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Nepalese children caught in the crossfire

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The armed conflict in Nepal between the government and Maoist guerrillas is making victims of an increasing number of children, who have been subjected to a wide array of human-rights violations. Over the past several years, the U.N. Security Council has worked to develop a body of law intended to end such atrocities against children and hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

Its most recent resolution (July 27) called for the United Nations to set up a mechanism to monitor and report on violations against children in armed conflicts. It also urged targeting measures — or sanctions — against parties to conflict that continue to violate children’s rights. This resolution should be widely supported and effectively implemented.

As a result of the hostilities, more than 10,000 Nepalese have died and thousands have been displaced. Although the Nepalese government has strenuously denied charges of abuse, violations have been amply documented by independent organizations. In 2004, the Nepalese government admitted to “occasional aberrations” and renewed its pledge to its human-rights and humanitarian-law obligations.

Children’s health status and educational possibilities, already poor before the conflict started in 1996, have only gotten worse. Infant mortality rates are among the highest in the region. School attendance rates are dropping as a result of children’s displacement from their communities and fear of violence, as both the rebels and the government have repeatedly attacked schools.

In addition, there is widespread forced recruitment of children as soldiers, particularly by the Maoist rebels, and used as informants by the government forces. Some estimates indicate that 30 percent of the Maoist army is composed of boys and girls under 18. In addition, several reports state that girls have been raped by security forces during “search operations.”

In February 2004, 65 students of Birendra High School, Bakifot, Rukum district, were abducted, allegedly by Maoist rebels, while they were taking their exams, just one example of the thousands of abductions that have occurred.

Many children under 18 have been arbitrarily detained by government forces, because of suspected involvement with the Maoists.

Attacks on schools during armed conflict both by government forces and nonstate armed groups are specifically prohibited under the Geneva Convention, Protocol One, Article 52 (1977). Since the conflict started, several hundred schools have been closed due to violence, abductions, displacements and other conflict-related scenarios, according to the Global IDP (Internally Displaced People) Project. School closings have affected at least 100,000 students.

Attacks have not been limited to school children. According to Nepal’s National Teachers Association, since 1996 more than 160 schoolteachers have been killed in connection with the conflict. An estimated 3,000 teachers have been displaced from their districts, fleeing their villages, fearing for their lives. It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 200,000 internally displaced people in Nepal. What makes this situation particularly serious is that no humanitarian programs are specifically designed to support Nepal’s IDP population.

An investigative team coordinated by the National Human Rights Commission found that both the Maoist and government security forces have tortured teachers and other school staff both physically and psychologically. Maoists also conduct both forced and “voluntary” recruitment of civilians.

Human-rights abuses in Nepal are facilitated by a climate of impunity that affects both children and adults. The new U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at protecting children should be rapidly implemented, particularly in places like Nepal, which have not yet come under the council’s scrutiny.

As Julia Freedson, director of the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of nongovernmental organizations working to protect the security and rights of children in states experiencing armed conflict, “Swift and effective implementation of the Security Council’s new child protection systems could make a tangible difference for thousands of Nepalese children who have suffered rape, abduction, torture and other crimes.”