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Child rights and emergencies

CHILD RIGHTS: Academic research looks a pretty weedy sort of opposition when pitched against military might. But for those fighting the use of child soldiers in conflicts it is proving a considerable weapon in the campaign to prevent this form of conscription.


conscripted: Child soldiers under the wilting influence of the LTTE

Hundreds of thousands of young people have been co-opted into wars over the years. In the 1980s it was widely held that children who fought alongside adults were heroes and martyrs. They are still often depicted as being somehow braver than grown-ups.

The advent of lightweight, cheap but deadly automatic weapons, which can be easily handled, paved the way for women and children to take their places on battlefields. Child conscription is a planned political and military strategy fuelled by a ruthless logic.

Children are often more useful than adults because they can be more easily manipulated and are more vulnerable to idealistic appeals; they are economical because they don’t have to be paid as much, or indeed often anything at all, and they eat less; training and maintaining discipline over young ranks are also easier.

There are many siren voices, including those in the West, that justify or manipulate conflicts that employ children. There are also those among the international community that tacitly justify it on grounds of poverty, hunger or lack of education.

Diaspora populations in Western countries who support a conflict may also turn a blind eye to child conscription or may even justify it as heroism or martyrdom. Therefore, it is not always easy to convince communities that conscription of any child is wrong.

During efforts in the 1990s in Sri Lanka to find a definition of childhood sexual abuse, a telling link was uncovered between that and the situation of child soldiers.

Young people cannot volunteer, even if they appear to want to do so, for sexual relations or for participation in armed conflict for one compelling reason.

They are unable to comprehend such complex acts, which even adults find difficult to understand (at least the adults are supposed to).

At that time, no parallels existed between conscription and child abuse as described in medical literature. There were documented instances in international magazines and video documentaries of child conscription in Sri Lanka for the conflict.

The decision was made to document the use of child soldiers in Sri Lanka and also establish the ways in which they were abused. This research was based on children who had surrendered and it led to two new definitions of child abuse.

The first centred on the involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children and adolescents in an armed conflict that they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give consent, and which adversely affects their right to unhindered growth and identity as children.

The second describes how, when an adult persuades a child to commit suicide - an act the child cannot comprehend - for personal, social, economic or political reasons that the child cannot understand, that persuasion constitutes a form of child abuse that may be called ‘suicide by proxy’.

These definitions were the most useful key when lobbying against the use of children in war.

Interestingly, supporters of conflicts are often blind or in a phase of denial of conscription, but often sensitive to issues of child abuse. When conscription is convincingly shown to be parallel to child abuse, justifying the process becomes much, much harder or impossible.

After the research findings, the next stage was to launch a campaign, targeting academics and professionals both locally in Sri Lanka and internationally with presentations to academic bodies and scientific publications.

This was followed by contacts with child rights activists normally working in the field of child abuse but also including those working in conflict zones.

Some of these included academics and professionals sympathetic to the rebel groups and the conflict itself.

The issue was taken up by the Sri Lankan press and radio and television chat shows where telephone questioning or live audiences were extremely useful in driving the message home.

Some of the lectures and newspaper articles were published on the Internet and spread more widely among interest/advocacy groups.

A book against conscription was published in English, aimed at academics, professionals and the expatriate community in Sri Lanka, some of whom were and still are sympathetic to the terrorists armed struggle.

A song against conscription and sung in a relevant local language was recorded by an ex-child soldier, and then distributed on cassette and compact disc.

A video docudrama was produced on the issue of conscription using a rights-based concept. Careful precautions were taken not to make political accusations, which included not identifying ethnic groups or political groups by name.

However, in spite of these precautions, unknown elements sabotaged the public broadcasts after the first broadcast, and the original broadcast-quality recording was stolen.

But this was overcome by the mass production of CD videos which were distributed free to organisations, including community and NGOs, which showed them to small community groups.

At the same time, politically motivated groups also took advantage of the abusive nature of conscription to lobby the community against the armed factions. This too may have had an impact on the campaign.

The decision by the Armed Forces to reduce attacks on civilians has also helped change attitudes towards conscription.

Although previously parents voluntarily handed over children to fighters, today young people are taken by force. Parents, in spite of being threatened, now protest against the coercion of children.

But the battle to keep young people safe is far from over. The campaigning must be maintained, not just to end the conscription that still continues, but to deter any potential groups that may in future push for armed struggle against the Government.

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