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Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - Sri Lanka

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 2001
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - Sri Lanka, 2001, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Mainly covers the period June 1998 to April 2001 as well as including some earlier information.

  • Population:
    – total: 18,639,000
    – under-18s: 6,163,000
  • Government armed forces:
    – active: 110,000-115,000
    – reserves: 4,200
    – paramilitary: 88,600
  • Compulsory recruitment age: no conscription
  • Voluntary recruitment age: 18
  • Voting age (government elections): 18
  • Child soldiers: none indicated in government armed forces; indicated in paramilitary and armed opposition groups
  • CRC-OP-CAC: signed on 21/8/00; ratified on 8/9/00; supports "straight-18" position
  • Other treaties ratified: GC; ILO 138
  • The Tamil armed group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has a long record of using child soldiers, some as young as nine. There have been encouraging signs recently of a shift in LTTE policy, but previous promises have been broken and child recruitment has continued to be reported. There are some reports of child recruitment in government-allied paramilitary groups. There is inadequate protection and rehabilitation provided to LTTE child soldiers who have surrendered to the government.


Since 1983, a civil war has been fought between government armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group seeking an independent homeland in the north and east of the country for the minority Tamil population. Approximately 60,000 people have been killed in the war which has been characterised by grave human rights abuses, including thousands of "disappearances" on both sides. In late 1999 and early 2000, the LTTE launched a major offensive in the northeast, seizing new territory and inflicting large losses on government armed forces. During 2000 there were renewed moves towards peace negotiations, facilitated in part by the Norwegian government.


National Recruitment Legislation and Practice

Recruitment into the armed forces is on a voluntary basis. No concrete proposals for introducing conscription have ever been made, although this has been recommended at times by government or army officials.1764 According to official sources, the minimum legal recruitment age for the armed forces is 18.1765 The army has in the past called for applications from candidates under the age of 17, but desisted after appeals from UNICEF and national bodies.1766 In 1992, after its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Sri Lanka adopted a Children's Charter, which includes a prohibition on recruitment into the armed forces under the age of 18 years. This document is only a policy paper and does not have legal force.

Several paramilitary forces were created in the 1980s, including the (Muslim) Home Guard and the (Sinhalese) Civil Defence Force. They are armed by the government and collaborate with the armed forces at the local level.1767 The government also has the power to mobilise auxiliary forces and no minimum age is specified under this authority.1768

The government uses propaganda campaigns and economic incentives to recruit into its armed forces. It seems, however, that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has faced serious shortfalls in recruitment.1769 Troop morale is reportedly low, especially after defeats in late 1999, and the desertion rate is believed to be high, despite frequent general amnesties.1770

Military Training and Military Schools

There are various military training institutions. Eighteen is the minimum age requirement for entry and students are not considered to be members of the armed forces.1771 The National Cadet Corps, which provides pre-military and civil training to students, is open to those over 16.1772 Cadets may not be called to active service,1773 and it is claimed that cadets are not members of the armed forces. There have been reports that senior schoolboys are required to perform civil defence duties normally performed by Home Guards in the Dimbulagala and Welikanda area of Pollonaruwa district.1774

Child Recruitment

There are concerns about recruitment into some of the paramilitary groups that fight with the armed forces, such as the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO).1775 These groups fought against the government in the 1980s, but have since shifted their alliance. The general recruitment policies of these forces are not known, though there have been reliable reports of young men (for instance, 14 to 17-year-olds in Batticaloa town) being forcibly recruited.1776 The PLOTE, like other paramilitary groups, maintains a student wing. In February 1999, a 17-year-old member of the PLOTE's student organisation was shot and critically wounded by unidentified assailants in Vavuniya.1777

When hearing Sri Lanka's Initial State Party Report in 1995, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended the government submit further information within two years on "[t]he effects of the armed conflict on children, their participation in combat and the way authorities handle child soldiers prisoners of war."1778

Government Treatment of Suspected Child Soldiers

It seems that children between 16 and 18 years of age can be charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for their alleged activities with the LTTE since the age for criminal responsibility under the PTA is 16. According to human rights lawyers representing detainees, children arrested under the PTA on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE can face years in detention.1779 Amnesty International has reported a number of cases of children who have been tortured in custody after being arrested on suspicion of being LTTE guerrillas.1780 It is claimed that there are more teenage than adult LTTE fighters in government custody because children are more reluctant than their adult counterparts to take the cyanide capsule when they surrender or are wounded.1781

Children fight with the LTTE and then escape, surrender or are captured are usually interrogated at Special Task Force (STF) barracks but may also be sent to Colombo for further questioning by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), a division of the Sri Lankan police. They may be returned to their families, but are still obliged to report to the STF thereafter, some being used as spies and infiltrators for their contacts on both sides. Captured and surrendered child soldiers have at times also been used for propaganda purposes. For instance, 14 children who surrendered in October 1998 were paraded in front of the media and diplomatic corps by Sri Lankan Defence officials;1782 another LTTE girl soldier was made available to the New York Times and other international media just before the Winnipeg International Conference on War-Affected Children in September 2000.

