Feature Article

Children in Armed Conflict and the United Nations

[TamilNet, Saturday, 30 November 2002, 03:21 GMT]
It is estimated that 300,000 children are currently participating in fighting in more than 35 countries. 25 million are uprooted from their homes, while millions more have their lives severely affected by the deprivations of war. Dealing with 'impact of war on children' is high on United Nation's agenda, with an annual Security Council debate, several resolutions addressing the problem and an office of the Secretary General devoted to the topic. Sri Lanka does not figure prominently in the deliberations of the UN, but the outcome of UN decisions has been felt in Sri Lanka.

The UN Security Council has passed 3 resolutions concerning children and armed conflict, Resolutions 1261, 1314 and 1379, one each year since 1999. These are some of the few occasions on which the Security Council has considered a theme-based topic, rather than national or regional matters. Another debate on children in armed conflict (CAC) by the Security Council is expected to take place in December.

UN Country Flags
Flags of member countries in United Nations premises
Resolution 1261 in 1999 began with "noting recent efforts to bring to an end the use of children as soldiers" and formally established that the protection of children in situations of conflict is a peace-and-security concern which constitutes a legitimate preoccupation for the Security Council.

In 2000, through Resolution 1314, the Security Council "reaffirms its strong condemnation of the deliberate targeting of children in situations of armed conflict and the harmful and widespread impact of armed conflict on children, and the long-term consequences this has for durable peace, security and development," "emphasizes the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," and "urges all parties to armed conflict to respect fully international law applicable to the rights and protection of children in armed conflict."

Graca MAchel
Graca Machel
Resolution 1379, passed in 2001, emphasized the need for parties to a conflict to make special arrangements to meet the protection and assistance requirements of women, children and other vulnerable groups and underlined the importance of "the full, safe and unhindered access of humanitarian personnel and goods and delivery of humanitarian assistance to all children affected by armed conflict."

In the early 1990s the UN commissioned a study by Graca Machel, the former Minister of Education of Mozambique and now Nelson Mandela’s wife, on the effects of war on children. In that 1996 report, at the top of her list of recommendations, was "an urgent call to end the cynical exploitation of children as soldiers."A result of this trend of focusing on the needs of children at the UN was the appointment of the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict (SGSRCAC), Olara Otunnu, who leads a large department in New York.

Olara Ottunnu
Olara Otunnu
Otunnu’s efforts and several international efforts to improve the situation of children in war have focused on the use of ‘child soldiers.’ The atrocities committed by and against child soldiers in Sierra Leone, northern Uganda and Angola were used as evidence to make the use of child soldiers an illegal act. Lobbying from Coalition to End the Use of Child Soldiers, supported by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have helped to criminalize the recruitment of those under 18.

Two key additions to international law have resulted from this late 1990s focus on child soldiers.
  • The Rome Treaty establishing an International Criminal Court establishes that anyone responsible for recruiting a child under 15 can be prosecuted for war crimes. The Rome Treaty came into force in July, 2002.
  • The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits recruitment of anyone under 18. ‘Optional’ in this sense means that those ‘states-parties’ which signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child must decide again whether to ratify this additional protocol. Ninety-four countries have now signed the Protocol and 14 have actually ratified it. The Optional Protocol came into force in February, 2002.

Child soldier, africa
Child soldier in African continent(Photo: BBC)
The issue of ‘child soldiers’ has gained precedence over that of humanitarian access and the protection of children from the effects of modern warfare for several reasons.

Sexual abuse, drug abuse and abduction of youngsters and the mutilation and other excesses by several rebel forces in Africa have been used to sensationalize the use of child soldiers. After 30 years of the horror of war on TV screens - starving Biafrans, for example - a new problem provided the opportunity for a fresh prospective on the problem of children and war.

One cannot say, however, that child soldiers have such a high profile because it is purely an effort to demonize non-state actors. Several nations of the ‘first world’ also recruit those under 18 and have refused to ratify the Optional Protocol. For instance, both the US and Britain allow those under 18 to serve in their armed forces. The US is likely to consider these treaties an infringement of US sovereignty.

