SRI LANKAN CHILDREN IN CRISIS
Underage Recruitment Continues As More Children Drop Out of School
Statement Attributable to Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF
In Sri Lanka, one of the world's longest running armed conflicts continues to cause immense suffering and violations of children's rights. After 18 years of continuous strife, a generation of young people across the country has been robbed of a normal childhood. And tragically, conditions for children are worsening.
During a visit to Sri Lanka in 1998, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, obtained assurances from both the Government and the LTTE that gave hope for an improvement in the situation of children. In the ensuing three years, despite occasional positive signs, the overall situation of children has continued to deteriorate.
Recruitment Goes On
One of the most serious violations of children's rights in Sri Lanka is the continued recruitment of children by the LTTE, despite its promises to end this practice. In the years since Mr Otunnu's visit, the UN has observed increasing recruitment activity in and near schools and has received an increasing number of complaints from parents. Recent reports indicate some children are recruited even as young as 12. The UN has intervened with the LTTE several times, but so far with little result.
On a visit to northern Sri Lanka in February 2001, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Andre Roberfroid met senior representatives of the LTTE to express the UN's growing concerns. The LTTE confirmed its earlier commitments and agreed to implement additional measures proposed by the UN, which included widely publicising the minimum age for recruitment, not conducting any recruitment in or near schools, investigating all reported cases of children who have been recruited, and releasing those under the age of 17 years. The LTTE also undertook to allow the UN to systematically monitor compliance with these measures, including access to school attendance records by UNICEF and UNHCR staff to identify absent children.
Children Dropping Out
A second problem highlighted by Mr. Roberfroid was the increasing number
of children dropping out of school. This is largely due to an acute
shortage of trained teachers (resulting in an excessive reliance on
untrained volunteer teachers) and the need for children to help their
parents supplement family income. Even more worrying is the growing
disillusion with education as a way to a better future.
Basic education is the right of every child, and also a deterrent to
child recruitment. UNICEF therefore obtained agreement from the LTTE
not to obstruct a nationwide Government campaign, supported by UNICEF,
to identify children out of school and to help communities find local
solutions to get them back to the classroom. Under this programme, where
there is a possibility that a missing child might have been recruited,
the UN asks the LTTE to investigate and, if true, to release the child.
UNICEF has offered to provide additional resources for schools and for
upgrading the skills of volunteer teachers if the LTTE follows through
on these commitments.
During his February visit, Mr. Roberfroid also appealed to the Government to streamline humanitarian access so that child-related activities can take place in LTTE-controlled areas as they do in all other areas of the country. He also urged the Government to provide training for volunteer teachers and recognise their work, and to facilitate the work and security of UN staff in these areas. UNICEF has also been urging the Government to vacate schools currently occupied by its security forces.
All Parties Must Act
Despite one or two encouraging signs, there has been little demonstrable progress on any of these problems, and UNICEF calls for a much more vigorous and transparent response than has been shown thus far.
Specifically, UNICEF calls on the LTTE to adhere to all commitments made concerning recruitment, and to go even further by adhering to the Optional Protocol to the CRC that prohibits recruitment under the age of 18 years. UNICEF calls on the Government to take urgent steps to liberalise the current constraints to humanitarian access, to resolve the acute teacher shortage in the areas worst affected by the conflict and to remove military presence from schools. UNICEF also urges all Sri Lankans abroad who have influence on the situation in their country of origin to express their support for all measures to eradicate the twin issues of recruitment and school drop-out.
Replace Despair with Hope
Being recruited and dropping out of school are just two of the many ways children are affected by Sri Lanka's protracted conflict. Growing up displaced and in a heavily militarised environment both lead to psychological stress, family break-up, despair, alcoholism, violence and suicides. Lack of economic opportunities renders families dependent on handouts barely adequate for survival, undermining dignity and self-respect, and causing further harm to children. In such an environment, no child can develop to his or her full potential.
An overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans, especially children, want peace. Their hopes have been dashed by the recent stalling of peace initiatives facilitated by Norway, and the resumption of fighting. UNICEF calls on all parties to renew and re-double their efforts to find peace, the most precious right of every child in Sri Lanka.
* * *
For further information, please contact:
urges demobilization/reintergration of child soldiers Tues.
Sudan rebels give UNICEF a guarantee
on child soldiers, Oct 24
Due to the sad events in New York in September, the UN General Assembly has decided to postpone the Special Session On children. For further information, visit: www.unicef.org/specialsession