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I. Summary

My parents refused to give me to the LTTE so about fifteen of them came to my house—it was both men and women, in uniforms, with rifles, and guns in holsters….  I was fast asleep when they came to get me at one in the morning.…  These people dragged me out of the house.  My father shouted at them, saying, “What is going on?”, but some of the LTTE soldiers took my father away towards the woods and beat him….  They also pushed my mother onto the ground when she tried to stop them.
-girl recruited by the LTTE in 2003 at age sixteen

They took away my younger brother the other day.  He was coming home from the market and he was taken away.  I went and begged them, saying, “I gave you years of my life and I gave you my health.  Please let me have my brother back—he is the only one I have who takes care of me, helps me to go to the toilet, helps me get into bed.”  They didn’t release him, and they threatened to shoot if I reported his abduction to any NGOs.  They also told me at the same time that I had to re-join.  Is this how they thank me for all the time I gave them?  Why are they doing this to me?
- girl who was recruited by the LTTE at age sixteen and severely disabled in combat

For Tamil families in the North and East of Sri Lanka, the February 2002 cease-fire that has brought an end to the fighting between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has brought little relief from one of the worst aspects of the twenty-year conflict: the LTTE’s recruitment and use of children as soldiers. Despite an end to active hostilities and repeated pledges by the LTTE leadership to end its recruitment of children, the practice has continued not only in LTTE controlled areas, but now reaches into government areas in the North and East where the LTTE previously had little access. This report focuses on continued LTTE recruitment of children during the cease-fire period, including re-recruitment of children released from the LTTE’s eastern faction in 2004.

Tamil children are vulnerable to recruitment beginning at the age of eleven or twelve. The LTTE routinely visits Tamil homes to inform parents that they must provide a child for the “movement.” Families that resist are harassed and threatened. Parents are told that their child may be taken by force if they do not comply, that other children in the household or the parents will be taken in their stead, or that the family will be forced to leave their home. The LTTE makes good on these threats: children are frequently abducted from their homes at night, or picked up by LTTE cadres while walking to school or attending a temple festival. Parents who resist the abduction of their children face violent LTTE retribution.

Once recruited, most children are allowed no contact with their families. The LTTE subjects them to rigorous and sometimes brutal training. They learn to handle weapons, including landmines and bombs, and are taught military tactics. Children who make mistakes are frequently beaten. The LTTE harshly punishes soldiers who attempt to escape. Children who try to run away are typically beaten in front of their entire unit, a public punishment that serves to dissuade other children who might be tempted to run away.

The Norwegian government-brokered cease-fire between the government and the LTTE in February 2002 brought a very welcome end to active hostilities that have cost more than 60,000 lives over twenty years. However, the cease-fire may have exacerbated the LTTE’s recruitment of child soldiers from government-controlled areas. By the terms of the cease-fire, unarmed LTTE cadres may lawfully enter government controlled areas, known as “cleared” areas. In reality the LTTE dominates the administration and security of the major towns in the North and East, including Jaffna and Batticaloa. The LTTE has used this control to extend their recruitment of children to these Tamil population centers.

Throughout the cease-fire, the LTTE has sought new recruits for its forces. The LTTE may be trying to strengthen its hand during the peace talks, prepare for its control of the North and East in the event of a final peace agreement, or be militarily prepared in the event the peace talks collapse—or for all of these reasons. Sri Lankan government sources and local nongovernmental organizations believe that the LTTE has recruited several thousand new cadres during this period, though hard figures are elusive. 

As of October 31, 2004, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had documented 3,516 new cases of underage recruitment since the signing of the cease-fire agreement (including the re-recruitment of formerly released child soldiers noted below). The LTTE formally released only 1,206 children during this time. Of the cases registered by UNICEF, 1,395 were outstanding as of November 2004.1 UNICEF notes that the number of cases it registers represent only a portion of the total number of children recruited, as some families may be unaware of the possibility of registering, may be afraid to do so, or may have difficulty reaching a UNICEF office. Of the children who have been released or returned from the LTTE, only about 25 percent were previously listed in the UNICEF database. This suggests that the total number of children remaining with the LTTE may be as much as four times higher than the 1,395 figure suggests.

In March 2004, the commander of LTTE forces in the East, V. Muralitharan, popularly known as Col. Karuna, split off from the main LTTE forces loyal to supreme leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, based in the North, a region known as the Vanni. In April 2004, the Vanni LTTE attacked and defeated Karuna’s eastern forces, which quickly disbanded. Some 2,000 child soldiers under Karuna fled or were encouraged by their commanders to return to their families.

