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II. Background

War in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s population of nearly 20 million consists of roughly 74 percent predominately Buddhist Sinhalese, 18 percent mostly Hindu Tamils, and some 7 percent Muslims. The great majority of the Tamils are concentrated in the country’s North and East provinces, with a large population also in the capital, Colombo. Between 1983 and 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) were engaged in a brutal war for control of Sri Lanka’s North and East that claimed over 60,000 lives and had huge economic costs.

Preceding the war was over a quarter-century of Tamil grievances. A Sinhalese-dominated government came to power in 1956 (eight years after independence) and began to assert Sinhalese dominance, leading to systematic discrimination and the economic, political, and cultural marginalization of the minority Tamil population. Peaceful efforts by Tamil political parties to redress Tamil grievances failed, and by the late 1970s, Tamil political parties and militant separatist groups began to advocate for an independent Tamil state, “Tamil Eelam.” Insurgency operations against state security forces followed, led by the LTTE and other militant Tamil groups.

In 1983 the insurgency campaign erupted into war. After the LTTE killed thirteen high-ranking Sinhalese soldiers on the northern Jaffna peninsula, violent retaliatory riots in Colombo targeted the Tamil community. The riots killed thousands of Tamils and destroyed an estimated 90 percent of Tamil-owned shops and businesses. Many neighborhoods were destroyed and nearly 100,000 Tamils in Colombo were displaced. Evidence suggested government collusion in the riots, and many observers identify these riots as the trigger for the war.

The conflict was marked by gross human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war on both sides.3 Government forces carried out massacres of Tamil civilians and engaged in indiscriminate aerial and artillery bombardment of civilian areas, including medical facilities and places of worship where civilians had taken refuge.

Tens of thousands of people “disappeared” while in the custody of Sri Lankan security forces during the course of the conflict. Suspected sympathizers with various guerilla groups were subject to mass arrests, extrajudicial executions, and prolonged detention without trial. Human rights lawyer N. Kandasamy estimated that in 2000 alone, some 18,000 people, the vast majority Tamil, may have been arrested under emergency regulations and anti-terrorism legislation nationwide.4 Sri Lankan security forces often subjected Tamil detainees to mistreatment and torture.

Many Tamils lost family members to the conflict or resultant atrocities and experienced or witnessed government abuses. Police and army personnel were implicated in sexual violence against Tamil women, including gang rapes. Tamil residents in the North and East experienced discrimination at checkpoints, routine beatings, torture, and public humiliation. Security personnel subjected detainees to forced labor.

Government forces were instrumental in displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians, often in an apparent attempt to deprive opposition forces of local support. Security forces also cut off the supply of food and humanitarian assistance to the North for weeks at a time.

Children in the North and East were particularly affected by the conflict. One study in the North found that one-third of children had lost a relative in the war, 25 percent had witnessed violence, and 25 percent had experienced a threat on their own life.5

The LTTE, led by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was responsible for committing gross abuses. The group is believed to have carried out more than 200 suicide bombings aimed at both civilian and military targets. The Tigers used suicide bombers to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. A failed assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in 1999 wounded Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and killed twenty-one others. The LTTE also assassinated politicians from rival Tamil parties, journalists, and human rights activists. The LTTE carried out numerous attacks against civilian objects, including the burning of an Indonesian passenger ferry, and bombings of buses, commuter trains, parked airliners, hotels, and office buildings in Colombo’s financial district, and a sacred Buddhist shrine in Kandy. The largest number of casualties from a single bomb attack occurred in January 1996 when a suicide truck bomb destroyed the Central Bank in Colombo, killing ninety-one people and injuring 1,400.

The LTTE engaged in massacres and retaliatory killings of Sinhalese and Muslim villagers. It imprisoned and tortured thousands of dissidents and their family members and conducted public executions of suspected informers. It also recruited thousands of children for use as soldiers, often through force or coercion, and used some of them to carry out suicide bombings.

