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No Excuse on Plight of Child Soldiers

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As many as 6 to 9,000 child soldiers languish in cantonement sites in Nepal. JOE BAKER of Human Rights Watch says there is no excuse for letting them suffer.

The view from outside is different from the view from inside in Nepal. While the major political parties and coalition partners tend to paint a generally rosy picture of post-November 2006 Nepal, the international community once in a while comes up with a damning report on a particular issue.

Even as the government was saying that the peace process was holding and the law and order situation had improved, the last time the Carter Center painted a rather gloomy picture of Nepal, saying that there was "unacceptable levels of continued fear, intimidation and physical violence."

The latest document (actually a letter to the new Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare, Khadga Bahadur Bishwakarma, who is also a Maoist minister) from the New York-based Human Rights Watch says the issue of child soldiers remains unresolved.

Jo Becker, children’s advocate at Human Rights Watch says that of more than 30,000 Maoist cadres registered in the cantonment sites created under the country’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 are believed to be children under the age of 18.

In the letter, he urges Nepal’s Maoist armed forces should immediately release all children from their forces, including thousands of child soldiers held for months in cantonment sites in Nepal.

Baker urges the Minister to secure the Maoists’ cooperation with the United Nations and child protection agencies to allow children to return home without further delay.

Baker says there is no excuse for letting children languish in cantonment sites month after month. Under the terms of Nepal’s peace agreement, these children should have been released immediately. The CPA specifically prohibits the enlistment or use of children under the age of 18, and specifies that such children should be immediately “rescued” and provided with rehabilitation services. The letter also cites the February 2007 report by HRW entitled “Children in the Ranks: The Maoists’ Use of Child Soldiers in Nepal,” in which HRW extensively documented the use of child soldiers in Nepal.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Nepal: Letter to New Minister for Children Urged to Act Swiftly
May 8, 2007

Minister Khadga Bahadur Bishwakarma
Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare
Government of Nepal
Singha Durbar
Kathmandu, Nepal

Dear Minister Bishwakarma,

As you undertake your new responsibilities as a cabinet member in the interim Nepali government, Human Rights Watch recognizes the important challenges before you in addressing the situation of women and children following years of armed conflict. We share your hopes for a peaceful, democratic future for Nepal and its people.

Because of your responsibilities as the new Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare, and your leadership role in the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) central committee, we are writing to raise particular concerns regarding the presence of children in the CPN-Maoist forces and to urge you to work with the CPN-Maoist, United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIL) and child protection agencies to ensure the immediate release of all children from Maoist ranks and their return home.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the specific provision (article 7.6.1) included in the November 22, 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Nepal and CPN-Maoist that neither party would use or enlist children 18 years or below in any military force, and the commitment to immediately rescue such children and provide for their rehabilitation. We also welcome the government of Nepal’s recent ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict on January 3, 2007. This important treaty, which has been ratified by 113 other states worldwide, establishes the age of 18 as a minimum for any direct participation in hostilities or for compulsory recruitment or any recruitment by non-state armed forces.

We were also very pleased that you personally participated in the Paris conference on child soldiers in February 2007, where representatives of 58 states worldwide committed themselves to putting an end to the unlawful recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts. At the conference, states agreed to support and apply new guidelines, known as the “Paris Principles,” for protecting children from recruitment and providing assistance to those who have already been involved with armed forces or groups.

Given these past commitments, Human Rights Watch is deeply disappointed that large numbers of children remain in the Maoist cantonment sites, even though it has been over five months since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. We are also deeply disturbed by credible reports that children continue to be recruited by CPN-Maoist cadres in various parts of the country.

Of the 30,000 persons registered at the cantonments, credible Nepali and international organizations estimate that 20 to 30 percent (6000 to 9000) are children younger than 18. Ian Martin, the UN Secretary General’s personal representative in Nepal, recently stated publicly that there were “substantial” numbers of minors registered as combatants at the different Maoist cantonments, including children recruited after the May 2006 ceasefire.

The CPN-Maoists should agree to a mechanism as soon as possible to identify all children in the cantonment sites, to release them, and to allow child protection agencies to facilitate their return home. The Paris Principles state that the release, protection and reintegration of children unlawfully recruited or used must be sought at all times, without condition (para 3.11); that during release, children should be rapidly separated from adult fighters and handed over to “an appropriate, mandated, independent civilian process” (para 7.21); and that the majority of children should be returned to their family and community or a family and community environment as soon as possible after their release (para 7.45).

We are aware of your public statements that there are no children in the cantonments. We are also aware that all of the persons who have been registered in the cantonments have given an age of 18 or above. However, Human Rights Watch in our report Children in the Ranks: The Maoists Use of Child Soldiers in Nepal, published in February 2007, as well as numerous other sources, including the UN Secretary-General’s reports to the UN Security Council, have documented the widespread recruitment and use of children as CPN-Maoist cadres, including in combatant roles. Strong evidence, including the absence of any release mechanism for child cadres prior to the cantonment process, indicates that large numbers of these children remain within the CPN-Maoist ranks in the cantonment sites.

The UN Secretary-General’s December 20, 2006 report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict in Nepal specifically recommended that the CPN-Maoists must immediately end the practice of use and recruitment of children, as well as cease any new recruitment of children, and must immediately engage with the United Nations country team for an action plan to ensure transparent procedures for release and verification of all children within the People’s Liberation Army and all other CPN-M-affiliated organizations.

As Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare, you are responsible for the protection of children, and implementation of policies and practices that are consistent with international legal standards. To fulfill these responsibilities, we urge you to take the following steps:

1) Urge the CPN-Maoist to work with the UN and child protection agencies to establish appropriate measures to allow children in the cantonment sites and other child cadres in the CPN-Maoists to return home without further delay;

2) Work towards full implementation of the UN Secretary General’s recommendations in his December 20, 2006 report to the UN Security Council on children and armed conflict in Nepal, including by ensuring that specific provisions for the protection of children are included in all aspects of the peace process and that international law concerning child protection is respected;

3) Work closely with the UN and specialized child protection agencies, including non-governmental organizations, to ensure the creation of appropriate rehabilitation and reintegration programs for former child cadres, including reunification with their families, and re-entry into school or participation in appropriate vocational training programs.

We look forward to your response, and would be happy to continue dialogue with these important issues.

Sincerely yours,

Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia Division

Lois Whitman
Executive Director
Children’s Rights Division

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Brihát Śhānti Sámjhautā, 2006
(Comprehensive Peace Agreement)

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