The opposition group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) systematically recruited and used child soldiers throughout the 25-year armed conflict with Sri Lankan government forces which began in the early 1980s and ended in May 2009. Boys and girls were forcibly recruited and deployed into armed combat as well as being subjected to harsh conditions and military discipline. Children also "voluntarily" enlisted into the LTTE ranks. Despite a protracted peace process, ceasefire agreements and commitments to ending the use of child soldiers, LTTE child recruitment continued until the conflict ended in May 2009. Thousands of child soldiers were believed to have been recruited and used by the LTTE during the last intense phase of the conflict.
From 2004, hundreds of child soldiers were also forcibly recruited and used by the Karuna group and its political wing the Tamil Peoples Liberation Tigers (Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal -TMVP). The Karuna group/TMVP broke away from the LTTE in March 2004 and was led by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, (known as Karuna). By late 2007 the TMVP and Karuna had effectively separated but both groups continued to engage in armed activity in support of government security forces, and to recruit and use child soldiers. Several other armed political groups with links to the security groups which have operated in Sri Lanka since the 1990s, have recruited and used children although to a much lesser extent. By December 2009 the TMVP had released almost all the children believed to be in its ranks. Sporadic cases of child recruitment by armed groups with links to the security forces continued to be reported as of February 2010.
While recognizing the difficulty of preventing the LTTE in particular from militarily exploiting children, the Coalition believes that the government of Sri Lanka did not take sufficient measures to protect children against such practices during the years of armed conflict. In relation to the recruitment of under-18s by the Karuna group, TMVP and other armed groups, government inaction, and in some cases complicity of government security forces, contributed to the problem. The Coalition is also concerned that insufficient measures have been taken to prevent current or future recruitment or use of children in hostilities.
In practice there is effective impunity for child soldier recruitment and use in Sri Lanka as well as for other grave abuses of human rights against children. Although child recruitment was criminalized under national legislation in 2006, there are not known to have been any investigations or prosecutions for recruitment or use of under-18s under relevant provisions of the Penal Code. Investigations into the complicity of security forces in forced recruitment of children by the Karuna group have not progressed satisfactorily and several leaders of the group now hold senior government positions.
The government now faces another significant challenge in reintegrating potentially thousands of children and young adults recruited as child soldiers by the LTTE and other armed groups. A legal framework was put in place in 2008 to provide care and protection for children leaving armed groups, whereby centres were established in which approximately 365 children formerly associated with armed groups remain pending reintegration. While welcoming efforts by the Government of Sri Lanka to provide safe and supportive accommodation to children associated with the LTTE and other armed groups, the Coalition is concerned that the legal framework for demobilization does not fully comply with international standards and that its implementation has not been always been consistent with widely accepted best practices.
Many children and young adults who were associated with armed groups have already returned to civilian life and more will do so in the months to come. Creating safe communities to which children can return does not merely entail the achievement of physical security. Equally important is the reestablishment of the rule of law in these communities, tangible demonstrations of respect for minority communities by the government and moves toward reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Without these broader changes it will be impossible to ensure that communities can provide the best futures for war-affected children.