Under the auspices of a Norwegian government facilitation team, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2002. The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), led by Norway and staffed by military and civilian personnel from the Nordic countries, was established to monitor compliance with the ceasefire agreement.

The ceasefire agreement brought a respite from hostilities, but not an end to serious abuses. From February 1, 2002, through December 31, 2005, the SLMM reported over 3,500 violations of the ceasefire agreement, many of which involved the use of violence and intimidation against civilians, and the vast majority being committed by the LTTE.6 Since the beginning of the ceasefire, more than 200 Sri Lankans, mostly Tamil, have been killed in apparent political killings, most allegedly the work of the LTTE, which continued to carry out killings of LTTE critics and members of non-LTTE Tamil political parties.7 Other killings, such as the assassination of a pro-LTTE parliamentarian during a Christmas mass, have been attributed to an LTTE breakaway faction under ex-Tiger commander Colonel Karuna, to Tamil political parties, or to Sri Lankan security forces. For a period in mid-2005, the rate of political killings reached nearly one a day.8  

The LTTE also continued to recruit children into its forces throughout the ceasefire. From February 2002 through January 2006, UNICEF documented 4,347 cases of child recruitment; over 36 percent involved children under the age of fifteen at the time of recruitment.9 During a 2004 investigation, Human Rights Watch also documented numerous cases of child recruitment by the LTTE.10 Recruitment and use of children under the age of eighteen by non-state armed groups is a violation of international law, and the recruitment or use of children under the age of fifteen is considered a war crime.11

During Sri Lanka’s November 2005 presidential election, an LTTE boycott resulted in a virtual absence of voters in the North and several bombings in the East. Tamils living in LTTE-controlled areas in the East who sought to vote were forcibly prevented by the Tigers from doing so.

In late 2005, the LTTE carried out numerous ambushes and other attacks that killed more than eighty members of the Sri Lankan Army and Navy, putting the ceasefire into serious jeopardy. In December 2005 and January 2006, over 150 people were killed; nearly half were civilians. Sri Lankan security forces have responded to the LTTE attacks with harsh security measures. At least ten people were reported to have “disappeared” following arrest by security forces in northern Sri Lanka during November and December 2005.12 On December 19, security forces responded to stone-throwing demonstrators from Jaffna University by firing live ammunition into the crowd; dozens of people were reportedly injured. The government also carried out cordon and search operations in Colombo, arresting and briefly detaining hundreds of Tamils in late December. On January 2, security forces allegedly shot and killed five high school students in Trincomalee.

The SLMM’s office in Batticaloa was bombed on January 13, and the mission temporarily suspended operations in Trincomalee because of the escalating violence. The Mission issued a series of statements in December and January, repeatedly raising concerns about the increased tension and possibility of a full-scale return to war.13 Tensions eased in late January 2006, when the LTTE and the government agreed to resume ceasefire talks in Geneva.

The Tamil Diaspora and Support for the LTTE

Beginning in 1983, the effects of the war, including widespread government abuses targeting the Tamil population, prompted hundreds of thousands of Tamils to flee Sri Lanka. As of 2001, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora was estimated at 600,000-800,000, accounting for approximately one-quarter of the global Sri Lankan Tamil population.14

The majority of Sri Lankan Tamils are found in Western Europe, India, Australia, and North America. The largest numbers are found in Canada (approximately 200,000-250,000), India (approximately 150,000), U.K. (approximately 110,000), Germany (approximately 50,000), Switzerland, France, and Australia (each approximately 30,000).15

Between 1996 and 2001, Canada’s Tamil community grew by 38 percent, making it the country’s fastest growing ethnic population.16 The vast majority of Canadian Tamils live in the Toronto area, creating a larger urban Tamil population than is found in any city in Sri Lanka itself.

