In Sri Lanka, children at risk

B. Muralidhar Reddy

A U.N. report about elements of the Sri Lankan military aiding and abetting the recruitment of child soldiers by the Karuna group has added a new dimension to the conflict.

ALLAN ROCK, the Special Adviser to the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, has sent ripples through Sri Lanka's polity with his revelation that elements of the island-nation's military are actively aiding and abetting recruitment of child soldiers by the Karuna group in the east.

At the end of a 10-day mission that took him to parts of the conflict-ridden North and East, the U.N. envoy shared his findings at a news conference in Colombo on Monday. Hours before, he had brought them to the notice of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The details of his report make chilling reading and underscore the extent of brutalisation the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has caused.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have long been criticised by the international community for deploying children in combat. The LTTE is yet to honour its commitment to work with UNICEF and the Government to end the recruitment of children and to release under-age recruits.

Following the split in the LTTE and the emergence of Karuna, the rebel leader of the Tamil Tigers in the East, the menace of child soldiers was supposed to be a phenomenon of the past, at least in the parts "liberated" by Karuna.

The Rock report has dashed that hope. The new dimension, according to the Rock report, is of Sri Lankan army soldiers marching from village to village, particularly in Batticaloa district, photographing potential child recruits and lining them up for Karuna's men to pick up! Mr. Rock spoke of instances of women wanting to poison their children rather than see them conscripted.

The U.N. envoy said President Rajapaksa had promised an "immediate" investigation into the charges and to punish the guilty, if any, in the ranks of the military. However, exactly two hours later, the military denounced the mission as motivated.

"It is no secret that the Mission by innuendo has gone the extra mile to blame the troops of the Sri Lankan Security Forces who are deployed in government controlled areas of eastern Batticaloa to contain LTTE violence and defend human rights in the region," a military statement said.

Defence Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who said President Rajapaksa had ordered a "high level probe" into Mr. Rock's allegations, wanted to know how any mission could have arrived at such conclusions in just 10 days. The Minister said there was no point in inviting the Scotland Yard, and that given Mr. Rock's expertise, he should be entrusted with the task of investigating the November 10 assassination of pro-LTTE parliamentarian Nadarajah Raviraj in Colombo.

Mr. Rock, at the press conference, talked about a "sense of fear, terror and grave concern wherever we travelled." He spoke about an "atmosphere of impunity," that those with connections could get away with anything, which has gained ground particularly in the North and the East thanks to the undeclared war between the Government and the LTTE since April-May.

"There is a widespread feeling among people that police can't be counted upon, the army is not responsive and the security forces are not able to assist. The institutions of human rights have either deteriorated or disappeared. There is no one to turn to remedy even in case of grave human rights violations," Mr. Rock said.

This environment has made about 60,000 children, of the two lakh displaced in the current phase of conflict, vulnerable to attack from all sides. Rather than blame the messenger, the Government would do well to pay attention to the message and consider a serious probe.

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