At Human Rights Watch, one thing we’ve learned is that justice can sometimes take a long time.
Nearly five years ago, I was contacted by a Dutch prosecutor. He was bringing a case against five people who had been raising millions of euros in Europe for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a secessionist armed group that had fought for decades against the Sri Lankan government until their defeat in 2009. Fundraising for the Tamil Tigers was illegal in the Netherlands, due to the group’s long history of gross human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The group had massacred civilians, carried out hundreds of suicide bombings, and recruited thousands of boys and girls into their forces. The prosecutor told me that in addition to charging the defendants with illegal fundraising, he was also charging them with participating in a criminal organization that committed war crimes – specifically, the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
That’s where I came in. Years before the trial – in 2004 – two colleagues and I had interviewed dozens of children in Sri Lanka who had been encouraged or coerced into joining the Tamil Tigers. I traveled to the Hague three times to testify, first before the prosecutor, and later, the investigating judge, on how the Tamil Tigers had harassed and threatened ethnic Tamil families into giving over their children, and in many cases, abducted children of those who refused. I shared the stories children had told me of brutal military training and being given cyanide capsules with instructions that they should bite the capsule rather than allow themselves to be captured by the enemy.
At the end of the trial, the defendants were convicted of the fundraising charges, but not of the charges involving use of child soldiers. I was disappointed, but not surprised. It would have been the first conviction of individuals in a domestic court for actively supporting the recruitment and use of child soldiers in another country.
But sometimes victories take time. A few days ago, I got a note from the investigating judge in the case. He wanted to let me know that unlike the original judgment, on appeal the Hague Court of Appeals found that the defendants been part of a criminal organization with the intent of committing war crimes. He said that the evidence from Human Rights Watch – evidence gathered more than a decade ago – had “greatly contributed to this result.” The five defendants will now serve prison terms ranging from nineteen months to six years.
The decision is important. It sends a message that even individuals who raise money for a group that uses child soldiers may bear responsibility for that crime. That’s a powerful tool to help prevent the exploitation of children. The decision is also a reminder that the wheels of justice may turn slowly, but for grave international crimes, they don’t stop turning.