On 25 October 2000 a mob from nearby villages attacked Bindunuwewa rehabilitation camp killing 26 inmates of whom all were young men between the ages of 14 and 23. Amnesty International accused the police personnel of, at the very least, being negligent in their duty to protect the inmates and called for a full and impartial enquiry into the killing.1783 A Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the massacre began sitting in May 2001.


Child Recruitment and Deployment Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

There is substantial evidence of the use of children as soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) throughout the Sri Lankan civil war, the youngest reported age being nine.1784 The LTTE reportedly only began to recruit large numbers of women and children to its ranks after it declared war against the 100,000-strong Indian Peace Keeping Force in October 1987. UNICEF estimates that the age of children recruited currently is mostly between 14 and 17.1785 The LTTE claims it restricts under-18s to training and support functions and does not recruit children under 17.

An assessment of LTTE fighters killed in combat reveal that 40 per cent of its fighting force are under 18 years of age. Another study done by a Sinhala researcher, Dushy Ranatunge, indicated that at least 60 per cent of the dead LTTE fighters are under 18 and, of these, most are girls and boys aged 10 to 16.1786 A group of LTTE child soldiers who surrendered in October 1998 claimed that 75 per cent of LTTE fighters are children.1787

Young Tamil girls, often orphans, have been systematically recruited by the LTTE since the mid-1980s. The LTTE has claimed that this is its way of "assisting women's liberation and counteracting the oppressive traditionalism of the present system." The Sri Lankan military believes that half of the LTTE troops are women called 'Birds of Freedom' by their fellow fighters. Like boys, they receive training and are told stories of glory from Hindu epics about women who battled enemies of the Tamil people. Government sources have claimed women are deliberately chosen as suicide bombers because they may not undergo as close a body search as men at checkpoints.1788 In December 2000, the bodies of 14 girl soldiers were recovered by troops following a confrontation with the LTTE in Jaffna.1789

The LTTE uses propaganda to encourage every family to give a son or daughter to the cause.1790 Tamil schools are militarised by the LTTE, who have been known to conduct military training inside school grounds.1791 Most teachers reportedly comply with LTTE directives or are forced out of the classroom during recruitment sessions; those who make their opposition known face harassment and attack. Powerful speakers are said to visit schools, and deliver fiery speeches in a bid to inspire the youngsters to join the movement. Children are given accounts of the brutality of the Sinhalese army and incited to become 'heroes'. Those recruiting are aware of opposition to recruitment, and therefore make a point of promising the children that their education will not be interrupted if they join the movement since classes will be held for them in the camps.1792 One source has claimed that "parents in these areas [areas controlled by the LTTE] are reluctant to send their children to schools, since they fear their children would be recruited to the LTTE military wing".1793 Another indication of parental concern is the reluctance of some internally displaced Tamil people to register at welfare-centres.1794

LTTE 'orphanages' for children displaced in the fighting are also reported to be centres for indoctrination and recruitment. One report cites the case of a mother who left her child to be brought up in a LTTE-sponsored orphanage called Red Blossomed Garden, only to receive a sealed coffin containing the remains of her 13-year-old child some three years later.1795 The elite Sirasu Puli (Leopard Brigade) is reportedly composed entirely of children drawn from LTTE-orphanages and is one of the LTTE's most fierce fighting forces.1796

According to a study presented to the Asia-Pacific Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers in Kathmandu in May 2000, based on interviews with 19 former LTTE child soldiers, most had in fact "volunteered" for recruitment. Seven said they had joined out of fear of abduction by the "enemy", others had joined for revenge or the thrill of being a freedom fighter, while three had joined for economic reasons. A majority had tried to escape at least once or disobeyed orders, resulting in trivial punishment such as kitchen duty or severe punishments such as detention in hot and dark rooms, blackmail and threats to family members, or death threats.1797 Another report, however, estimates that only 5% of recruits are truly voluntary.1798

