Ms. Ann M. Veneman
3 United Nations Plaza
New York, New York 10017
17th July 2006
Dear Madam Veneman
The International Federation of Tamils [IFT], writes to express
concern over the manner in which the issue of Tamil child soldiers
is being addressed. In our opinion both the substance of the
discussion as well as its timing are troubling.
First of all it is apparent that UNICEF is itself publicizing a
highly inflated number of so-called child soldiers in the LTTE
ranks. This occurred most recently in a “list” handed over in June
2006 by UNICEF to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the
Tamil party engaged in the armed conflict that has been in a
cease-fire mode since 2002. Of 1397 names, more than 800 persons
were over the age of 18, and another 200 over the age of 17 --
leaving fewer than 300 persons between the ages of 15 and 17. Of
those, some of them are listed more than once. We believe your
office was informed that a 2005 UNICEF list of 80 underage soldiers
in the Kokkadichcholai district (Batticaloa) was found to contain
the names of 25 persons actually living with their parents.
Newspapers in Sri Lanka are currently reporting accusations made by
UNICEF that the LTTE has abducted 64 children this spring. We are,
understandably, not persuaded by this information.
The Geneva Conventions set the age of 15 as the youngest age for
participation in armed conflict or recruiting into armed forces.
As you know, Article 77 of Protocol Additional I to the Geneva
Conventions obligates the Parties to the war in Sri Lanka to ensure
that children under 15 “do not take direct part in hostilities.”
Our understanding of the current situation in international law
in relation to child soldiers may be summarised as follows:
a. Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of
fifteen years' into national armed forces or armed groups or
using them to participate actively in hostilities is a war
b. Conscripting or forcibly recruiting children under the age of
eighteen years by State Parties or armed groups is a breach of
the Optional Protocol to Child Convention.
c. All feasible measures shall be taken by State parties to
ensure that members of their armed forces under the age of 18
years do not take a direct part in hostilities and failure to
take such 'feasible' measures is a breach of the Optional
Protocol to Child Convention.
d. Enlisting children under the age of 18 years by State Parties
is not a breach of international law.
e. Enlisting children under
the age of 18 years by armed groups is not a breach of the
Optional Protocol, (and not by any means a 'war crime') though
armed groups may have a 'moral obligation' to avoid doing so.
understanding of the law differs from ours, it would be most
helpful if you would let us know the matters on which you disagree.
Here, we are also mindful of the
comments of the International Red Cross in its Introduction to the
Optional Protocol, in May 2000 -
"..The ICRC welcomes the fact that the issue of non-state
actors has been included in the Optional Protocol, but regrets
that the provision imposes a moral, as opposed to a legal
obligation. Although Article 4 also provides for criminal
prosecution under domestic law, this is likely to be of limited
effect, because those who take up arms against the lawful
Government of a country already expose themselves to the most
severe penalties of domestic law, and because the capacity of a
Government to enforce its laws is often very limited in
situations of non-international armed conflicts. Third, it is
uncertain whether non-state actors will feel bound by a norm
which is different from that imposed on States, and thus whether
it will be respected..."
Again, we believe that it is important to recognize that there
were largely no direct hostilities from the time of the cease-fire
agreement (2002) until fairly recently. Even though there are some
military engagements occurring sporadically, the cease-fire appears
to be holding. In any case, there have certainly been no under-15
soldiers in the few operations, and perhaps no one under 18.
There is a further circumstance which it appears that the various
reports have failed to consider. The political reality is that the
LTTE administers a de facto state within the lines of control
recognised by the Ceasefire Agreement – which Agreement itself has
received international recognition and acceptance. Some persons
recruited by the LTTE serve in the administrative services of this
de facto state – and these include the judiciary and court, school
of law, police stations, police academy, medical and technical
colleges, small industries, a community bank and children's homes.
It appears to us that such participation is lawful – and given the
conditions prevailing in these areas both humane and warranted.
Here we seek to persuade you that the assessment of the
Australian Member of Parliament, Ms Virginia Judge after a visit to
the Tamil Eealm in September last year is in accord with the
reality on the ground. She said in the Australian Parliament on 15
September 2005 (after a visit to Tamil Eelam) -
“…I observed that in a remarkable three year period the
Tamils developed a virtual state within the north and north-east
of Sri Lanka. I visited their judiciary and court, school of
law, police station, police academy, medical and technical
colleges and small industries, a community bank plus a
children's home housing 278 children left orphaned by the war
and the recent tsunami. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation
(TRO) runs a variety of development, relief and reconstruction
projects as well as assisting several non-government
organisations with their projects. All this is a tribute to the
spirit and resilience of the Tamil people…”
Here it is not without relevance to point out that
clause 2.3 of the
Ceasefire Agreement between Sri Lanka and the LTTE,
required the Sri Lanka armed forces to vacate all school buildings
occupied by it , beginning on the date that the Agreement entered
into force (i.e. 22 February 2002) and that ‘this activity shall be
completed’ at the latest within 160 days from that date.
