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Rehabilitating Child Soldiers in Nepal

Sukanya Podder was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.
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  • February 03, 2007

    In January 2007, the House of Representatives in Nepal, restored after the people's movement of April, 2006, unanimously adopted an interim Constitution and dissolved itself. This technically paved the way for Maoist insurgents to enter a new and reconstituted interim parliament. Clearly a political landmark of tremendous import, Nepal's political transition has been accompanied by the initiation of a nascent disarmament process. During the second week of January, soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of the Maoists began depositing their weapons for being locked up in containers monitored by the United Nations at Chitwan and Nawalparasi, two of a total of seven designated disarmament camps.

    In the context of this ongoing political transition and military reform it is pertinent to point out the recent Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the Government and CPN-M on 21 November 2006, includes provisions which commit the parties to reintegrating children associated with armed groups into their families and marks the first time this issue has been addressed within the peace process. Despite this, both sides in the peace talks have yet to make any formal arrangement for the removal of child soldiers from their respective armed forces.

    This current oversight and neglect of children's needs has links with the past. For instance during the first ceasefire in 2003 the government of Nepal had not established any functional rehabilitation and re-integration program for former Maoists combatants, child or adult, and paid no special attention to rehabilitating or reintegrating child soldiers in particular. At a civil society level, in February 2003, Concern for Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), a non-governmental organization (NGO), started a relief and monitoring program for war-affected children in three districts, Salyan, Rukum and Rolpa. Four international donors, including Save the Children Norway, were engaged with coordinating the provision of emergency relief, educational assistance and psychological support to children directly affected by conflict.

    Later, the Government of Nepal also announced a rehabilitation program for 1,033 children affected by the Maoist insurgency. In addition to the government, the Nepal children Organization (NCO), a non-governmental organization also decided to start a program aimed at rehabilitating children affected by the insurgency. Children selected were provisioned with free education, lodging and food at NCO centers around Nepal. The government had for some time also initiated a program to provide financial assistance to children and women affected by the insurgency. Eleven women were identified as recipients of an interest free loan of Nepalese Rupees 5000 (US $97) to be invested in income generating work and thirty five children were slated to receive Nepalese Rupees 1000 (US $19) towards their stationary expenses. Some children have also been provided temporary shelter; and legal assistance in case of illegal detention. Family tracing and mediation has also been carried out to allow for the safe return of children to their families. However, these programs were far less effective than expected since they were limited in reach with majority of victims left out.

    In the absence of a child-specific DDR programme these past efforts can be best described as sporadic/disjointed initiatives in the context of ongoing conflict to provide care for children who were either released by the parties to the conflict, captured or who simply voluntarily left. However, a national process to separate children from armed groups and return them to their communities is urgently needed given the presence of thousands of child soldiers in the Maoist ranks. The broad definition of child soldiers as enshrined in the Capetown Principles (1997) further makes it an imperative that children playing any kind of role in a military group, whether or not armed, should benefit from such a process.

    The Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Nepal of 20th December, 2006, has been prepared in accordance with the provisions of Security Council resolution 1612 (2005). This is part of broader efforts to better institutionalize an effective monitoring and reporting mechanism (MRM) as part of what former UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Olara Ottunu labeled as an 'era of application' intended to impart greater leverage and teeth to the children and armed conflict agenda within the UNSC's peace and security mandate.

    The report, which covers the period from 1 August 2005 to 30 September 2006, reflects incidents of violations both before and after the April 2006 with respect to six categories of children's rights in situation of armed conflict, namely killing and maiming of children, the recruiting and use of child soldiers, attacks against schools or hospitals; abduction of children; and the denial of humanitarian access for children. With documentation of individual cases of children used/recruited by CPN-M becoming easier, the report has documented 512 individual cases of recruitment by CPN-M, 40 per cent of them, girls, during the reporting period. The composition of CPN-M and allied militia groups according to one source indicates a large presence of females, approaching 50 per cent in some cases. Children interviewed by the task force members have also admitted to being part of the CPN-M militia, popularly called the 'Jana Militia'. Hence in terms of role performance, children have been porters, runners, cooks and aided armed cadres in frontline support. The Royal Nepal Army (RNA) has also reportedly used children as porters and messengers in its counterinsurgency operations, and surrendered child cadres of the Maoists have been used for intelligence gathering and logistical planning.

    A dialogue was initiated in early January 2006 with both parties to the conflict about the implementation of UN resolution 1612 (2005) and a concept paper on the monitoring and reporting mechanism in Nepal and relevant legal documents were shared by the UN's Task Force for Monitoring and Reporting in Nepal. Both parties have been requested to appoint a contact person to facilitate exchanges in this respect. Appointment of these focal points, is however, pending at the moment. Dialogue has nevertheless continued on the ground between task force members and the two parties to the conflict. On the basis of commitments expressed by the parties, child protection agencies have made repeated attempts to advocate for the release of children with district or national-level CPN-M representatives; much of these efforts have proved unsuccessful.

    Despite setbacks, much of these efforts can be located within an emergent discourse on engaging non state actors in peacebuilding and need to be sustained since a future child specific DDR will require the willingness and binding commitment on part of the Maoists, to release and rehabilitate their underage cadres. Despite Nepal's ratification of several international instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the process of incorporating international treaties into domestic law has not yet begun. The process of depositing a binding declaration by the Government of Nepal to the Optional Protocol to the CRC is yet to be finalized. In particular, the Government of Nepal needs to take action on the matter of criminalizing the abduction, recruitment and use of children for military purposes, as well as the establishment of a rule of engagement specifically on children for the security forces since the onus for ensuring compliance and mitigating recruitment rests with state parties under the OP-CRC.

    In sum, it is hoped that the UN can play a substantial role in guiding both sides in the conflict to take on board a child-DDR process and hence address the difficult rehabilitation issues which post-conflict and transitional societies pose for children deprived of formal education and skills training.