In 1998, Amnesty International reported on the case of an unaccompanied teenager who sought asylum in the United Kingdom. The child explained how the LTTE tried to recruit him and his sisters on many occasions. The first time, in 1993, he was 14, and living with his family in a camp for internally displaced persons at Urumpirai, Jaffna. An LTTE member, in civilian clothes, tried to convince them to join the armed group while other LTTE members, who were armed and in uniform, waited outside the family's hut. The LTTE came back with a similar request while they were in another camp.1799

A typical unit of children is trained for four months in the jungle. All links between the children and their families are broken and discipline is strict. The training became tougher after 1990, from which time children have been used in combat against the Sri Lankan forces on a larger scale. The young fighters are prepared for battle by attacking unprotected or weakly defended border villages. In early 2000, the University Teachers' Human Rights- Jaffna (UTHR-J) claimed that compulsory self defence training was instituted for civilians between the age of 16 and 45 in LTTE controlled areas from April 1999. Trainees are reportedly used in the border force for defensive and ordinance tasks.


International Standards

Sri Lanka signed the CRC-OP-CAC on 21 August 2000 and ratified the instrument on 8 September 2000. The government supports the "straight-18" position. In its binding declaration upon ratification, Sri Lanka stated that there is no compulsory, forced or coerced recruitment into the national armed forces; recruitment is solely on a voluntary basis; and the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces is 18.

Commitments by the LTTE

During a visit to Sri Lanka in May 1998 by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Mr Olara Otunnu, the LTTE leadership made an oral commitment not to recruit children under 17 and not to use children under 18 in hostilities.1800 No commitment was made release children already recruited.1801 In October 1998, however, according to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of children were believed to have been recruited from the Batticaloa area, and shortly after 64 children were taken from one school.1802 In November Mr Otunnu appealed to the LTTE to fulfil the commitments made to him earlier that year;1803 UNICEF also raised the issue with the LTTE.1804 But the LTTE subsequently appeared to step up its recruitment drive in the eastern Batticaloa district, with at least 150-200 children being added to its ranks.1805

In October 1999, 49 children, including 32 girls aged between 11 and 15 years of age were among the 140 LTTE cadres killed in a battle with the security forces at Ampakamam in the north. The bodies were handed over to the Red Cross which declared the use of the children as a war crime. Mr. Otunnu once more renewed his appeal to the LTTE to respect its pledges.1806

In May 2000, there were reports of a more intensive LTTE propaganda and recruitment campaign, celebrating a key LTTE victory at Elephant Pass. Classes were suspended for compulsory military training of children above grade 9 (aged 14/15 up). Statistics from one school in Mallavi show the escalating scale of child recruitment from 4 children in April 1999, to 15 by early 2000, to 24 children in June 2000. Nine of these children were believed to have been killed within one year: the bodies of six former students were displayed as 'martyrs' to other pupils at the school. At another school, 20 girls were recruited, their uniforms burnt and then taken to a military camp. Five of the girls aged 14 and 15 who wanted to leave were locked up and ill-treated; three finally managed to escape.1807 In July 2000, UNICEF again publicly accused the LTTE of reneging on its previous promises.1808 31 child soldiers were reportedly killed in one weekend during a government offensive in December 2000.1809

The LTTE has shown encouraging signs of a shift in policy in recent months. In a meeting with the UN in early 2001, the LTTE repeated that they do not recruit under 17-year-olds claiming that those recruited are "mistakes". They promised to investigate any such reports and release any child found to be under 17 (which has reportedly already been done in a few cases). They have also promised to publicly announce 17 as the minimum recruitment age and have put up a sign accordingly near the UN compound near Vanni .1810 Implementation of these commitments will need to be carefully monitored.

1764 Sambandan, V.S. "Debate over Army recruitment in Sri Lanka", The Hindu, 29/1/00.

1765 Initial State Report of Sri Lanka to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/8/Add. 13, 5/5/94, para. 32.

1766 Summary records of the 228th meeting, UN Doc. CRC/C/SR 228, 13/6/95, para. 16.

1767 Horeman and Stolwijk op. cit.

1768 Section 52(1) of the 1985 Mobilisation and Supplementary Forces Act.

1769 "SLA launches recruitment drive", TamilNet, 24/11/98.

