<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

XI. The Role of UNICEF and the Future of the Action Plan

UNICEF in Sri Lanka has placed the LTTE’s recruitment and use of child soldiers high on its agenda. As noted above, it played a principal role in negotiating the Action Plan on children affected by the conflict and serves as the primary implementing partner for the plan’s ambitious program of activities. Its recruitment database is comprehensive and sophisticated, and it has a larger number of staff devoted to child protection than any other UNICEF country office. The UNICEF office in Sri Lanka has become increasingly outspoken on the child soldier issue, issuing several public statements calling on the LTTE to end its recruitment of children and release the children in its ranks.

Human Rights Watch welcomes UNICEF’s vigorous response to the on-going recruitment and use of child soldiers by the LTTE, including its public statements, extensive monitoring, regular advocacy with the LTTE at both district and senior levels, and field-based protection activities. These activities in many ways provide a model for UNICEF activities in other parts of the world where child recruitment is an on-going concern.

At the same time, both UNICEF and the Action Plan have been heavily criticized. As discussed above, a major area of controversy has been the significant role that the plan gives the TRO, and UNICEF’s agreement to both provide funds to the TRO and accept the TRO as an implementing partner for the plan. As the LTTE’s failure to comply with its agreements under the Action Plan have become evident, some actors have suggested that UNICEF should withdraw from that part of the plan related to under-age recruitment, renegotiate key aspects of the plan, or even devise a new plan.

In part because local people do not see the Sri Lankan government as an effective mechanism for child protection in the North and East, expectations of UNICEF are extremely high. Local activists have criticized UNICEF for not working closely enough with them, for not placing enough emphasis on recruitment prevention and follow-up on individual cases, and for failing to communicate its activities effectively to local communities.

For example, one international NGO representative working with a vocational training program in Batticaloa told Human Rights Watch that many local people, including people working for local NGOs, did not know the procedure to register cases of under-age recruitment with UNICEF. “There’s an assumption that everyone knows, but it’s not true.” She gave an example of a local priest on the main road in Batticaloa, near the UNICEF district office who, she said, had a large number of children return to his parish from the LTTE but did not know how to register them.186

One local activist criticized UNICEF for not sufficiently involving local community-based organizations or giving enough emphasis to prevention:

UNICEF and the international NGOs need more meetings with local NGOs. These can be regular, informal meetings. They need representation from remote areas. They can go through church organizations. But it must be systematic and regular. Especially in remote areas where recruitment is high. But meetings are not enough. They have to go into the field. They can’t wait for the mothers to come to them. It’s not enough.

They should give information in schools. They should put advertisements in Tamil newspapers and on the radio. Do little plays. They have to flood this place with preventative measures. Preventative measures must be a part of the plan.187

UNICEF, caught unawares, struggled to respond to the unique challenges raised by the mass release of children in April 2004, particularly the acute risk of re-recruitment. Local activists point to UNICEF’s lack of coordination with local and other international groups which were similarly trying to respond to the challenge.  One local activist said that in such an emergency situation, coordination amongst all the actors is critical to ensure that protection and monitoring can be spread out over as broad an area as possible:

We understand UNICEF can’t do everything, can’t be everywhere. But why did they not work with us?  We were there, in the field, in the remote villages, running around gathering information, trying to spread information.  In such an emergency, cooperation and coordination is critical. Don’t sit around saying, “Well, they should come to us.”188 

Local activists also say they went to UNICEF before the temple festivals to warn them that the festivals are sites of forced recruitment.  In spite of this warning, UNICEF did nothing to monitor the festivals until after the abductions of twenty-six persons, including several children. Subsequently, UNICEF began coordinating efforts with international organizations to respond to LTTE recruitment at temple festivals by ensuring an international presence at the festivals. The presence was intended to both monitor and deter recruitment activities. Because of the large number of temple festivals, efforts focused primarily on the last few days of the larger festivals where the attendance is usually between 10,000 to 20,000 devotees.189  This was a useful strategy and did appear to inhibit recruitments at these events. 

The Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), a nongovernmental organization made up largely of Tamil diaspora, issued a statement in July calling for a “fundamental revision” of the Action Plan “given the accentuated vulnerability of the newly released, and the unrelenting brutality of LTTE recruitment.” Specifically, the SLDF called on UNICEF to exert stronger efforts to protect children from re-recruitment; to work with a wider range of actors, including grassroots community-based groups; and to work more closely with families and provide them with stronger support.190  

In early August, UNICEF initiated stronger public awareness efforts around child recruitment. It began distributing leaflets without LTTE approval in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, at school gates, hospitals, bus-stands, market places, government buildings, and both government and LTTE checkpoints. The leaflets referred to international and national law prohibiting the use of child soldiers and the LTTE’s agreement not to recruit children. It also encouraged families to report under-age recruitment to UNICEF offices.

UNICEF reported that the reaction from families was interested and positive. Numerous families visited the UNICEF office after the distribution with new reports of recruitment or to update previous cases. However, the agency received one report that LTTE cadres in a village in southern Batticaloa took the leaflets from families and destroyed them, saying that “UNICEF would not be around to look after families at all times.” UNICEF indicated that it planned to raise this incident at its next meeting with the LTTE.191

In its progress report on the Action Plan, released in September 2004, UNICEF stated that it was working to build alliances with community-based organizations in order to develop strategies to protect children from under-age recruitment, but gave few specifics.192

UNICEF’s representative, Ted Chaiban, states that the Action Plan is a “strategy,” but that UNICEF’s work is not limited to the plan. He emphasized that the action plan emerged in a particular political context:

The action plan was devised under very different circumstances. It was part of the peace process, at the request of the parties. Everyone thought the [peace] process was going forward.. . . The peace process broke down and now we are working in a vacuum, but throughout, we’ve continued to meet [with the LTTE]. The question now is what is in the best interest of the child?193

The change in context was echoed by other UNICEF staff: “If the peace talks had continued and the political climate was more favorable, we would have hoped for a more favorable result by now.”194  This is almost certainly true although it has to be noted that the LTTE was failing to meet its commitments even before the breakdown of the peace talks, so this expectation may place undue optimism on LTTE cooperation.

