Magazine article Herizons

Child Soldiers Key to Rebuilding Sri Lanka

Magazine article Herizons

Child Soldiers Key to Rebuilding Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

(COLOMBO) Despite repeated assurances made to representatives of the UN, Amnesty International and the Scandinavian peace monitors in Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continue to recruit child soldiers.

"There was an explosion of complaints again in January and lots in February," according to Hagrup Haukland, chief of staff and deputy head of the peace-monitoring mission. He says cases are reported from all six of the monitors' offices in the country's North and East. "Child recruitment is still on. They have not stopped it."

However, at the fifth session of peace talks held in Berlin in February, the Tamil Tigers claimed to have stopped child recruitment, saying they were committed to a joint program with UNICEF for the return of child soldiers to their families.

This is the first time human rights and the demobilization of child soldiers have figured in peace talks between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. The peace process was launched after a Norwegian-brokered truce was declared last year. The Tigers have been fighting for a separate state of `Tamil Eelam' in the North and East of Sri Lanka for 19 years. An entire generation of children there has grown up in an environment of war.

Referring to a list of 350 names of children submitted by the peace monitors, Tigers' chief negotiator Anton Balasingham claimed that the cases had been looked into and that the majority were not under 18.

To this, Haukland replied, "He can state as much as he wants. We have the details, dotes of birth, etcetera. We have no interest in bluffing anybody. These are the hard facts."

From the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 to January 31, 2003, monitors investigated and confirmed 368 cases of child recruitment and are working on another 333 complaints. Exact figures are impossible to determine, but sources familiar with the ground situation in the North and East, such as the Tamil watchdog group University Teachers for Human Rights estimates there are thousands of child soldiers. A spokesman for Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga alleged that Tigers have kidnapped over 10,000 children.

At the Berlin talks, the Sri Lanka government and LTTE agreed that UNICEF would play a crucial role in the rehabilitation of child soldiers. UNICEF's Executive Director Coral Bellamy, on a three-day visit to Sri Lanka in January, said she was encouraged by the LTTE's commitment, nothing that UNICEF had assisted in securing the release of 350 child soldiers since November 2001.

UNICEF is expected to be involved in o joint plan to assist released children return to their families. It would include the setting up of `transit centers' to provide schooling, vocational training, health core and psychosocial support while their families are traced. …

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