Release and Rehabilitate Child Soldiers without Ifs and Buts

By Kul Chandra Gautam

14 December 2008

During the recent visit of Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal agreed to discharge nearly 3,000 Maoist combatants verified as minors by UNMIN but still remaining in Maoist army cantonments.

Later, Minister for Peace and Reconstruction Janardan Sharma confirmed to the visiting UN official that the process of releasing the minors would begin soon and be completed before the end of February 2009.

The date of February 2009 was fixed deliberately to ensure that the next annual report of the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council on children and armed conflict due in March 2009 would no longer list CPN-Maoist as a non-State actor employing child soldiers or otherwise abusing children in armed conflict. It should be noted that the CPN-Maoist have been included in this “name and shame” list in the UN’s annual report since 2003.

The commitment of the Government of Nepal to release all children from cantonments would partly respond to UN Security Council resolution 1612 on the issue of children and armed conflict, and would be in keeping with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

It is to be hoped that this late but welcome commitment by the Government of Nepal, now headed by CPN-Maoist, will be implemented in a timely and honest manner without any further ifs and buts.

UNMIN and the UN country team stand ready to support the ex-child combatants to resume civilian life as they look to their future in a new peaceful Nepal. Indeed, UNICEF and UNDP have already secured donor support for this purpose. They have also developed rehabilitation and reintegration packages tailored to the needs of children and youth, and their skills and long-term aspirations.

These packages have been developed in collaboration with national and international NGOs, and in compliance with international standards, including the Paris Principles which provide very specific guidelines on the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of all categories of children associated with armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG).

Noting the long delays and obfuscation in implementing past agreements on the peace process, child rights activists are worried that the Government, and particularly the CPN-Maoist, will find various excuses not to fully implement this solemn pledge in a timely manner.

They insist that there should be no delay and reservations whatsoever in implementing a full-scale release, protection and reintegration of ex-child combatants as a matter of their human rights, and that this issue should not be subject to any further political maneuvering or negotiations.

In particular, the release, protection and reintegration of minors from cantonments should not be linked in any way with the contentious issue of integration and rehabilitation of adult Maoist combatants.

Indeed as far back as November 2007 an inter-departmental Task Force was established to draft a National Plan of Action (NPA) for the reintegration of not just child combatants but all children who have been affected by armed conflict. This Task Force under the leadership of the Minister of Peace and Reconstruction should be reinvigorated to expedite the finalization and approval of the NPA, and adequate resources should be allocated for its fast-track implementation.

According to the CPA and in line with the Paris Principles, all ex-child combatants should be unconditionally released from cantonments. Once they are released, and pending their reintegration with their own families and communities, they should be housed in temporary holding centres far away from existing cantonments.

Such holding centres should be managed by respected senior civilian administrators assisted by UNICEF and other recognized national and international child-welfare organizations. Designated UN agencies should have unhindered access to monitor the process and to ensure that discharged minors are provided with a choice of community-based reintegration opportunities.

It should be recognized that it is not easy for children formerly associated with armed groups to readjust back to civilian life, especially if they are ostracized by their own families and communities, as it happens often. Because of cultural norms and attitudes, family reunification might be particularly difficult for girls and women who are perceived to have been raped, sexually abused or engaged in promiscuous behaviour.

Without adequate support, many girl-soldiers become vulnerable to forced marriage by their families, or become victims of trafficking or prostitution rackets. If not well handled, both boys and girl ex-combatants become vulnerable to re-recruitment by various armed groups, including criminal gangs.

Currently, all ex-child combatants and CAAFAG are at particular risk of recruitment by various Terai-based armed groups as well as certain hill-based indigenous rebel groups. They seem to emulate earlier CPN-Maoist practice of abusing children as arms carriers, sentries, messengers and even as social mobilisers, putting children at grave risk.

The answer to these risks is to prepare sensitively designed training, empowerment, reintegration and rehabilitation programmes, drawing on extensive international experience and adapting it to Nepal’s reality. There is also an urgent need to develop preventive action in a democratic and political manner, and to address issues of general lawlessness and impunity in the Terai and Eastern Hills.

Sadly, most of Nepal’s political parties have a deplorable record of using and abusing children in support of their political agenda. Political parties routinely mobilize student unions and teachers’ unions for strikes, demonstrations and frequent closure of schools in support of their political demands, which have little to do with educational issues.

Among political parties, the CPN- Maoist have had a deliberate policy of using school children and teachers in support of their “revolutionary” objectives. They targeted schools and the education system as a prime instrument for their “people’s war”. They used schools as major recruiting grounds for the Maoist militia and as training grounds for propagating their political ideology.

In areas under their control, the Maoists introduced a school curriculum that glorified violence and emphasized political indoctrination and military training from the youngest age.

Thus, in a subject called “military science” children as young as 9 to 10 year-olds were taught skills in making and using guns, explosives, grenades and booby traps; serving as sentries and informers, and glorifying revolutionary violence.

The Maoists also routinely abducted students and teachers and marched them off to indoctrination camps, often presented as “cultural” programmes. In battles with the then Royal Nepal Army, teachers and students were often used as human shields, by both sides.

Although during the decade of conflict CPN-Maoist consistently denied recruiting or allowing children below the age of 18 in their guerilla army, many neutral and respectable organizations, national as well as international, repeatedly pointed out that minor children were widely used in armed hostilities in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions to which the Maoists professed their allegiance.

It is based on such credible information that the CPN-Maoist have been put in the UN Security Council’s list of “name and shame” of non-State actors guilty of recruiting child soldiers and using children in armed conflict for the past 4 years.

Given such record, all children should have been released immediately after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, and especially after UNMIN’s verification in 2007of nearly 3000 minors as ineligible to remain in the cantonments. But both the CPN-Maoist and the Interim Government used various pretexts not to release them.

Now that the CPN-Maoist leads the Government of Nepal, continuing presence of child soldiers, and the neglect and plight of other children affected by armed conflict, amounts to the Government of Nepal itself being a violator of its international treaty obligations.

It is worth recalling that conscripting or enlisting children into armed forces or armed groups and using them in hostilities is an international war crime and crime against humanity under a number of international conventions to which Nepal is a State Party.

As we embark on building a New Nepal, the CPN-Maoist in particular, and Nepali society as a whole in general, must embrace a culture of peace and non-violence. All militaristic training and indoctrination must end, and we must instill the ethos of peace and non-violence in the minds and hearts of the children of Nepal. This requires a particular emphasis on those children affected by the decade long conflict, and children and youth at new risk of recruitment and armed violence, especially in the Terai.

Schools and health centres where children congregate should be respected as zones of peace and considered off-limits for military and partisan political activities.

To protect children and civilian population, as well as to prevent Nepal from further descending into lawlessness and criminality, as has happened in many post-conflict situations, there is a need for not only release and reintegration of child soldiers in the cantonments, but also a timely and comprehensive national plan of action that addresses the broader needs of children affected by armed conflict.

For example, de-mining, mine awareness education and a vigorous programme to stop the proliferation of small arms and light weapons must be made an important part of the “arms management” programme and future security sector reform.

The recent emergence of many armed groups in the Terai, and continuing resort to threat of arms, intimidation and violence by para-military groups, militia, and youth organizations aligned with various political parties in different parts of Nepal, point to the urgent need for a tighter control of small arms and light weapons, and an end to a culture of violence and impunity.

As SRSG Coomaraswamy emphasized, “impunity for violence must stop and the rule of law must return to Nepal for peace to be given a chance and for children to live in security.”

( Mr. Gautam is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF)