|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE on children and armed conflict in sri lanka
Stressing that thousands of Sri Lankan children were being killed, abducted and recruited as soldiers as Sri Lanka’s brutal armed conflict escalated, a report released at Headquarters this morning by a global non-governmental organization network called on the United Nations Security Council to pressure the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), Sri Lanka’s Government and the military wing of Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) to stop those practices and uphold international child protection standards.
“This report comes at a very opportune time because of the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer and Senior Researcher of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan policy think tank.
Speaking during a Headquarters press conference this morning to announce the release of the No Safety No Escape: Children and the Escalating Armed Conflict in Sri Lanka report published by the Watchlist of Children in Armed Conflict, Ms. Fonseka said policymakers could use the document as an indicator and an advocacy tool to make decisions aimed at ensuring children’s rights. But, as many people were afraid to report cases, the statistics available belied the full scope of brutal killings, abductions, disappearances, threats and displacements of children since the conflict began escalating in November 2005.
“One needs to keep in mind that the horrific human rights violations against children are much more in-depth and broad-range,” Ms. Fonseka said, noting that, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), more than 180 civilians were killed in the last three months alone. Human rights workers attempting to help civilians were increasingly being threatened, abducted and killed, as well as cut off from certain areas and denied work permits.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is a shrinking space for humanitarian actors and human rights defenders, and also a total collapse in any form of investigations and reporting. There’s no national body that can look into human rights situations independently and credibly,” she said.
The report details the spectrum of violations committed against Sri Lankan children and their living, health and educational conditions, as well as makes practical recommendations to the Security Council, Sri Lankan officials, the LTTE, TMVP, humanitarian actors, donors and other Governments. It calls for creating an international monitoring mechanism to document and verify human rights violations and for a delegation of the Security Council Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict to conduct a fact-finding mission in the country to assess the situation and meet with the parties to the conflict.
Echoing that call, Jo Becker, Advocacy Director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and Member of the Watchlist Steering Committee, said: “We hope that Governments will exert pressure on both the (Sri Lankan) Government and the LTTE to put civilians first and to accept a human rights monitoring mechanism.”
Ms. Becker said the Council Working Group should also call on all parties to the conflict to immediately end all attacks on civilians and demand that the LTTE and the TMVP stop recruiting children. Further, the Council should set clear and specific time-bound benchmarks for both groups to release children and consider targeted measures, such as an arms embargo and other restrictions, if such benchmarks were not met.
The LTTE was 1 of only 14 groups named in all of the Secretary-General’s reports to the Council on armed conflict, she said, noting that it had failed to implement its action plan signed last year to release all remaining child soldiers by 31 December. As of 31 March, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that it had 1,429 outstanding cases of child recruitment, including 168 cases of children under age 18, and that there had been no official releases from LTTE to UNICEF since November 2007.
What was more, the Sri Lankan Government had been complicit in the large-scale recruitment and abduction of children by the TMVP’s military wing since early 2006, much of it occurring in Government-controlled areas in the eastern part of the country where abducted children were often transported through multiple military checkpoints to get to TMVP military camps, she said. It had also failed to follow through on promises to investigate complicity and secure the release of such children.
Continuing, she said a United Nations field operation, led by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, could help document and monitor those violations, as well as fill the vacuum of international monitors left by the withdrawal in January of the Nordic-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMN) from the cease-fire agreement. Sri Lankan officials had consistently minimized the scope and severity of human rights abuses and had resisted repeated calls for such a monitoring mechanism.
A reporter asked why the Council had failed thus far to take punitive actions against the LTTE. Ms. Becker said that, while the Council had stated in its resolutions 1539 (2004) and 1612 (2004) that it would consider such steps, the issue of targeted measures was very political and sensitive. “Some members of the Security Council are very resistant to using what is really the strongest tool that it has to try to get compliance from armed groups to meet their international obligations,” she said, adding that the Working Group was currently negotiating its second set of conclusions on Sri Lanka.
Another correspondent asked if the Watchlist favoured referring the issue to the International Criminal Court. In response, Ms. Becker said the Sri Lankan Government had not ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC, making it impossible to refer such crimes to the ICC for investigation and prosecution. In the absence of that ratification, the Council did have the power to refer cases to the ICC, but the United States in particular had been very resistant to that.
Ms. Fonseka added that the ICC was not the only option for holding perpetrators to account. National courts could also do so. Travel advisories and bans, and various sanctions through the Human Rights Council could also be imposed.
Regarding current programmes to demobilize children, Ms. Fonseka said a Task Force involving the United Nations, Sri Lankan officials and non-governmental organizations had been set up for that purpose, but that no comprehensive reintegration plan existed in Sri Lanka.
Julia Freedson, Director of the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, added that the Watchlist report called on the Sri Lankan Government to develop appropriate reintegration policies for children.
* *** *For information media • not an official record