Young recruits in UK
Young British recruits (Photo: BBC)
In Britain 16 year-olds are recruited to the military that engages in the most active duty in the developed world. 16 year-olds are confined to barracks in Northern Ireland, but known to have sustained injury and death in that conflict. 16 year olds served with British forces in Kosovo and also died there.

International NGOs and aid agencies have accused the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of recruiting child soldiers and the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) claims that the LTTE uses children in combat.

Tigers say that many youngsters join voluntarily. Although selected few are given military training, those under 17 are assigned only non-combat roles, they say. Social conditions and poverty also drive youngsters to join the LTTE. In May the Tigers gave UNICEF an undertaking not to use children below the age of 18 in combat and not to recruit children under 17.

Prof. Daya Somasundaram, Head, Dept. of Psychiatry, University of Jaffna, writes that, "it may not be enough to just condemn or prohibit the recruitment of children. We need to ask why children join armies. If we are to prevent children fighting we need to understand the conditions under which children become soldiers and work to improve these conditions...In the civil war that has been in progress in north east Sri Lanka for almost two decades children have been traumatized by common experiences such as shelling, helicopter strafing, round ups, cordon and search operations, deaths, injury, destruction, mass arrests, detention, shootings, grenade explosions and landmines...There is a higher incidence of malnutrition and ill health in the war torn areas. Healthcare facilities in the north east are sparse and education and schools have been disrupted."

International help to children during war-time was minimal, mainly limited to annual polio vaccinations. However, Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), a local NGO with expatriate support, which runs several children's homes and nutritional centers has provided much needed service to children throughout the two decades of war.

Bindunuwewa killing
A young Tamil detainee killed in Bindunuwewa detainment facility setup as a 'show case' for SriLanka Government's rehabilitation efforts
In the Sri Lankan case it is not hard to see why ‘child soldiers’ have received so much attention, while issues of humanitarian access, the increase in infant mortality, the decline in education quality and malnutrition have not. Sri Lanka has been at war against a section of its own populace and one of the tactics of the war is to deny access to this affected group to hide the effects of war. GOSL's economic embargo to NorthEast has severely affected the well being of NorthEast population, especially children.

Taking a cue from the international campaign against child soldiers, Government of SriLanka then controlled by President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s PA party worked hard to de-legitimize LTTE in the eyes of the international community. Child soldiers was made the ‘children’s issue’ in discussions on Sri Lanka.

International watchdogs, especially UNICEF, which might have been expected to highlight the declining well-being of the children in the conflict areas, appeared to reflect the one-sided 'view from Colombo.' Such agencies' innate bias toward state actors, the LTTE’s lack of a state sponsor to voice its position in UN fora, and the friendliness of major world powers with Sri Lanka's government, all affected the International agenicies' attitude and ability to be advocates for the children affected by war.

With Northeast returning to normalcy, head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Maj. Gen. (ret) Trond Furuhovde, has said that assisting war affected children is urgent and presents a daunting challenge.

The current peace process provides the opportunity to start to alleviate the dire situation of children in the conflict areas. The parties to the conflict have recognized the need and are discussing ‘focused support for women and children’ who are ‘amongst the most severely affected by the conflict and will require special assistance in restoring their lives.'

Related articles:
24.06.02  LTTE adopts UN policy on recruitment
28.09.02  Polio immunisation targets northeast
06.04.02  INGOs' concern for Vanni children said hypocrisy laced
20.01.02 "Northeast children's rights affected"- UNICEF representative
04.11.01 Embargo, war caused 13, 379 civilian deaths - report
14.07.01 Colombo's embargo targets school children - Official
26.02.01 Vanni ban leaves little to take
25.05.01 Program to curb child malnutrition in Vanni
18.03.01 Want of food said afflicting war traumatised children
19.01.01 Embargo said causing malnutrition, deaths
25.10.00 25 killed in Detention Center massacre
31.01.99 Half Kilinochi under-5s malnourished
10.05.98 VoT reports UN official's visit
08.05.98 UN official calls for end to war
08.05.98 SLA recruiting children - Opposition leader
06.05.98 Otunnu declines calls for UN intervention
04.05.98 Seminar on education of war children
03.05.98 LTTE declares cease-fire for visit
25.04.98 UN official plans visit


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