UNICEF not fooled by ‘mere assurances’

by Namini Wijedasa
Taking a decisive stand on child soldiers, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy yesterday called for words to be translated into action and asserted that she had dealt with the issue long enough not to be taken in by mere assurances.

"We don’t stop with words on a peace document," Bellamy said at press conference in Colombo. "We are satisfied as far as words are concerned. Now we want to see some action." Bellamy was speaking after a visit on Friday to the conflict-ridden north where she held more than two hours of talks with senior LTTE leaders.

"We will keep up the pressure," she affirmed, while calling on the media to follow suit. But she also stressed that UNICEF "didn’t have a magic wand".

Bellamy was in Sri Lanka on a brief visit during which she held talks with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and S.P. Thamilchelvan, LTTE political wing leader. An official UNICEF statement said the issue of child recruitment was discussed in great detail.

According to the UNICEF co-ordinated database, there remains 730 reported cases of child recruitment yet to be resolved. There was no specific estimate for children enlisted during 2001, said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF resident representative. A separate 350 children have been returned to their families since November 2001. A vast majority were set free during the cease-fire.

Asked what guarantee she had that the LTTE would stop child recruitment, Bellamy told reporters there was no such guarantee.

"I have been involved in these things long enough not to be naive about assurances, whether from the government or from non-state parties," she said. She said the LTTE could prove they were serious about stopping recruitment — and about returning child combatants to their families — by developing a concrete action plan.

"The development of a concrete action plan is the next step," she stressed.

In December, during negotiations with the government in Oslo, the LTTE agreed to work with UNICEF on an action plan to tackle issues of children in armed conflict. The pledge pertained to both displaced children and those who had participated in combat.

Bellamy said that the programme will be developed after the Berlin round of talks in February. It will include proposals to send children back to school, to engage others in vocational training, provide health care and to afford psychosocial support to a range of children affected by war.

"It is not going to happen overnight... it’s an evolutionary process," Bellamy warned, citing her experiences in other countries. "We will continue to emphasise that there must not be recruitment and that children have to be released and reconciled with their families." She also said that UNICEF was prepared to assist the return of young people to their families.

"There must be movement forward," she emphasised, pointing out that the development of a concrete plan would prove such movement.

LTTE leaders have offered Bellamy the explanation that continued recruitment may occur, not at leadership level, but at the stage of lower ranks. The leaders say they are committed to both non-recruitment and release of children, but their "work has not filtered down". In this context, UNICEF has offered to work with them on a communication campaign in an effort to ensure that leadership decisions filter down to lower ranks.

"We strongly urge them not to continue this, wherever in the hierarchy it may be," she said.

Bellamy said she was encouraged that both the government and LTTE had recognised the importance of including children in the peace process.

But she was encouraged by the acceptance of both the government and LTTE that children were an important part of the peace process.

"We don’t think you can have peace unless you take children into account," she noted.

Bellamy also mentioned an LTTE proposal for the establishment of transit centres for children who had joined the LTTE, including unaccompanied children. At these centres, children would have access to their parents and the families of any unaccompanied children would be traced. According to suggestion, children would be provided with schooling, vocational education, health care and psychosocial care while "family training" takes place.

Bellamy said, however, that there the proposal as not been formalised. It is likely to figure in future talks. Any actual financial aid will be channelled through the normal agencies: government, NGOs and UNICEF.

UNICEF Resident Representative Ted Chaiban, who also addressed the media, emphasised that his organisation will continue the work on ground after Bellamy leaves. UNICEF has agreed to support NCPA in a project funded by Swedish SIDA to eradicate child abuse.