6 May 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference to launch report on children and armed conflict in myanmar

A year after Cyclone Nargis devastated much of Myanmar and intensified the suffering of children throughout the country, human rights groups urged the Security Council to move swiftly to protect the tens of thousands of children recruited as soldiers by local armed groups.

At a Headquarters press conference today, Julia Freedson, Director of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, noted that, less than a week after the Secretary-General had called on the Security Council to take firm action against countries that recruited children as soldiers, the recruitment of some as young as nine years old by national and non-State armies in Myanmar may be the world’s largest occurrence of that activity.

She said that, as Watchlist released its 60-page report “No More Denial:  Children Affected by Armed Conflict in Myanmar (Burma)” this week to coincide with the first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis and focus attention on the plight of children in Myanmar, the group also “charges the Security Council with remaining largely silent, despite the evidence from United Nations sources and others”.  The launch of the report also coincided with an upcoming report of the Secretary-General, to be delivered to the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.

Ms. Freedson said the report by Watchlist -- a New York City-based global network of non-governmental organizations -- was the most comprehensive on the situation facing children in Myanmar.  It documented the killing and maiming of children, child soldiering, rape, abduction, forced displacement, attacks on schools, denial of humanitarian access and other violations.  Armed forces occupied schools and planted landmines on pathways.  One in five children died before the age of five due to denial of humanitarian and medical assistance.  The report also charged the United Nations with remaining largely silent on the issue, despite evidence from its own, as well as local sources.

At a July 2005 meeting, the Security Council adopted resolution 1612, strongly condemning the recruitment and use of child soldiers and asking the Secretary-General to create a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the issue.  In 2007, the Secretary-General had issued a report on children and armed conflict in Myanmar (document S/2007/666), and in July 2008, the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict had issued its conclusions on that topic (document S/AC.51/2008/8).

Ms. Freedson said the Watchlist report provided a number of recommendations, including one calling for the leveraging and channelling of aid delivered to Myanmar in the wake of Cyclone Nargis to conflict-ridden areas.

Accompanying Ms. Freedson were Esther Lay, Programme Director at Karen Human Rights Group, an independent human rights group focusing on Myanmar; and Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in New York.

Ms. Lay said that “for decades the Burmese Army has tried to put villagers under control”, forcing many people to flee into the mountains and forests to evade the soldiers.  “All villagers are deemed enemies of the State.  Even babies are shot and killed.  Children as young as seven are raped.  Children are separated from their families.”

A native of Myanmar forced to flee her own village, she said she had subsequently set up a school for displaced children in the jungle, where she had lived for 20 years.  The abuse must no longer be denied or ignored.  The last report of the Secretary-General report, in 2007, omitted mention of many violations, despite documentation by human rights groups.  The Council should ask the Secretary-General to provide information on the gravity of the situation, and United Nations country teams should work with non-governmental organizations with years of experience in reporting human rights violations in the area.

Ms. Becker urged the Council to pressure national and non-State armies to stop child recruitment, advocating that personnel found guilty of violations be subject to the full penalty prescribed by national law.  The Government had consistently denied the use of child soldiers, but military commanders were given ambitious recruitment quotas to make up for large rates of desertion.  Cash, bags of rice and cooking oil were used as bonuses to induce military recruiters, the police and even local people to turn children in.  “Picking a child up off the street and taking them to a recruiting office is an easy way to make money.”

Criticizing the Working Group’s conclusions for failing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation or call for sanctions, she expressed hope that the Council would do more to hold the national army accountable, including by setting a concrete deadline by which the national army must comply with Myanmar’s own national standards.  If not, sanctions should be applied, including the freezing of assets, an arms embargo and others.  “Too much time is being wasted denying the problem.”

In response to a question, Ms. Freedson said cyclone assistance had not reached the ethnic areas of conflict.

Asked what policies were in place to secure the children’s freedom, Ms. Becker said the parents of missing children would approach the International Labour Organization (ILO), which had been successful in negotiating 38 releases.  Some parents would go to a recruitment station for confirmation that their child had been recruited and then report to ILO.  There was no good tracking system to follow a child after release.

Responding to another question, on Government efforts to work with the United Nations, she said the Government was trying to create the illusion that progress had been made, while more work remained to be done.

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For information media • not an official record