Nepal Maoists finally agree to free child soldiers

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu: Witnessed by top UN officials and envoys from foreign governments, Nepal’s Maoist chief and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Wednesday finally gave his consent to a new accord with the coalition government to release nearly 3,000 child soldiers from his party’s guerrilla army.

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“This is a step towards national reconciliation and we hope will give a push to the peace process,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy, who flew in to Kathmandu this week to give an impetus to the discharge process that was to have been accomplished by February 2008.

Sadhuram Sapkota, joint secretary in the peace and reconstruction ministry, and Saral Sahayatri Poudel, brigade commander of the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army (PLA), signed the time-bound action plan that will see the first child soldiers’ release from Dec 27.

There are 2,973 combatants who were recruited as children in violation of international norms, some at the age of 12.

These recruits will be honourably discharged in the first stage. Of them, about 30 percent are girls. While nearly 20 are still under 16, about 500 are under 18.

Coomaraswamy said according to the pact, the process of discharge will be completed within 40 days.

The three-step action plan will see a UN committee verify and monitor the released fighters, to be followed by their eventual rehabilitation.

UN agencies like Unicef and UNDP have drawn up a four-fold plan for the rehabilitation.

The released child soldiers will be allowed to continue with their studies in schools and beyond if they want, or be given training in health or vocation. The other option is training them to set up micro-businesses.

During the training, they will be provided a stipend to take care of their basic needs.

The Norwegian government has offered $5 million to support the process and the US estimates it would require around an additional $3 million.

After the Maoists signed a peace agreement in 2006 to end their 10-year insurrection, the UN screened the PLA to weed out illegal recruits roped in after the ceasefire as well as child soldiers.

Coomaraswamy said that care will be taken to break the chain of command exercised by the PLA over the minors to ensure they did not return to guerrilla army after their discharge or were pressed into other violent activities.

Should that happen, she warned that the Maoists, who have been listed by the UN as an armed group that recruits children, will not be listed but will be subjected to sanctions like travel restrictions.