March 21, 2005
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE, have long been known for recruiting children to take up arms in their 22-year independence struggle against the Government of Sri Lanka. With a truce in early 2002, many hoped the illegal conscription of minors as child combatants would cease. In the wake of the tsunami, which devastated Tamil majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, new reports of abductions and missing children have reaffirmed concerns of international human rights organizations of continued recruitment.
The LTTE has responded effectively to the emergency needs of the population in the aftermath of the tsunami. The group maintains administrative control of large portions of the northern and eastern districts of the country and in these areas LTTE administrators are coordinating an impressive relief and reconstruction effort. New buildings, businesses and government facilities are quickly rising amid the rubble of the war-torn region as the Tamil rebels oversee a flurry of infrastructure development. The LTTE saw the tsunami as a political opportunity and made a point of reaching out to international donors with promises of full access to monitor assistance.
The effective LTTE relief response, however, has not been accompanied by any lessening of their commitment to armed struggle should negotiations with the Sri Lankan government continue to be stalemated. The LTTE has long been known for the forced recruitment of child soldiers, which is a war crime, and the evidence suggests that recruitment has continued. Reporting 40 verified cases of child recruits in the month following the December 26th tsunami, UNICEF has highlighted the forcible recruitment of three young girls from relief camps. The underage girls, as young as fifteen years of age, disappeared from relief camps in Ampara and Batticaloa, two northeastern districts. While they have since been found and returned to their families, the whereabouts of countless other children remain unknown and they are suspected to be under the control of the rebel forces.
Contradicting repeated denials of illegal recruitment, the Tamil rebels freed 23 child soldiers on February 3rd to the North East Secretariat on Human Rights. The LTTE tried to explain the presence of these underage combatants by asserting that children often hide their true age in order to join the insurgency. In a released statement, the rebels maintained that the freed minors were found through "a process of identifying underaged kids among those volunteered for enlistment with the LTTE." The internal process of identifying child combatants, however, is a ploy to gain favorable publicity. Human Rights Watch has previously repudiated similar actions of the LTTE, contending that, in fact, "forcible recruitment of children has intensified and new recruits outnumber those released."
When confronted with allegations of Tamil recruitment of child soldiers in the wake of the natural disaster, R. Sampathan, the elected leader of the Tamil National Alliance, argued that the Tigers are merely supporting children left destitute by the tsunami and that their charity should not be the basis of accusations. However, since the Norway-sponsored truce agreement between the government and insurgents took effect in 2002, UNICEF has estimated that 1,400 children have been abducted or recruited by the Tamil rebels. Over the same period, Human Rights Watch estimates the LTTE has enlisted more than 3,500 underage children to fill the ranks of the insurgency.
With armed conflict against the Sinhalese-dominated government dating back to 1983, the Tamil rebels have adopted guerrilla warfare techniques, terrorist acts and suicide bombings as their primary means of promoting the establishment of an independent Tamil state. To date, more than 60,000 have died as a result of the fighting, and an estimated 800,000, one-third of whom are children, have been displaced by the internal armed conflict.
Today, more than 250,000 children fight as child soldiers in more than 30 armed conflicts around the world. Beyond the injury and death of thousands of these children every year, the exploitation, sexual abuse, physical stress and emotional trauma of war robs them of the childhood they deserve as a human right.
Refugees International therefore recommends:
- The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cease efforts to illegally recruit children in the group's effort to establish an independent Tamil state.
- Donor governments increase financial commitments to local and international human rights organizations to enable them to their expand efforts to trace missing children who have been abducted or recruited into conflict and to build their capacity to provide reintegration programs.
- The Government of Sri Lanka strengthens its efforts to protect children from abduction within areas under its control by, for example, increasing the police presence near schools and at temple festivals.
- Norway, in its position as facilitator of peace talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE, advocate for the immediate demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of child combatants as a requisite component of any new peace agreement.
- The International Criminal Court affirm the exploitation of child soldiers as a war crime, pursuant to the Rome Statute, by pursuing the prosecution of leaders responsible for allowing the conscription and exploitation of child combatants in conflict.
- The United Nations Security Council act upon its commitment and continued condemnation of the illegal recruitment and use of children in armed conflict by establishing a formal, structured monitoring, compliance and enforcement regime, as proposed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
© 1999- The Children and Armed Conflict Unit