Child Recruitment on the radar again: will anything change because of it?

By Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham

The issue of child recruitment appears hot hot on the radar in Sri Lankan politics again with Allan Rock’s statement which suggested that the government forces in the East worked with the Karuna (TMVP) faction to recruit under-aged children. While I welcome this statement finally, even though Sri Lanka based activists have been saying just this now for over 2 years, I wish also to look generally at the trend of work that has been happening in the light of the issue of child recruitment, and what could happen in the future.

Shock and shame treatment

The issue of child recruitment is an issue as old as the Sri Lankan conflict. The LTTE predominantly and other groups have been recruiting children now for some time. Presently one can say that it is predominantly the LTTE that carries out this abhorrent practice. Its excuses vary from time to time. At certain moments it suggests that the LTTE cannot help but recruit as so many children join voluntarily and that this problem can only be resolved with the end of the conflict. At other times the LTTE claims it is a problem of lower level cadres not obeying orders and recruiting children. Here the claim is that the LTTE do not actively and in an organized manner recruit themselves.

The issues of recruitment came to its fore and gained much momentum in 2004 with the split within the then unified LTTE when the Karuna faction, now called TMVP broke away from the Vanni LTTE. We know for a fact that nearly 3000 children were released from among 6000 cadres when the Karuna faction was routed.

This lead to a visual awareness that child recruitment was a big issue in Sri Lanka as children started trickling in to the streets of Batticaloa trying to make it home. In the months to follow both the LTTE and Karuna attempted to re-recruit these children. Each faction feared the other would be faster at recruiting than themselves.

A few months later The Human Rights Watch published its report on the recruitment of children generally, but focusing on the Eastern issue specifically.

Two years have passed since then, and here we have another sensational moment in the light of child recruitment. UN representative for children and Armed Conflict Alan Rock has suggested that the Karuna faction also recruits, but more importantly with the support of the army.

This treatment of shaming and shocking the government has pushed the Sri Lankan president to promise to probe into the matter immediately while the army states it has done nothing of the sort. The question I wish to pose at this point is regarding the work that such statements do in the light of recruitment. How much shock and shame is necessary to make a difference? Will it make a difference at all?

The limits of international statements

Let me say that the government involvement in child recruitment has been clear to local activists working on the issue for some time now. Local activists have continued to say this, but indeed it seems a UN statement confirms this suddenly as if it was truth revealed anew. While I have no issues with Allan Rock’s statement, albeit a little old news in Sri Lanka, what we hope is that this will add further pressure on to the government to behave. It will, we hope, also force the LTTE and the Karuna faction to stop its practices. Or will it?

Let me look at this point further. It is well known now that UNICEF brokered Action Plan of 2002 has been a disaster in the light of child recruitment. If anything, for a while UNICEF were able to boast of its success in establishing such an agreement while pumping large amounts of money into it that safely got into the hands of the LTTE to set up transit camps that to date have been of no use whatsoever. What institution in their right mind would allow the terrorizing recruiters of children to have the care of children in camps set up to help them transition to going home? Of course UN agencies are able to do such work and congratulate themselves in the process. We know now that this was a simple hoax and that no release of children in any substantial way occurred because of this agreement.

In the light of this, what will Allan Rock’s statement about recruitment really alter in the landscape of Sri Lankan politics and especially child recruitment? I fear not very much at all. It will create a ripple for a while, but in general will lead to greater frustration than relief. How often have members of UN agencies visited this issue, and issues such as disappearances and killings? How often have civilians who have taken great risk and prostituted their pain for international visitors been sadly disappointed by the lack of outcome, to be frustrated as they keep asking and pleading for help, to be heard and often ignored.

Hence, statements of this kind, though useful to mark that someone outside the Sri Lankan context seems to care are of little use unless a great deal more happens very soon in terms of international politics on Sri Lanka. IF anything, statements like this create false illusions and expectations if they are not backed by serious commitments to ensuring change

Economic embargoes

It seems to me that the issue of child recruitment is an ideal example of how shaming a government, or none-state actors like the LTTE and Karuna can procure nothing unless backed by greater actions than shaming itself. This headline news item, despite its oldness, will die down and be forgotten, as have the many children who have been recruited and killed because of this conflict.

The only way to make statements like Allan Rock’s statement matter is if it is accompanied by more than words. In the end, money talks. If there are economic embargoes on both the LTTE, TMVP and the Government of Sri Lanka, then perhaps they will behave. It is very clear that all groups invested in violent conflict care mostly about hegemonizing their power to greater length and making money as quickly as they can. Hence, it is only if real threats of economic sanctions, and actual sanctions follow condemnation that the violent climate in Sri Lanka will change. If not, business will go on as usual. Of course the problem with trying to demand economic sanctions is that Sri Lanka does not seem important enough in international politics to merit so much energy within the UN. Time and time again Sri Lankan activists have poured their limited resources by taking issues of human rights violations to the UN human rights sessions. Time and time again the disappointment have been huge. Sri Lanka, simply does not seem to matter in the international climate.

Here, I do not wish to in anyway belittle the enormous amount of work and energy of activists who keep brining up human rights issues in the light of terrible atrocities in Sri Lanka. I only pose a set of questions regarding the efficacy of shaming if it is not backed by stronger action. I also ask if stronger action will ever follow in the light of how little Sri Lankan politics matter in the international arena.

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