As Tamils settled abroad, particularly in areas with high Tamil concentrations such as in Toronto or London, they established a range of Tamil institutions and organizations, including Tamil-owned businesses, media, religious temples and churches, and cultural, political, and service organizations, including agencies that help new arrivals to find housing or employment. To ensure both political and financial support, the LTTE sought—and gained—influence or control over many of these institutions. One Toronto Tamil remarked, “Whatever is happening in the Tamil community, they make sure their agenda is there.”17

The growing diaspora also became an important source of income for the LTTE. Many Tamils had suffered or witnessed abuses by Sri Lankan security forces, and gladly sent funds to support the LTTE’s war against the government. There was broad support among the Tamil community in the West for the LTTE’s fight for Tamil autonomy in Sri Lanka, and they saw the LTTE as a legitimate representative of the Tamil people and their interests. By the 1990s, a steady income stream flowed from the diaspora to the LTTE.

By the mid-1990s, some experts believed that 80 to 90 percent of the LTTE’s military budget came from overseas sources, including both diaspora contributions and income from international investments and businesses.18 The exact amount of funds is impossible to determine. For example, various sources estimated the amount of money flowing from the Canadian diaspora to the LTTE in the late 1990s at anywhere between Cdn$1 million and more than Cdn$12 million a year.19

Funds were raised through a variety of means, such as collections at Hindu temples and public events, including annual Heroes’ Day celebrations that honor LTTE “martyrs.” In most countries with a significant Tamil diaspora, Tamils established charitable organizations to raise funds for Tamil causes. These included the World Tamil Movement, British Tamil Association, and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, among others. Although the charities solicited funds to assist civilians affected by the war, numerous inquiries, including investigations by Canadian intelligence, have found that a significant amount of the funds raised were channeled to the LTTE for its military operations. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) concluded in 2000 that at least eight non-profit organizations and five companies were operating in Canada as fronts for the LTTE.20

The LTTE and its front organizations also sought contributions by directly soliciting individuals at their homes and places of business. Human Rights Watch spoke to a Tamil who worked as a volunteer for the LTTE in London for several years in the late 1990s, going from house to house on Sundays in neighborhoods where Tamils were concentrated to collect money. He and other volunteers would often offer families pro-Tiger newspapers or books as an enticement to give.

The former volunteer said that every month the regional head for the LTTE would meet with the volunteers to give a target for that month’s fundraising. The instructions were often quite explicit about the funds’ intended purpose. He told Human Rights Watch: “Sometimes they would say they want to form something, like a military battalion, or that they want to buy arms or an armed vehicle. They were upfront about buying weapons.”21

The LTTE maintained computer records to keep track of individuals who contributed, including their addresses and telephone numbers. The former volunteer in London told Human Rights Watch, “If families didn’t give money, we would keep visiting them. We would tell them we would come back next month.” In addition to the monthly targets, once a year the LTTE would raise money for a special project, asking members of the Tamil community for larger amounts—£200-250 (U.S.$350-430) per family, and up to £2,000 (U.S.$3,500) from businesses.

To ensure a regular flow of income, the LTTE sought pledges of regular monthly contributions from Tamil families. In London in the late 1990s, approximately 1,000 individuals reportedly were paying regular contributions of £10, £20, or £30 per month to support the London LTTE office.22 Monthly pledges were encouraged in Canada and other countries as well. By the early 2000s, the system had become more sophisticated, and fundraisers in Toronto asked Tamils to sign forms authorizing automatic monthly bank transfers from their bank accounts. Such automatic transfers ensured regular payments to the LTTE and relieved volunteers of making repeated visits to Tamil homes to collect pledges.

In the U.K., Canada, and elsewhere, the LTTE also used its computer database, public records, and information from supporters to keep close track of Tamils in the community, including new arrivals. One Toronto woman moved three times within Toronto. “Each time, they came to visit within a month or two. Once it was within two weeks of when we moved in.”23

The U.K. government officially designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization in 2001, forcing the LTTE to shut down its London office.24 The terrorist designation and global focus on anti-terror initiatives following the September 11, 2001 Al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. made many individuals more reluctant to give funds to the LTTE or its front groups. The rate of contributions was also affected by the February 2002 ceasefire agreement signed by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government: with a halt in active hostilities, many in the Tamil diaspora no longer perceived a pressing need to contribute to the LTTE.25 Fundraising activity continued, however, and according to some accounts, became more aggressive to compensate for individuals’ increasing reluctance to give.26

[3] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch annual World Report entry for Sri Lanka for years 1990-1994 and 1996-2003.

