Friday, May 1, 2009

At UN, Child Soldiers Half Addressed in Sri Lanka, Denied in Myanmar

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, April 29 -- Behind the UN's all day debate Wednesday on children and armed conflict was the war in Sri Lanka. Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan Tamil acceptable to the Sinhala government, issued a report which in Annex Two criticized only the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam but not the government for denial of humanitarian access. Inner City Press asked Ms. Coomaraswamy if the government too wasn't guilty of denying humanitarian access. Coomaraswamy admitted that it was, but stated that since the government no longer recruits child soldiers, it engaging in other grave violations does not get listed in the annex.

Sri Lankan Ambassador Palihakkara spoke near the end of Wednesday debate, criticizing the LTTE and using Coomaraswamy's report to the government's benefit. Afterwards, Inner City Press caught him in the hall and ask about the government's refusal to allow a UN humanitarian assessment team into the conflict zone. Palihakkara said that the ICRC and Caritas have access, the UN has to arrange it with the ICRC's boats.

Later, Ms. Coomaraswamy and her staff noted how Sri Lanka twisted the report, and how government supporters went after fellow Tamil Navi Pillay, of the Human Rights Commission, on blogs and elsewhere. Ambassador Palihakkara was noted as a serious diplomat. But what is he doing now?

Some Tamil groups portray Coomaraswamy as a plant of the Sinhala government. It has been confirmed to Inner City Press that any appointment to Coomaraswamy's level is check with the person's government. If Colombo supported Coomaraswamy, is she a credible skeptic of the UN's treatment of Tamils? We are on record in support of her work. But the doubts are growing, as a subset of the UN's problematic silence as the slaughter in Sri Lanka has developed.

While Mexican foreign minister Patricia Espinoza, who presided over Wednesday's session, cancelled her press availability thinking it would degenerate into questions about swine flu, French minister Francois Zemeray braved the stakeout. Inner City Press asked him what France does about child soldiering in Chad -- including the arrests of Chad-based JEM in Omburman, Sudan -- and Zimeray said that the combat of child combattants is a part of French foreign policy everywhere and anywhere. He said he agrees with Mexico's Claude Heller, chairman of the CAAC Working Group, that children recruited into drug gangs should be part of the CAAC mandate. Video here. But Ms. Coomaraswamy told Inner City Press that would require the Council expanding the mandate.

Footnote: Coomaraswamy's report also criticized Myanmar. Inner City Press caught up with Burmese Ambassador Than Swe in the hall after he spoke to the Council, near the anniversary of Cyclone Nargis. He had said, "peace and stability prevail in almost all corners of Myanmar." But as Inner City Press asked earlier in the week, the army there reportedly clashed with the Karen National Union, injuring across the border at least two Thai soldiers. "That is not true," Ambassador Than Swe told Inner City Press. The UN on the other hand said envoy Ibrahim Gambari does not monitor such matters. Watch this site.

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