Tigers playing games with UN over children
NEW YORK - The United Nations is threatening to come down heavily on governments and rebel movements that continue to recruit child soldiers in violation of international law.

"It's a damaging and despicable practice," says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who estimates more than 250,000-300,000 children under arms worldwide. But despite five Security Council resolutions condemning it, child soldiering continues unabated.

The LTTE has been singled out as one of the world's worst offenders, with the average age of child recruitment at 15. The 'Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers', a London-based group of more than 100 non-governmental organisations, has implicitly dismissed LTTE leaders as a bunch of liars -- but in more diplomatic jargon.

A new 360-page study released by the Coalition last week quotes several "solemn pledges" made by the LTTE to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) promising to cease all recruitment of underage children.

After a meeting in Berlin in February 2003, an LTTE spokesman was quoted as saying that "senior LTTE leaders had been discharged following investigations into recruitment."

But all this has turned out to be hogwash because UNICEF has documented the recruitment of hundreds and thousands of children despite sanctimonious LTTE pledges.

As of February last year, there were more than 1,250 child soldiers in LTTE camps, but the true figure was said to be much higher, according to UNICEF. If a resolution currently being discussed by the Security Council is adopted next month, there would be targeted sanctions against governments and rebel leaders who continue to recruit child soldiers.

The countries named in the report include: Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Colombia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Uganda. In some cases, governments are guilty of deploying child soldiers, and in others, armed rebel groups are held responsible, as is the case with Sri Lanka.

The proposed sanctions include travel restrictions on leaders and their exclusion from any governance structures and amnesty provisions; the imposition of arms embargoes; a ban on military assistance; and restriction on the flow of financial resources to warring parties.

Rima Salah, UNICEF's Deputy Executive Secretary, proposed an even tougher measure: the time has come, she said, to subject those who recruit and use child soldiers to the full force of the national legal systems and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Addressing a meeting of the Security Council last week, Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke not only endorsed the proposed restrictions but also charged that the LTTE has continued to recruit thousands of children, mostly by force.

Tiger response
But in an obvious attempt to circumvent the proposed restrictions, the LTTE's Political Wing Chief S.P. Thamilselvan has fired off a letter to Olara Otunnu, the Under-Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, expressing readiness to enter into a dialogue with the UN.

This is also seen as an attempt to marginalize UNICEF which has been consistent in its condemnation of the LTTE. Otunnu is expected to meet with an LTTE delegation, possibly in mid March, to follow up a meeting he had with LTTE leaders during his visit to Sri Lanka in 1998.

But the question for Otunnu is: how trustworthy is the LTTE which has a miserable track record of broken pledges? Is the UN on the verge of being taken for a ride?

Otunnu told the Security Council that he wants the LTTE leadership "to embark immediately on tangible actions leading to a time-bound action plan to end, once and for all, the practices of recruitment, abductions, and the use of children as soldiers."

"I am instinctively suspicious of the LTTE move," says one UN official who is fully aware of past LTTE tactics. "This is very likely a ploy to stave off Security Council sanctions. By starting a dialogue you give the impression of trying to be good when everybody knows that they did not deliver on their promises not to recruit children."

If the LTTE is hit with sanctions, no UN member state will permit any of the LTTE leaders to visit their country. This, of course, includes Norway and Thailand, where peace talks were held earlier.

But there may be an attempt to inscribe exceptions to the travel ban, exempting leaders shuttling on peace missions. A new UN study, submitted to the Security Council last week, identifies six grave violations described as egregious abuses against children.

These include killing or maiming of children; recruiting or using child soldiers; attacks against schools or hospitals; rape and other grave sexual violence against children; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access for children.

The secretary-general expects key UN and international bodies such as the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, and regional organisations and governments to take action against child abuse.

Speaking before the Security Council, Otunnu echoed a variation of a famous song by Jamaican reggae singer, the late Bob Marley:

"Hear the children cryin'
From Apartado, Malisevo and the Vanni
But I know they cry not in vain
Now the times are changin'
Love has come to bloom again.'
Let's hope the UN is right – and times are really changing.

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