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Briefing for the Security Council working group on children and armed conflict regarding the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Burma (Myanmar) and implementation of the joint action plan

Human Rights Watch has monitored the human rights situation in Burma (Myanmar) for 25 years, including violations against children affected by armed conflict. We have conducted two in-depth investigations of recruitment and use of child soldiers by both government forces and non-state armed groups, publishing our findings in My Gun was as Tall as Me: Child Soldiers in Burma in 2002, and Sold to be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma in 2007.

We welcome the examination by the United Nations Security Council working group on children and armed conflict of the Secretary-General’s report on children in armed conflict in Myanmar (S/2013/258). We note that most of the parties listed in the Secretary-General’s annex for recruitment and use of child soldiers in Burma are considered persistent perpetrators, and that the government armed forces, the Tatmadaw, have been listed every year since 2002. Because of this long history of violations, clear and strong action by the Security Council is vital.

Based on the Secretary-General’s report and our own research, we take this opportunity to highlight a number of specific concerns and recommendations for your consideration.

Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers by Government Forces

Human Rights Watch welcomed Burma’s signing in June 2012 of an action plan with the UN Country Task Force to end its recruitment and use of child soldiers. However, we are deeply concerned that the government and its armed forces have failed to effectively implement the plan and, in some cases, are deliberately obstructing implementation efforts. Key issues include:

1)      Continued child recruitment: The Secretary-General’s report indicates that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has verified 770 cases of underage recruitment during the reporting period of April 2009-December 2012, including children as young as 10. Of these, 32 took place in 2012. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Since children recruited into the Tatmadaw often do not have any way to contact their families while they are undergoing basic training—which lasts approximately 4½ months—many cases of child recruitment are not reported for several months after they take place. Other cases are never reported.

2)      Few releases of child soldiers:  The Secretary-General’s report indicates that only 66 children have been released from government forces between June 2012, when the action plan was signed, and January 31, 2013. In the action plan, the government committed to release all children from the armed forces within an 18-month period, i.e. by December 2013. It is now nearly one year since the action plan was signed, and progress in reaching this goal is unacceptably slow.

3)      Denial of access to military facilities for verification purposes: The action plan stipulates that the UN Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR) would have access to military bases, prisons, and other places where children might be present. Specifically, it states that the identification and registration of all children in the armed forces would be completed within 135 days of signing the action plan (i.e. November 9, 2012). This timetable has not been met.  Of particular concern, on four occasions since the action plan was signed, the armed forces have refused the UN access to camps. The government’s denial of access to all relevant military sites is in clear violation of the terms of the action plan. As reflected in the Secretary-General’s report, the Tatmadaw also advised the country team that it would not allow access to operational units/battalions until all recruitment centers have been assessed for verification purposes. In addition, the UN country team has had no access to the Border Guard Forces, despite these units being under nominal Burmese military command and control.

4)      Recruiter incentives and accountability: Despite child soldier recruitment being expressly forbidden in Burmese military and civilian law, the illegal practice continues with underground recruitment networks, often military personnel in connivance with corrupt members of the civilian administration, providing documentation to underage recruits before they enter military recruitment centers. Human Rights Watch’s research found that recruiters were often given monthly quotas for new recruits and received incentives of 20,000 to 50,000 kyat (US$20-50 at the current exchange rate, an amount that is one-and-a-half to over three times the typical monthly salary for an army private) for each recruit. Battalion commanders that failed to meet their recruiting quotas were subject to a range of disciplinary actions, including loss of their command posting. These incentives, quotas, and penalties for failing to reach quotas have historically fueled high rates of child recruitment into the Tamadaw. 

Human Rights Watch calls on the Tatmadaw and members of the Joint Action Plan country task force to pursue a more effective system of verification of documentation for recruits to ensure that underage soldiers do not enter the Defense Services with forged or illegally obtained “official” documentation. Civilian officials and military personnel involved in illegal provision of documentation should also be investigated and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted and their punishment widely publicized as part of a broader public awareness campaign. The Secretary-General’s report indicates that 73 disciplinary actions were taken against perpetrators of child recruitment in 2012, but that the majority of cases involve reprimand or serious reprimand, rather than criminal penalties. Human Rights Watch is concerned that in such instances the penalties for recruiting children may not be sufficient to deter continued child recruitment, and may even be less severe than the penalties for failing to meet recruitment quotas.

5)      Arrests and imprisonment of underage “deserters”: Despite the government’s agreement that underage recruits should not be arrested, charged, or imprisoned on grounds of desertion, this practice has continued. The Secretary-General’s report states that the ILO documented 27 cases of underage recruits imprisoned for desertion in 2012. This continued practice is contrary to the action plan and the UN country team should demand that all underage “deserters” are immediately and unconditionally released, and that no underage recruits who flee from their unit are prosecuted in the future. 

