There is no doubt that children are great fighters. They are easy to indoctrinate and will follow blindly where their heroes lead. When children fight in a war, it is a sign of the complete breakdown of all things moral. Children in armed combat are clearly vulnerable to manipulation by adult soldiers and commanders. They often resort to joining the battle not because of a burning desire to serve the cause, but because they have few other options. Some weeks ago, Sri Lanka´s Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar issued a severe rebuke to the Director of UNICEF in Sri Lanka. UNICEF, the only UN organisation dedicated exclusively to children, has a great track record, and a web page that says that “recruiting children into armed forces or sending them into combat situations of any kind should be considered a war crime by the proposed international criminal court”.
What occasioned the dressing down from the foreign minister? After the recent battle of Kilinochchi, 26 fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) surrendered their arms. Many of them were under 15. Article 38 of the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC) states that children under 15 should not be used in war. (The international community is now, albeit somewhat late in the day, advocating an Optional Protocol to raise the legal age for war to 18.) In employing child soldiers, the LTTE had clearly violated children´s rights and the Sri Lankan government wanted this to be obvious to everyone. But UNICEF refused to issue an official statement condemning the LTTE´s actions.
UNICEF has many roles to play in Sri Lanka at the moment. One of the most important is ensuring that food, basic health care and essential supplies get to the about 300,000 children who live in LTTE-controlled areas like the Vanni jungles. UNICEF did not issue a condemnatory statement because it needs to maintain open lines of communication with the LTTE so that supplies for children, both soldiers and students, can get through.
Olara Otunnu, the United Nations Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict visited Colombo three months ago, and b199okered some commitments between the government and the LTTE. These concerned access to humanitarian supplies, return of displaced persons and the recruitment of child soldiers. The LTTE gave their commitment not to use children under 18 as soldiers, and not to recruit into their forces those who were under 17. They also agreed to a small but important caveat: as a way to identify any violation of the three commitments, a monitoring framework would be set up, to which the government also agreed. However, no one has yet put the crucial mechanism in place.
Now, faced with the evidence of the LTTE´s violation of the commitment it made, Colombo can´t seem to decide who was responsible for the monitoring. The LTTE could hardly have coordinated it from the deep jungles in which they hide. The UN could have come up with a monitoring process, but the government is pretty touchy about what it perceives as “undue interference” by international aid agencies. As the sovereign entity in the negotiation process, the government is responsible for coordinating monitoring efforts. Of course, had the government tried to monitor the commitments themselves, the mechanism would no longer have remained completely neutral. The UN might then have had to step in anyhow.
Guerilla warfare by definition is a hidden war. Whoever monitors the LTTE´s commitments is hardly likely to be able to conduct troop inspections every morning and send under-age cadets home. As there is no way the LTTE´s commitments can be monitored, why is unicef so afraid that issuing a strong statement would provoke the LTTE and deny them access to the 300,000-plus needy children that they want to help? Surely the LTTE would want all children (turned soldier or not) living under its battle-torn jurisdiction to have food and clothing?
UNICEF is a high-profile organisation and its actions speak loudly. If unicef were to publicly condemn the use of child soldiers by the LTTE, it may dawn on the ltte´s top fundraisers in the West that the organisation on whose behalf they canvass does not act within international conventions. It would not have been without precedent, as UNICEF has extricated children from combat and assisted demobilised child soldiers in both Rwanda and Sierra Leone.