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(New York) - By abducting children or threatening their families, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have recruited thousands of child soldiers in Sri Lanka since active fighting ended in 2002, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) use intimidation and threats to pressure Tamil families in the north and east of Sri Lanka to provide sons and daughters for military service. When families refuse, their children are sometimes abducted from their homes at night or forcibly recruited while walking to school. Parents who resist the recruitment of their children face retribution from the Tamil Tigers, including violence or detention.

“The ceasefire has brought an end to the fighting, but not to the Tamil Tigers’ use of children as soldiers,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, and a co-author of the report. “Many Tamil families who expected a ‘peace dividend’ now expect an unwelcome visit from armed Tamil Tiger recruiters.”

The 80-page report, “Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka,” includes firsthand testimonies from dozens of children from northeastern Sri Lanka who have been recruited by the Tamil Tigers since the ceasefire came into effect. Children described rigorous and sometimes brutal military training, including training with heavy weapons, bombs and landmines. Children who try to escape are typically beaten in front of their entire unit as a warning to others.

The Tamil Tigers have recruited at least 3,516 children since the start of the February 2002 ceasefire with the government, according to cases documented by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The agency states that this figure represents only a portion of the total number of children recruited.

Human Rights Watch also documented targeted re-recruitment drives of children released from a breakaway LTTE faction earlier this year. In March, the LTTE’s Eastern commander, Colonel Karuna, broke away from the main LTTE forces loyal to Vellupillai Prabhakaran, based in the northern region known as the Vanni. In April, Prabhakaran’s forces, known as the Vanni LTTE, attacked and defeated Karuna’s Eastern forces, which quickly disbanded. About 2,000 child soldiers fled Karuna’s forces or were encouraged by their commanders to leave. Some died in the fighting.

The Vanni LTTE quickly began an intensive campaign to re-recruit Karuna’s former forces, including children. The Vanni forces have gone from house to house, organized village meetings, sent children letters and made announcements from motorized vehicles to demand that the former child soldiers return. They have taken many children by force.

“They took away my younger brother the other day. He was coming home from the market and he was taken away,” said Vanji, who was recruited by the LTTE in 1997 at age 16. “They didn’t release him, and they threatened to shoot if I reported his abduction. They also told me at the same time that I had to re-join.”

International law prohibits the recruitment of children under the age of 18 by non-state armed groups, and all participation of children in active hostilities. The recruitment of children under the age of 15 is now considered a war crime.

The LTTE denies recruiting children and claims that any children in its forces have joined because of poverty, lack of educational opportunities, or the loss of their parents and lack of alternative care. Although some children do join because of socioeconomic factors or because they want to fight for an independent Tamil state, such “voluntary” recruitment is also a violation of international law.

In June 2003, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government agreed to a formal Action Plan on Children Affected by War. Under the Action Plan, the Tamil Tigers agreed to end their recruitment of children and to release children from their forces, either directly to the children’s families or to new transit centers that were constructed specifically for this purpose.

Since the Action Plan was signed, UNICEF figures show that the LTTE has recruited more than twice as many children as it has released. A transit center opened in October 2003 received a total of only 172 children in its first year of operation. Although the center has capacity for 100 children, it has never held more than 49, and for a six-week period in mid-2004, was completely empty. The other two centers never opened because of the low number of children released.

“Time and again, the Tamil Tigers have pledged to end their use of child soldiers, but each time they’ve broken those promises,” said Becker. “It’s time for the Tamil Tigers to live up to their legal responsibilities and stop recruiting children.”

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