6)     “Exceptions” allowing the recruitment of under-18’s: The 1974 Regulation for Persons Subject to the Defence Services Act (War Office Council instruction 13/73) provides that “a person cannot be enlisted into armed forces unless he has attained the age of 18.” However, the Secretary-General’s report states that under a “relaxation” of age restrictions issued by letter in 1996, the Tatmadaw in 2012 recruited 167 children who were at least 16 and passed the tenth grade, and obtained authorization from the Office of the Adjutant General. This practice violates the terms of the action plan, which explicitly commits the government of Burma not to recruit anyone under the age of 18 into the armed forces, and undermines the spirit of government commitment that is central to the effective operation of the action plan. Such an exception signals backsliding in the Joint Action Plan and the Security Council working group should demand the immediate repeal of this “exception” loophole.

7)      Pursue effective public awareness: Educating Burma’s general public on the Joint Action Plan was a key provision of the plan when it was inaugurated. UNICEF has been involved in education campaigns in 2012, but the government, military and members of the Joint Action Plan CTFMR should jointly institute nationwide public awareness campaigns that reach throughout Burma, not just in major urban centers. In particular, there should be a concerted effort to use print, television, and radio not controlled by the government to disseminate information and reach out to media reporting in ethnic languages particularly in rural areas. Crucially, government-controlled media outlets should expressly target military personnel to inform them of the plan and to provide information on lodging complaints to ensure swift child soldier demobilization.

Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers by Non-State Armed Groups:

The Secretary-General reports the recruitment and use of child soldiers by at least seven non-state armed groups in Burma. Over the past 12 years, Human Rights Watch has investigated the recruitment practices of 19 non-state armed groups. We found that most included children in their forces, though in far smaller numbers than the government forces. Their practices varied greatly, with some taking measures to end their use of child soldiers and signing voluntary “deeds of commitment” not to recruit or use children in their forces, while others flatly denied having child soldiers or demonstrated no concern regarding their use of children.

Key concerns:

1)      Lack of UN access to non-state armed groups: Some non-state armed groups, including the Karenni Army and the Karen National Liberation Army, have actively sought engagement with the UN in order to negotiate an action plan to end their use of child soldiers and be “de-listed.” In its 2009 conclusions on children and armed conflict in Myanmar, the Security Council working group on children and armed conflict urged the government to allow the UN access to non-state armed groups in order to expedite the development of action plans. The June 2012 action plan also committed the government to take “all necessary and feasible measures” to end child recruitment by non-state armed groups and to conclude action plans by non-state armed groups. However, the government of Burma has consistently refused the UN country team access to non-state armed groups for the purpose of dialogue and negotiation of action plans. The government of Burma has been pursuing ceasefire and peace talks with many of the non-state armed groups listed in the Secretary-General’s report, which provides the opportunity for the government and the CTFMR to begin engagement with these armed groups on the issue of child soldier recruitment and demobilization of underage children in their ranks.

2)      No opportunities for “de-listing”: The Secretary-General has continued to list several non-state armed groups as “persistent perpetrators,” even without UN-verified reports of child recruitment. This situation denies non-state armed groups both the opportunity and the incentive to be de-listed, even if they take concerted efforts to end their use of child soldiers.

Human Rights Watch Recommendations:

To the government of Burma (Myanmar):

  • Allow the UN full and unimpeded access to all military bases, barracks, training facilities, recruitment centers and other relevant military sites, including the Border Guard Forces, for the purposes of monitoring and verifying compliance with the action plan;
  • Accelerate the identification, registration, and release of all children from the Tatmadaw and the Border Guard Forces, and complete the release of all child soldiers no later than December 2013;
  • Implement effective mechanisms to prevent recruitment of all children under the age of 18, without exception;
  • Remove any incentives for members of the armed forces to recruit children, and to impose criminal penalties, as allowed by law, on military personnel and civilian officials responsible for child recruitment and use;
  • Immediately end all arrests of underage recruits on charges of desertion, and to release immediately all persons imprisoned for desertion while underage; and
  • Report to the Working Group within 30 days the modalities for UN access to non-state armed groups for the purpose of dialogue and negotiation of action plans.

The working group should state clearly that in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1539, paragraph 5(c), failure to meet the terms of the action plan by December 2013 will result in targeted measures by the Security Council. 

To the UN country team:

  • Accelerate and expand on-site inspections of military facilities, and insist on full access as agreed by the action plan (i.e. with prior notification, but without explicit permission); and continue efforts to access non-state armed groups for the purposes of dialogue and negotiation of action plans.

Human Rights Watch also urges the working group to consider mechanisms by which parties to armed conflict in Burma may be de-listed when UN verification of an end to violations is not possible. For example, theSecretary-General could actively seek all available reports from independent sources regarding possible ongoing violations.  In cases where a party has made a public commitment supported by genuine measures to end child recruitment and no credible reports of violations are received for a specific period, the party could be de-listed. 

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