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(New York) – Burma has failed to make progress in ending its use of child soldiers nearly one year after signing an agreement with the United Nations (UN) to do so, Human Rights Watch said in a new paper released today.

In June 2012, Burma and the UN signed a Joint Action Plan in which the Burmese government and military committed to ending all recruitment and use of children in the armed forces by December 2013. Despite clear benchmarks, the military is failing to fulfill its obligations under the plan.

“One year into the Burma-UN action plan, the Burmese military has failed to meet even the basic indicators of progress,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director. “Unless Burma kick-starts the process immediately, it will be too late to make good on its pledge to end all recruitment and use of child soldiers by the end of the year.”

In May, the UN secretary-general released his third report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict in Burma. The report notes some progress made by the Burmese military but demonstrates that cooperation has been insufficient. The report indicates that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has verified 770 cases of underage recruitment during the reporting period of April 2009 through December 2012, including children as young as 10. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Only 66 children have been released from government forces in the six months between June 2012, when the action plan was signed, and January 31, 2013.

In the action plan, Burma’s government committed to identify and register all children in its forces by November 2012, and to release all children from the armed forces within an 18-month period, i.e. by December 2013. Nearly one year since the action plan was signed, the registration process is far from complete and progress in releasing children is unacceptably slow.

On at least four occasions, the Burmese military has reneged on its commitments by refusing the UN access to military facilities to assess the presence of child soldiers.

Authorities also have attempted to institute an exemption to the enlistment age of 18 for 16-year-olds who had completed 10 years of education. Another major stumbling block has been the continuing trade in unlawful incentives for recruitment, a system whereby serving military members or corrupt members of the civilian administration obtain forged or illegally obtained documentation for an underage recruit to then enter an official recruitment center. The military has failed to adequately address the system of incentives and pressure from senior military officials to fulfill unit quotas.

The Burmese armed forces have prohibited the UN access to Border Guard Forces, former ethnic insurgent groups under nominal military control, who are reputed to have child soldiers in their ranks. UN access has also been denied to more than a dozen non-state armed groups, including those listed by the secretary-general for child soldier use, such as the Karen National Union and the Karenni Army, despite these groups being engaged in a ceasefire process with the central government for more than a year.

“The Burmese army is not only dragging its feet in ending its use of child soldiers, but is also obstructing the UN from doing its job to verify its efforts,” Becker said. “On this basis alone the Security Council should hand the government a failing grade on its promised progress.”

Most non-state armed groups in Burma 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, while others flatly denied having child soldiers or demonstrated no concern regarding their use.
Human Rights Watch has produced two major reports on the use of child soldiers in Burma –“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 – and continues to monitor the issue. Recent reporting by Child Soldiers International found continuing high rates of recruitment and desultory official compliance with the Joint Action Plan.

Human Rights Watch recommends the Burmese government and military to:

  • 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 comply with its obligations under the action plan to complete the release of all child soldiers no later than December 2013; and
  • Implement effective mechanisms to prevent recruitment of all children under the age of 18, without exception.

Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to consider targeted sanctions, such as travel bans or asset freezes, against Burmese authorities if they fail to end all recruitment and use of child soldiers by December 2013, as stipulated by the action plan. The Security Council has agreed that it would consider such measures against parties to armed conflicts that fail to implement action plans to end violations against children.

“Despite years of international attention on the issue from the UN and others, children continue to be recruited into Burma’s army and rebel groups,” Becker said. “The UN should be clear that more empty promises from Burma’s leadership will result in sanctions.”

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