Friday, September 05, 2008

Ban on India child fighters urged

Members of Salwa Judum militia in Chhattisgarh
Police in Chhattisgarh have in the past admitted recruiting children

Indian forces and Maoist rebels should stop using children in conflict immediately, a human rights group says.

Human Rights Watch says all parties in the central state of Chhattisgarh use children in armed operations.

The rebels admit they recruit children sometimes as young as 12, it says. The government denies recruiting children.

PM Manmohan Singh has described Maoists as the biggest threat to India. About 6,000 people have died in violence linked to the rebels over 20 years.

Maoist fighters are active in east and central India, in almost half of the country's 29 states.

They focus on areas where people are poor but there is great mineral wealth. The rebels say they represent the rights of landless farmhands and tribal communities.

'Horror'

The Human Rights Watch report is entitled "Dangerous Duty: Children and the Chhattisgarh Conflict",.

It says using children under 18 years in armed operations places them at risk of injury and death, and violates international law.

"A particular horror of the Chhattisgarh conflict is that children are participating in the violence," Jo Becker, children's rights advocate for HRW and the study's lead researcher, said in a press release.

"It's shameful that both India's government and the Naxalites [the Maoist rebels] are exploiting children in such a dangerous fashion."

The report says all sides in the conflict use children.

Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh
The rebels are accused of recruiting children as young as 12

"The rebels admit it is their official practice to recruit children above age 16 in their forces, and have used children as young as 12 in armed operations," the report says.

"I joined the rebels' military guerrilla squad when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was studying in a government-run residential school in eighth standard when Naxalites came to my hostel," a former member is quoted telling HRW in December last year.

"I didn't want to go. They said I could study until the 10th standard, but I should go with them. We got weapons training, learnt about landmines, and a little karate.

"Finally, I had an opportunity to run away. One year after I ran away, both my younger brothers [aged eight and 12] were killed [by the Naxalites in retaliation]. They beat my mother and broke her arm. They burned our house and took all our things," he said.

'Underage'

The report says that government-backed Salwa Judum vigilantes and the police, too, are guilty of recruiting children.

A teacher in a government school in Bhairamgarh told HRW that about 15 to 20 children - boys and girls - dropped out of high school in 2005 to become special police officers (SPOs).

"I live in Bhairamgarh and many of these children also stay there. Now they are all SPOs. Their entire schooling has been ruined - they can never go back to school because they have discontinued education for over two years," the report quoted him as saying.

HRW says the Chhattisgarh police admit that they had recruited children under 18 as special police officers due to the absence of age documentation, but claim that all children have been removed from the ranks.

"However, our investigators have found that underage SPOs continue to serve with the police and are used in counter-Naxalite combing operations."

In late 2007, the group says that Chhattisgarh police admitted that they had accidentally recruited underage SPOs, but claimed that they had since removed around 150 officers from the ranks, including children.

"While there is no evidence of new SPO recruitment since March 2006, both SPOs and community members confirmed that SPOs under age 18 continue to serve with the police," the report says.

It says many of the underage SPOs boasted in interviews with HRW that they continue to serve at the forefront of dangerous armed operations

In July, the Indian home ministry said the HRW findings were "absolutely false" and that no underage SPOs were recruited by the Chhattisgarh police.

"Instead of vacillating between admissions and denial regarding their use of children, India should act to immediately conduct age verification tests for all SPOs, remove those under age 18, and provide them with education and alternative employment," the report says.

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