(New York) - Despite promises to investigate abductions of children by the pro-government Karuna group, Sri Lankan authorities have taken no effective action and abductions continue, Human Rights Watch said today. The armed opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) also continue to recruit children in Sri Lanka and use them as soldiers.
In Sri Lanka’s eastern Batticaloa district, Human Rights Watch in February witnessed children clearly under the age of 17, some armed with assault rifles, performing guard duty at various offices of the Karuna group’s political party, the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). Sri Lankan soldiers and police routinely walked and drove by the children without taking any visible action.
Human Rights Watch saw a child with an assault rifle guarding the TMVP office in Kiran, home town of the group’s leader, V. Muralitharan, also known as Colonel Karuna. Other children, some of them armed, were seen in and around TMVP offices in the district, including in Valaichchenai and Morakkottanchenai, where the office is across the road from a Sri Lankan army base.
“When government troops at a military base look across the street at children standing guard at a Karuna office and do nothing, it’s hard to believe the government is taking any meaningful steps to end this abuse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Karuna group’s use of child soldiers with state complicity is more blatant today than ever before.”
President Mahinda Rajapakse and other Sri Lankan officials have repeatedly said that the government would investigate the allegations of state complicity in Karuna abductions and hold accountable any member of the security forces found to have violated the law. To date, however, the government has taken no effective steps.
According to UNICEF, there were 45 reported cases of Karuna child abductions in three months – 10 in December, 24 in January, and 11 in February. Among these were three children abducted by Karuna cadre from camps for internally displaced persons in Batticaloa district. The actual number is likely to be higher because many parents are afraid to report cases, and these numbers do not reflect the forced recruitment by the Karuna group of young men over 17.
The Karuna group has released at least a dozen children since December. According to UNICEF, however, at least three of the released children were subsequently re-recruited.
In February, parents of one abducted child and two abducted young men told Human Rights Watch how Karuna cadre had abducted their sons in recent weeks. In the first case, Karuna group members first abducted the child in July, allowed him home for a family visit, and about one week later came and took him back. In the second, Karuna cadre abducted two young men on the A11 road between Welikanda and Valaichchenai. When relatives of the two complained at the nearby Karuna camp in Karapola, Karuna cadre told them not to report the case – or to say the LTTE took their sons.
At the same time, the LTTE has continued to abduct and forcibly recruit children and young adults, including women and girls, Human Rights Watch said. UNICEF documented 19 cases of LTTE child recruitment in January and nine in February. The LTTE has also abducted at least four people from camps for the internally displaced.
Access to LTTE-controlled areas remains difficult, but credible reports indicate that the group is increasingly recruiting and deploying girls as frontline soldiers in the East. In the recent fighting in the Thoppigala region of Batticaloa district, at least three girls fighting with the LTTE were reportedly killed.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented and condemned the use of child soldiers by the LTTE, and it has called on the United Nations to impose targeted sanctions on the LTTE because of its long history of recruiting children in violation of international law.
“The LTTE is a notorious repeat offender of child recruitment,” Adams said. “It’s a shame that government forces complicit with the Karuna group are now involved in the same ugly practice.”
There is strong evidence that government forces are now openly cooperating with the Karuna group despite its illegal activities, Human Rights Watch said. Armed Karuna members regularly walk or ride throughout Batticaloa district in plain view of government forces.
In February, Human Rights Watch saw a Karuna commander named Jeyam riding atop a Sri Lankan armored personnel vehicle outside Valaichchenai. In Batticaloa town, residents have seen Karuna cadre patrolling jointly with the police.
The Karuna group maintains at least five camps in the jungle about 10 kilometers northwest of Welikanda town in the Polonnaruwa district, about 50 kilometers northwest of Batticaloa town. Welikanda is where the Sri Lankan Army’s 23rd division has its base. The area is firmly under government control, as is the main A11 road from the eastern districts to the Welikanda area. The Karuna camp at Mutugalla village is near a Sri Lankan army post.
Independent sources have provided detailed information on abductions and recruitment of children by the Karuna group and the LTTE. In February the UN special advisor on children and armed conflict, Allan Rock, reported to the Security Council on Karuna abductions of children with state complicity and on child recruitment by the LTTE, based on his visit to Sri Lanka in November. Human Rights Watch has provided the government with its 100-page report on Karuna abductions, “Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group,” published in January. With case studies, maps and photographs, the report shows how Karuna cadres operate with impunity in government-controlled areas, abducting boys and young men, training them in camps, and deploying them for combat.
“The government says it needs evidence to start an investigation, but it already has ample information,” Adams said. “In addition to UN documentation and testimonies in our report, many families have made formal complaints to the police.”
Last year President Rajapakse created a one-man commission to look at abductions and enforced disappearances across the country. The commissioner came to Batticaloa in January, two months after canceling his first scheduled visit without warning. Families with abducted children were informed in a haphazard manner and then could not find the meeting place, which was changed at the last minute. Some of them did meet the commissioner, but his staff prevented others from providing information.
In December the military summoned the mothers of some children abducted by the Karuna group to an army base and asked them to provide information about their cases. The military pressured the mothers to say that their children were taken by “an unidentified group.”
Karuna has denied allegations that his forces are abducting or recruiting children. He told Human Rights Watch in a telephone communication on February 9 that his forces had no members under age 18, and that they would discipline any commander who tried to recruit a person under that age.
In January the TMVP released regulations for its military wing, stating that 18 was the minimum age for recruitment, and specifying penalties for members who conscript children. Karuna said he was willing to discuss ways that the regulations could be improved, but said that unscheduled visits to his camps were not possible due to security concerns.
On March 19, Human Rights Watch wrote to the TMVP, requesting a response to the recent allegations of continued child abductions in Batticaloa district. As of March 28, the TMVP had not replied.
“The Karuna group is doing the government’s dirty work,” Adams said. “It’s time for authorities in Colombo to stop this group from using children in its forces.”