The children’s return home, primarily to Batticaloa district, only marked the beginning of a new ordeal. Within a few weeks, the LTTE began an intensive campaign to re-recruit Karuna’s former cadres, including child soldiers. Vanni LTTE members, often armed and in uniform, went from village to village, house to house, insisting that the former soldiers report back to the LTTE. The LTTE organized village meetings, use motorized three-wheeled vehicles to make announcements, and sent letters to families, demanding their return.

The LTTE has re-recruited many of the returned children, often by force. Parents who have resisted their children’s being taken away a second time by the LTTE have been intimidated and sometimes beaten. The remaining children and their families live in fear. The families are afraid to allow their children to return to school, worried that the LTTE will abduct them as they walk between school and their home. Some children refuse to leave their homes at all. Others go to live with relatives or even leave the country to seek jobs in the Middle East. Because there is a general perception that the LTTE does not recruit from among married persons, some boys and girls have married believing that it will provide a measure of protection against recruitment. Girls feel particularly vulnerable—they can instantly be identified as former cadres by the short haircuts that the LTTE gives its recruits.

LTTE Recruitment and Use of Children Before the Cease-fire

The LTTE has recruited and used children as soldiers throughout the two-decade-long civil war in Sri Lanka, and especially since October 1987 when the LTTE attacked and eventually forced the departure of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force from the northern Jaffna peninsula.2

LTTE recruitment of children has over the years been fueled by several factors. First, a sophisticated LTTE propaganda machine regularly exposed Tamil children throughout the North and East to special events honoring LTTE heroes, parades of LTTE cadres, public displays of war paraphernalia, and speeches and videos, particularly in the schools. Families of LTTE heroes were afforded special respect, and children were drawn to the status and glamour of serving as cadres.

Second, children who witnessed or suffered abuses by Sri Lankan security forces often felt driven to join the LTTE. Government abuses prior to the cease-fire included unlawful detention, interrogation, torture, execution, enforced disappearances, and rape. A 1993 study of adolescents in Vaddukoddai in the North found that one quarter of the children studied had witnessed violence personally.3 In response, many children joined the LTTE, seeking to protect their families or to avenge real or perceived abuses.

Third, deprivation, including poverty and lack of vocational and educational opportunities often fueled recruitment, particularly among Tamils of the eastern districts, where families were typically poorer and considered of lower status than Tamils in the

North. Enlisting in the LTTE was perceived as a positive alternative to the other options children saw around them.

Finally, coercion and force brought many children into the LTTE. Particularly in the East, the LTTE has pressured Tamil families to provide a son or daughter for “the cause.” If a family resisted, they were often subject to threats and harassment. In many cases, a child was eventually taken by force.

Under international law, recruitment of children to be soldiers is not only unlawful if the children are forcibly recruited. The LTTE is also violating international law by accepting into its ranks children who join “voluntarily.”

Children were initially recruited into what was known as the “Baby Brigade,” but were later integrated into other units. An elite “Leopard Brigade” (Siruthai puligal) was formed of children drawn from LTTE-run orphanages and was considered one of the LTTE’s fiercest fighting units.

UNICEF reports that more than 40 percent of children recruited by the LTTE are girls.4 The LTTE claims that the recruitment of girls and women is a way of “assisting women’s liberation and counteracting the oppressive traditionalism of the present system.”5 Female soldiers within the LTTE are known as “Birds of Freedom.” Unlike many other conflict situations where girls are recruited, sexual abuse of girls in the LTTE is rare, and relationships between the sexes are generally prohibited.

Prior to the cease-fire, the LTTE regularly deployed both boys and girls in combat.6 A major LTTE military operation against the Elephant Pass military complex in 1991 reportedly used waves of children drawn from the Baby Brigade and resulted in an estimated 550 LTTE deaths, mostly children.7 Assessments of LTTE soldiers killed in combat during the 1990’s found that between 40 and 60 percent of the dead fighters were children under the age of eighteen.8 A case study conducted for a major United Nations (U.N.) study on the impact of war on children found that children were reportedly used for “massed frontal attacks” in major battles, and that children between the ages of twelve and fourteen were used to massacre women and children in remote rural villages. The study cited reports indicating the use of children as young as ten as assassins.9

The LTTE gives cyanide capsules and grenades to its soldiers, including children, with instructions to take the capsule or blow themselves up rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Sri Lankan Army.10

The LTTE was among the first armed opposition groups to use its cadres, including children, to carry out suicide bomb attacks. Since the 1980’s, the LTTE has conducted some 200 such suicide bombings.11 Female soldiers, girls among them, were used for numerous such attacks, in part because they were less likely to undergo rigorous searches at government checkpoints.