[4] Cited in Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002, p. 254.

[5] “Child Soldiers: Understanding the Context,” BMJ, Volume 324, May 25, 2002.

[6] The LTTE committed 3,471 of the violations; 162 were ruled violations by government forces. Over half of the violations attributed to the LTTE were for child recruitment. SLMM, “Summary of Recorded Complaints and Violations from All Districts,” [online] (retrieved January 29, 2006).

[7] For more information on political killings, see Human Rights Watch, “Sri Lanka: Killings Highlight Weaknesses of Ceasefire,” press release, February 11, 2005, [online]; Human Rights Watch, “Sri Lanka: Political Killings Escalate,”press release, August 15, 2005, [online]

[8] See Human Rights Watch, “Political Killings Escalate,” press release, August 15, 2005.

[9] E-mail communication from UNICEF-Colombo to Human Rights Watch, February 3, 2006. The true total may be significantly higher, as many instances of child recruitment are never reported to UNICEF.

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka,A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no. 13(C), November 2004, [online]

[11] The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict establishes eighteen as the minimum age for participation in hostilities and for any recruitment by non-governmental armed groups (A/RES/54/263, adopted May 25, 2000, entered into force February 12, 2002). Sri Lanka ratified the protocol on September 8, 2000. Customary international humanitarian law, as reflected in Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, puts the minimum age for recruitment in armed forces or armed groups at fifteen; serious violations of international humanitarian law are war crimes. See International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge: 2005), rules 136 & 137.

[12] Amnesty International, “Amnesty International Concerned about Escalation of Violence,” public statement, January 11, 2006.

[13] See for example, SLMM, “The Cease Fire Agreement and the Peace Process in Jeopardy,” press release, December 29, 2005, and “SLMM questions whether there is still a Ceasefire in Sri Lanka,” press release, January 13, 2006, [online]

[14] Rajesh Venugopal, “The Global Dimensions of Conflict in Sri Lanka,” Working Paper Number 99, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford, February 2003.

[15] Estimates of the size of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora vary. See Wolfram Zunzer, “Diaspora Communities and Civil Conflict Transformation,” Berghof Occasional Paper No. 26, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, September 2004; also Venugopal, “The Global Dimensions of Conflict in Sri Lanka,” 2003.

[16] Zunzer, “Diaspora Communities,” 2004.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, November 2005.

[18] See for example, Peter Chalk, “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) International Organization and Operations – A Preliminary Analysis,” Commentary No. 77, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, March 17, 2000.

[19] See for example, Daniel Byman, Peter Chalk, Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau and David Branna, “Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements,” RAND Corporation Report, 2001, p 50, [online]; see also Stewart Bell, “Sri Lanka’s Civil War and the Canadian Connection,” The National Post (Toronto), June 3, 2000, and Stewart Bell, “Groups Act as Fronts for Terror,” The National Post (Toronto), December 9, 2000.  

[20] Confidential CSIS documents on file at Human Rights Watch.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with a former LTTE volunteer, London, U.K., November 30, 2005.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview, Toronto, Canada, November 12, 2005.

[24] Under the U.K. Terrorism Act 2000 organizations may be proscribed (or outlawed) in the U.K. if it “commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promotes or encourages terrorism, or is otherwise concerned with terrorism.” (Part II, 3 (5)). The LTTE was included in a list of twenty-one organizations for proscription prepared by the U.K. Home Secretary in February 2001. The Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organizations) (Amendment) Order 2001 came into force on March 29, 2001.

[25] Human Rights Watch interviews, October 2005 and February 2006.

[26] In September 2002, Human Rights Watch collected detailed testimonies from members of the Tamil community in Toronto who had experienced violent attacks, death threats and loss of livelihood because they refused to contribute funds to the LTTE.

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