However, Sri Lanka acted in breach of the Ceasefire Agreement and
refused to vacate the school buildings. As a result, in the Jaffna
district alone, 52 schools continue to be occupied by the SLAF and
30% of schools in the North-East are closed. The breach of the
Ceasefire Agreement by Sri Lanka, compounded the already serious
situation caused by the armed conflict. The reality is that due to
the armed conflict and the SLAF occupation of schools, around 40,000
children in the North-East are without educational facilities, 1 in
100 children are in children’s homes and child malnutrition
amounts to 46%.
Given this ground reality, while there may be some Tamil youths
between the ages of 15 and 17 who have joined the LTTE during the
cease-fire, the nature of their recruitment and the actual
circumstances may also have to be looked into. The LTTE is not
simply an armed group but it also administers a de facto state. We
trust that you will agree that recruitment by the LTTE does not
necessarily mean recruitment as a ‘child soldier’. Again you may be
persuaded that it is important to consider whether the recruits had
any family to care for them and what steps that may have been taken
in the context of the ground reality – and also whether, in any
case, such recruits have been actually involved in the sporadic
military operations that have taken place.
In our view, the issue of so-called child soldiers in the LTTE ranks
is being used by many not out of genuine concern for Tamil youth but
for political purposes -- especially to support the government of
Sri Lanka’s unrelenting anti-Tamil campaigning both at home and
around the world. The campaign is intended to demonize the Tamil
people in the eyes of the world community. In our experience, this
has been partially successful, as many Tamils in the communities
where we live have been subjected to racial slurs implying that we
are all “terrorist thugs.” An obvious proof of this is that when our
Tamil civilians were recently attacked by government soldiers as
they sought shelter in their churches, there was very little
sympathy for them or public accusation of the Sri Lankan authorities
who carried out this atrocity.
In this light we also point out that there have long been
accusations made by Sinhala leaders that the Sri Lankan government
has recruited youths even under age 15. For example, former Prime
Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe pointed out in Parliament in 1998 that
the Army had launched a campaign to recruit school children at the
very time that Mr. Olara Otunnu was visiting. While denied by some
authorities, there was little public condemnation of that at the
time. Further, the JHU party has frequently and very publicly called
on Sinhala youth to join the fight against the Tamils and actively
encourages a military solution to the conflict.
The child soldier issue also draws attention away from the far more
serious over-all situation of all Tamil children in Sri Lanka -- a
condition made far worse due to the long armed conflict and a
variety of embargos imposed by the Sri Lanka authorities on food,
water, medicine and other humanitarian relief protected by the
Geneva Conventions. This too received no hue and cry.
Further, although the Tamil areas were far more affected by the
Tsunami, the government of Sri Lanka impeded international relief to
the Tamil areas. In an equally troubling move, the United States
government told the American Red Cross it could not distribute in
the Tamil areas any of the hundreds of millions of dollars donated
for the Tsunami victims.
As you must be aware, no international relief organization has
provided meaningful post-Tsunami aid to the Tamils except our own
Tamil relief agencies. Now with increased attacks by the Sri Lanka
military in the Tamil areas, more and more Tamils are seeking
shelter, we estimate there are as many as 50,000 newly displaced
Tamils, many of them children, who desperately need food, shelter
and basic survival aid. Some are even seeking shelter in India’s
Tamil Nadu region -- already home to thousands of Tamils made
homeless by the war and the Tsunami. It is the desperate
situation of these thousands upon thousands of Tamil children and
adults that require urgent attention, not a few in a “numbers game”
involving at most a few hundred Tamil youth.
There are also serious problems affecting Sinhala children, in
particular child slavery, child pornography and trafficking. There
are credible child advocate groups that indicate as many as 30,000
Sinhala children between the ages of 11 and 17 involved in sexual
slavery rings. Many are aware that Sri Lanka is a major “sex
tourism” destination again, as the resort areas have been fully
rehabilitated from Tsunami-caused damage. This cries out for public
condemnation and for meaningful action by relief organizations.
Obviously, when so much is at stake in Sri Lanka at the present, our
Federation questions what we consider to be an unbalanced approach
(as well as an approach not properly founded on international law)
to the Tamil child soldier issue. We hope UNICEF will join our
appeal to those who care about the Tamil people and our children to
do all within their mandates and capabilities to support us as we
seek a just peace on the island.
Thanking you for your consideration and your efforts, I remain,