatic community did not take any notice about what was going on in the Vanni. The TNA leadership backed the child recruitment campaign. The then UNP government never complained, though the armed forces and the police tried to sabotage the LTTE project.

The UN reacted strongly to the Nigerian abductions. UN chief Ban Ki-moon sent a special envoy to explore ways and means of assisting Nigeria. A unanimous UN Security Council declared the mass kidnappings ‘may amount to crimes against humanity’ under international law. The 15-member UN security council said that it would follow the situation and consider ‘appropriate measures’ to take against Boko Haram.

But the world turned a blind eye to mass recruitment campaigns undertaken by the LTTE from time to time.

The LTTE projects were meant to restore depleted fighting units as well as increase the strength to meet additional battlefield commitments.

Sometimes, passing out parades were held in schools with the participation of TNA politicians and government officials, during the Feb 2002 – April 2003 period.

In spite of the LTTE being listed as a terrorist organisation, in several countries, including India, child recruitment continued until the Sri Lanka military brought the LTTE to its knees, on May 18, 2009.