Greg Duly, the country director for Save the Children said that “The action plan was providing one of the few spaces where the international community, the government, LTTE and facilitators could talk.”195  

Some observers question UNICEF’s continued cooperation with the LTTE in view of the LTTE’s non-compliance with the Action Plan. As one United Nations official put it:

UNICEF keeps talking about its access [to the LTTE] under the Action Plan.  And of course, at the higher levels, the LTTE says the right things.  But has UNICEF thought about what leverage they actually gain by this access, what good does it do on the ground?  Through their weekly meetings with Kaushalyan [the LTTE political leader in Batticaloa district].UNICEF gives legitimacy to a man who is responsible for abducting kids.  That is the message they are sending out.196 

Chaiban noted that the Action Plan is unique in that apart from an agreement in Southern Sudan, it was the only formal agreement with a nongovernmental armed force to demobilize children from its forces in advance of a formal peace agreement. He also pointed out its explicit monitoring and reporting role for UNICEF. Through the initiative, he says, 1,000 children have gone home and that no other mechanism has secured the release of as many children.

In a September 2004 report assessing the progress of the action plan, UNICEF repeatedly emphasized the LTTE’s failure to meet its commitments to release children from its forces, and end all recruitment of children. “Without such a commitment, the work that all Action Plan partner agencies can achieve is limited.”197 The report also emphasized the negative impact of continuing recruitment on efforts to reintegrate children into their communities: “The success of reintegration activities depends on a safe and secure environment. Reintegration is seriously impeded by the current climate of continuing, and in some places violent, recruitment of children throughout the North East.”198

Human Rights Watch acknowledges UNICEF’s efforts to engage the LTTE directly in addressing the LTTE’s on-going abuses and to secure concrete implementation of the LTTE’s commitments to end its recruitment and use of children through the Action Plan.  The Action Plan provides important avenues for a coordinated approach by both U.N. agencies and NGOs to address some of the underlying issues that facilitate child recruitment or inhibit the reintegration of former child soldiers, including access to education, vocational training, and child rights awareness raising.  Human Rights Watch does not advocate UNICEF’s withdrawal from the Action Plan as a whole.

However, Human Rights Watch remains concerned that the LTTE’s failure to fulfill its obligations regarding the recruitment and release of children severely undermines the plan’s stated goals. The lack of substantial progress in achieving these goals some sixteen months after the LTTE’s formal agreement of the plan has undermined community confidence in the plan’s strategy and raised legitimate questions regarding UNICEF’s ongoing approach towards the LTTE. Although UNICEF has rightly made several public statements regarding LTTE non-compliance, Human Rights Watch believes that its continued participation in the child soldiers component of the plan is untenable and undeservedly legitimizes current LTTE policy towards children.

In light of continuing LTTE non-compliance with its commitments, Human Rights Watch urges UNICEF to set firm deadlines and benchmarks for the LTTE’s compliance with its agreements under the Action Plan. These could include, for example, a cessation of child recruitment for a three-month period, and a specified number of releases during that period. If the LTTE fails to meet these benchmarks within the specified time, UNICEF should suspend operations at the transit center, including the provision of funds to the TRO for the center’s operations.

We encourage UNICEF to continue its monitoring and regular and high-level advocacy with the LTTE and to continue to seek an end to all recruitment of children and to assist children who are released. Experience has shown that the UNICEF district offices are able to facilitate family reunification in such cases on an ad hoc basis and in a short period of time, with Action Plan partners providing follow-up social work support.

Until the LTTE takes credible steps to change its practices, UNICEF should prioritize its protection activities, in collaboration with NGOs assisting the Action Plan and other interested NGOs and local community groups.

[186] Human Rights Watch interview with international NGO staff, Batticaloa, August 9, 2004.

[187] Human Rights Watch interview with local activist, Batticaloa, August 2004.

[188]  Human Rights Watch interview with human rights activist, Batticaloa, August 2004. 

[189] Email communication from Andrea James, Head of Office, UNICEF-Batticaloa to Human Rights Watch, September 22, 2004.

[190] Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, “Child Security and Protection is the First Step Towards Rehabilitation,” press release, July 16, 2004.

[191] Email communication from Andrea James, Head of Office, UNICEF-Batticaloa to Human Rights Watch, September 22, 2004.

[192] UNICEF, Action Plan for Children Affected by War Progress Report January – June 2004, September 2004, p. 27.

[193] Human Rights Watch interview with Ted Chaiban, UNICEF representative, Colombo, August 17, 2004.

[194] Human Rights Watch interview with UNICEF staff, Trincomalee district office, Trincomalee, August 12, 2004.

[195] Human Rights Watch interview with Greg Duly, country director, Save the Children, August 4, 2004.

[196]  Human Rights Watch interview with UN official, Batticaloa, August 6, 2004.

[197] Action Plan for Children Affected by War Progress Report January –June 2004, UNICEF, p 28.

[198] Ibid, p 13.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>November 2004