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Reform or Decline?

The United Nations Security Council is shortly to discuss the issue of underage recruitment in several countries, including Sri Lanka. The issue of 'child soldiers' has long been part of island's ethnic conflict, not least because the debate has, for far too long, been framed by the Sri Lankan state as a key part of its demonisation of its opponent, the LTTE. Exaggeration and falsehoods have fed into myth and fallacy, turning one problematic aspect of Sri Lanka's brutal war into a dominant feature. Let us be clear from the outset; the LTTE has recruited children into its ranks. But the movement has itself admitted to the practice, pledged its commitment to stopping it and worked at this, periodically released groups of underage recruits and effecting institutional changes. However, the understandable controversy surrounding this single issue has eclipsed the ongoing suffering of hundreds of thousands of children who are not soldiers. More importantly, how the international community has addressed the issue has not only contributed to this marginalisation of so many grave issues, but also unhelpfully altered the dynamics of the peace process and conflict between the LTTE and the state.

Children's rights must, of course, be protected. But, firstly, the issue of underage recruitment has unjustly been given a primacy above those of other violations of child rights, especially by the state. This particular point was raised recently by the UN Special Envoy, Alan Rock, who visited Sri Lanka late last year. According to press reports, his report suggests: "I recommend that the Security Council expanding its focus and give equal care and attention to children affected by armed conflict in all situations of concern; and to give equal weight to all categories of grave violations beyond the recruitment and use of child soldiers to include the killing and maiming of children, rape and other grave sexual violence, abductions, attacks against schools or hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access for children." During the conflict hundreds of thousands of children suffered malnutrition, even starvation due to protracted government embargoes. Similar numbers were driven from their homes by military offensives and bombardment and remain displaced whilst Sri Lankan troops occupy their home villages and towns. And whilst the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was meant to address these issues, Colombo's blunt refusal to honour these terms has been tacitly accepted by the international community.

In the meantime, this plethora of issues associated with children and armed conflict has been reduced to one: child soldiers. Since the 2002 peace process began, this aspect has been one of the primary areas of friction between the LTTE and the international community - with the enthusiastic encouragement of the state. The LTTE has been responding to international pressure on underage recruitment (albeit not vigorously or quickly enough to satisfy its critics). The LTTE has committed to not recruiting under the age of 17 and not deploying soldiers under 18 in combat. (Incidentally, nothing more graphically demonstrates that politics, not morality, is at play here than states being permitted to recruit from the age of 16). There have been breaches of this commitment. But the LTTE's critics - and especially the Sri Lankan state - have seized upon these to vehemently argue that such acts stem from the organisation's essential and unchanging character. Unlike those of states (last week Britain was accused of deploying a dozen under-18s in Iraq for example), the LTTE's breaches are not taken as errant behaviour that can be improved upon. This is even though the LTTE's adoption of new practices in keeping with international expectations - including cooperation with international agencies - has been steadily increasing since 2002. Last year the LTTE passed a law outlawing recruitment of under-17s for military service and the deployment of under-18s in combat. It has been working with UNICEF on releasing those reported as underage. UNICEF has sometimes faulted the LTTE on its cooperation. But there can be little doubt that matters have substantively improved over the past five years. Nor can there be any doubt the LTTE, keen to improve its international standing, is actively trying to establish better track record on this matter.

However, the same cannot be said of the Sri Lankan state. For far too long, Army-backed paramilitaries have been able to conscript youngsters knowing the complaints would be filed against the LTTE. Underage recruitment by paramilitary groups has escalated ever since the renegade LTTE commander, Karuna, defected to the Sri Lankan military following his abortive rebellion. Since he joined Colombo's cause against the LTTE, the Karuna Group has been receiving substantive support from the military, including forcible recruitment of youth.

It was Mr. Rock's visit to Sri Lanka that finally led to this being accepted. Not unexpectedly, he has been vilified by the Sri Lankan government and Sinhala nationalists. All was fine when the LTTE was being lambasted by international watchdogs. But not when the Sri Lankan security forces are accused of complicity in underage recruitment. (Even Mr. Rock's report reflects the essential politicisation of underage recruitment. Whilst the LTTE, as an entity, is condemned for the practice, only "elements" of the security forces are blamed. Presumably some chains of command are considered more responsible than others.) Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined the chorus. In a hard hitting report, the group finally accepted Colombo was complicit in underage recruitment for the Karuna Group.

Shamefully, the issue of underage recruitment has also been implicitly used by the international community to pressure the LTTE to make political concessions in negotiations with the state. Just as the threat of international proscriptions was used in this regard, penalties for underage recruitment have also cynically been used as sticks. This is, once again, not to say that there isn't a genuine issue that the LTTE needs to address. Rather, it is to say that when such issues are mobilised as part of a coercive framework to political ends, they become disconnected from concrete developments on the ground. As the international community engages with Sri Lanka, as Mr. Rock suggested, it should look at the complex interplay of factors that make up the dynamics of this conflict. The failure to think through the predictable impact on the conflict of the EU and Canadian bans on the LTTE last year meant the proscriptions contributed directly to the collapse of the CFA.

After several years of engagement with the international community, the issue of underage recruitment is being actively dealt with by the LTTE, both in terms of contemporary practice and institutional changes. There may be room for further improvement and this will undoubtedly be pursued. However, the manner and context in which this is taking place is important. Sri Lanka has returned to all out and bloody war. Colombo is pursuing the military option with single-minded zeal. Single-issue based punitive actions will feed into this; both by encouraging the state's militarism and convincing the LTTE that its destruction, not reform is being pursued by the international community.