A UN official accuses the military of recruiting for a renegade armed group.
The Sri Lankan military and government have been trying to cobble together a diplomatic response to charges they have collaborated with a breakaway rebel faction in forcibly recruiting children as soldiers.
If proven, the comments made earlier in the week by Allan Rock – special advisor on Sri Lanka to the UN special representative for children and armed conflict – could trigger a strong international reaction at a time when Sri Lanka is already fielding mounting queries over impunity and human rights.
The military said it was ‘perturbed’ by Rock’s allegation that “certain elements of the government security forces are supporting and sometimes participating in abductions and forced recruitment of children by the Karuna faction”.
Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna was the eastern military commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until March 2004, when he split from the main rebel outfit over differences with its leadership. His group has since been fighting the Tamil Tiger rebels.
The military said in a statement that it was disassociating itself from Rock’s allegations and denying “any involvement whatsoever with the LTTE breakaway group for abductions”.
Separately, Keheliya Rambukwella, the defence ministry spokesman, maintained there were “genuine doubts over the accuracy of Mr Rock’s allegation”. He said it was surprising how anybody could have reached such conclusions after spending a few hours touring a limited area.
Rock was in the country from November 6 to 14 and visited the capital Colombo, the eastern regions of Ampara and Batticaloa and the northern districts of Kilinochchi and Jaffna.
Nevertheless, the president’s office has played it safe. It issued a statement saying that the government had a longstanding zero-tolerance policy on the recruitment of children as combatants. It also said that the president had pledged to investigate Rock’s allegations if provided with credible evidence.
On Thursday, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the human rights minister, said he was waiting for Rock’s final report: “We will comment officially on his report.
“The president has asked him to provide clear cut evidence to enable the government to deal with this issue. Once presented, we will naturally act on it.”
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Rock vowed to keep tabs on the promised investigation: “I’m going to be communicating with the president’s office to see what kind of investigation they have in mind. I will suggest that we ensure this investigation is structured in a way that the public can have confidence… that it’s going to be objective and independent.”
Rock said there were ‘very limited reporting mechanisms’ for parents of abducted children: “These require a lot of effort and initiative on the part of an aggrieved family to make a report, a complaint, and then pursue it.
“There is a culture of impunity abroad in the land. Wherever we travelled, we found a climate of fear.”
The population did not find the police responsive to their concerns, Rock noted. Most policemen based in north and east – where Tamils are in the majority and where the majority of child abductions occur – could not speak the Tamil language, thus limiting their usefulness to the local population.
“The police rarely investigate or pursue complaints in an effective and timely manner,” Rock said. “The army, again, cannot speak the language of the Tamil population and do not appear helpful or motivated.
“The institutions that one normally thinks of as being safeguards of human rights, such as the Human Rights Commission, are seen as ineffective, under-funded and not present. The courts are also regarded as not providing the kind of remedies the average citizen needs in circumstances like these.
“If you add to that concerns about reprisals, either by the militias or from other elements, you have a climate of fear, a sense of impunity and an acute feeling of helplessness on the part of the average person.”
Rock said the Tamil Tiger rebels continue to abduct and forcibly recruit children. “The LTTE has been abducting children for years,” he affirmed. “They promised to stop it and they haven’t.”
But Rock has attracted biting criticism here from some commentators who felt he was disproportionately “mollycoddling” the rebels while discrediting the state with unverified allegations.
|Karuna split from the Tamil Tigers in 2004|
Rights groups have accused the LTTE of enlisting thousands of children. The militants have repeatedly appeared on the UN’s List of Shame which aims to shame parties that engage in child recruitment and other grave violations of international law relating to children.
According to a UNICEF database of reported cases (collated since 2002), the total number of children abducted by the rebels to service their fighting forces is almost 6,000. UNICEF estimates this to be only one-third of the actual number.
The Island, an independent English language newspaper, said in its editorial: “It is unbecoming of a UN official to go by hearsay like a village gossip.”
“If Mr Rock has really said what is being attributed to him, it must not be allowed to go uncontested or without a probe, as the problem with misinformation is that the international community and some human rights groups readily stomach it,” the Island wrote.
The state-owned Daily News also had harsh words: “If the UN Representative had done his homework prior to visiting Sri Lanka, he would have learnt that it is the Tigers who have right along been committing child abuse, including the abduction of children and their forced cooptation into the Tigers’ combat ranks.”