LTTE Commitments and the Action Plan for Children Affected by War

Since 1998, the LTTE has made repeated public promises to senior U.N. officials to end its recruitment and use of children. In 2003, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government formally agreed on an Action Plan for Children Affected by War (Action Plan) that included a pledge by the LTTE to end all recruitment of children and to release children from its forces, both directly to the children’s families as well as to new transit centers that were constructed specifically for this purpose.

As of mid-2004, the Action Plan was the only signed human rights agreement to result from the post-cease-fire peace talks. The Action Plan provided for the establishment of three transit centers to receive children released by the LTTE, and to provide children affected by the conflict in the North and East with vocational training, education, health and nutritional services, psychosocial care, and other programs. The LTTE and the government agreed on the plan in April 2003 and formally signed it in June 2003.  UNICEF played a primary role in negotiating the Action Plan, and is the main implementing partner.

Since the Action Plan was signed, UNICEF figures show that more than twice as many children have been recruited as have been released. One transit center opened in October 2003, but received a total of only 172 children in its first year of operation. Although the center has the capacity for one hundred children, it has never held more than forty-nine, and for a six-week period in mid-2004, was completely empty. The two other transit centers were constructed but never opened because of the low number of children released.12

Legal Standards

By any measure, the LTTE has failed to meet its commitments to end its recruitment and use of children. The LTTE’s continued recruitment of children violates international human rights and humanitarian law (the laws of war) that explicitly prohibits the recruitment of children as soldiers and the participation of children in active hostilities. The nearly-universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Sri Lanka is party, and the Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibit any recruitment or use in armed conflict of children under the age of fifteen. This standard is now considered customary international law, and such recruitment is identified as a war crime in the statute for the International Criminal Court.

In the late 1990’s, a new international consensus that a minimum age of fifteen was too low for military service resulted in stronger standards.  The Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, adopted by the International Labor Organization in 1999, prohibits the forced recruitment of children under the age of eighteen for use in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labor. An Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the U.N. in 2000 and ratified by Sri Lanka in the same year, set eighteen as the minimum age for all participation in hostilities, all forced recruitment or conscription, and all recruitment by non-state armed groups.

Note on Methodology

This is Human Rights Watch’s fifteenth report on the recruitment and use of child soldiers. We have previously documented this practice in Angola, Burma, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda.

Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in Sri Lanka in August 2004 and subsequently by telephone and electronic mail from New York and the Hague. Our researchers visited Colombo, Batticaloa, Ampara, Trincomalee, and Kilinochchi. During the course of our investigation, we spoke with thirty-five former child soldiers from the LTTE, who had been recruited between the ages of twelve and seventeen. At the time of our interviews, they ranged in age from fourteen to twenty-one.  Most had been recruited between 2001 and 2004 and spent between three weeks and eight years with the LTTE. The average length of time in the LTTE for these children was approximately 2.7 years. 

We also conducted over forty other interviews for this report, speaking to parents, human rights activists, representatives of local and international nongovernmental organizations and representatives of UNICEF, the LTTE-dominated Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM). We also spoke with representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

The names of all children have been changed in this report in order to protect their privacy, and because of the very real threats of re-recruitment and reprisals that they face. Also for security reasons, we do not identify many of the other individuals and organizations interviewed for this report or name the location of some interviews or events.

In this report, the word “child” refers to anyone under the age of eighteen.

[1] Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, November 2, 2004.

[2] Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers Global Report 2001, p. 341.

[3] Somasundaram DJ, Child Trauma (Jaffna: University of Jaffna, 1993).

[4] Recruitment Gender Analysis, information supplied by UNICEF, November 2, 2004.

[5] Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers Global Report 2001, p. 342.

[6] The ex-militant Tamil groups, most notably the EPDP, also used children in combat until they were officially disarmed under the Cease Fire Agreement.

[7]Rohan Gunaratna, “LTTE Child Combatants,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, July 1998.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rachel Brett and Margaret McCallin, Children: The Invisible Soldiers, Radda Barnen, 1998, pp. 93, 98. The case study was conducted for the U.N. Study on the Impact of Conflict on Children, prepared by Graça Machel and presented to the U.N. in 1996.

[10] See, for example, Gunaratna, “LTTE Child Combatants”; Yvonne Keairns, The Voices of Girl Child Soldiers Sri Lanka, Quaker United Nations Office, January 2003.

[11] Council on Foreign Relations, Terrorist Q&A: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, 2004, (retrieved October 13, 2004).

[12] Human Rights Watch interviews with UNICEF, Sri Lanka, August 2004; E-mail communications from UNICEF staff to Human Rights Watch, September 2004.

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