1770 Price, S., "High rate of desertion, lack of rank and file recruits take toll on beleaguered force", South China Morning Post, 5/11/99; "Schwere Niederlage der Armee in Sri Lanka: Die LTTE erobern zehn Stutzpunkte", Neue Zurcher Zeitung, 8/11/99; "Army loses ground after Tamil rebel attack., Xinhua, 9/11/99.

1771 Information provided by UNICEF to CSC on 17/3/01.

1772 1985 Mobilisation and Supplementary Forces Act, Sections 40(1) and 51(h).

1773 Section 49.

1774 AI, Children in South Asia: op. cit.

1775 Other groups such as the Eelam Revolutionary organisation of Students (EROS), the Tamil Eelam Army/Tamil Ealam Liberation Army (TEA/Tela), the Eelam Revolutionary Communist Party (ERCP), the Tamil Eelam National Army (TENA) and the People's Revolutionary Red Army (PRRA) have disappeared. Balencie and de La Grange.

1776 AI, Children in South Asia: securing their rights, ASA 04/01/98.

1777 "PLOTE's student wing cadre wounded", Tamilnet, 5/2/99.

1778 Concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/15/Add. 40, 21/6/95, para. 44.

1779 Information provided by HRW, 1/99 and 4/00.

1780 "Amnesty calls for tough action against Sri Lanka torturers", AFP, 31/5/99.

1781 Gunaratna, R., "LTTE child combatants", Jane's Intelligence Review, 7/98.

1782 Cruez, D., "Sri Lanka shows rebel child soldiers to media", Reuters, 7/1098; Sambandan, V.S., "Drawn young, they know not what war is., The Hindu, 8/10/98; Eliatamby, N., "Sri Lanka Government shows kid soldiers., Associated Press, 8/10/98.

1783 Open letter to Sri Lankan President from AI dated 27/10/00.

1784 AI. Children in South Asia op. cit.

1785 UNICEF, 17/3/01 op. cit.

1786 Gunaratna, R; "LTTE Child Comatants", Jane's Intelligence Review, July 1998.

1787 Balachanddran, P.K., "Most of the LTTE fighters are kids, say Tiger captives", The Hindustan Times, 4/10/98.

1788 Ganguly, D., "Female assassins seen in Sri Lanka", Associated Press, 5/1/00; Ganguly, D., "Female fighters used in Sri Lanka", Associated Press, 10/1/00.

1789 AP 12/24/00.

1790 Gunaratna, R., "LTTE child combatants", Jane's Intelligence Review, 7/98.

1791 Goodwin-Gill and Cohn op. cit.

1792 Balachanddran, P.K. ".Join us, be a hero', new LTTE mantra", The Hindustan Times, 2/2/00.

1793 Information from University Teachers for Human Rights quoted in "Amnesty mounts battle against use of Tamil Tiger child soldiers", AFP, 30/5/99.

1794 Horeman and Stolwijk, op. cit.

1795 "Tigers' refugee children returning home in coffins.; AFP, 17/07/00.

1796 Gunaratna, R., "LTTE child combatants", op. cit.

1797 Paper presented by Prof Harendra de Silva, National Child Protection Authority, Sri Lanka, to Asia Pacific Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, Kathmandu, May 2000.

1798 CSC Update 4, 8/00 quoting UTHR report op.cit.

1800 Commitment by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to the SRSGCAC on the participation in combat and recruitment of children, 8/5/98, SRSG-CAC/PR/4; "UN Official on talks with the LTTE", TamilNet, 8/5/98; Karunakharan, P. and Jeevakadas, M.K., "Otunnu-LTTE talks in Wanni", The Weekend Express, 9-10/5/98.

1801 Perera, S., "Will Tigers keep their promises? UN official unsure", The Island, 10/5/98.

1802 Information provided by HRW, 1/99.

1803 "LTTE broke promises on child soldiers: UN. The Indian Express, 6/11/98; SG's Special Representative for children and armed conflict condemns attacks in civilians and use of child soldiers, Press Release HR/4388, 9/11/98.

1804 "UNICEF concern at Tigers recruiting children", BBC News, 8/10/98.

1805 Sambandan, V.S., "Security forces, LTTE step up recruitment", The Hindu, 18/10/98. For an extensive list of articles dealing with child soldiers in the LTTE from that period, see the web site of an anti-LTTE organisation, SPUR (Society for Peace, Unity and Human Rights for Sri Lanka):

1806 "Sri Lanka army says rebels using child combatants", Associated Press, 21/10/99; "LTTE continue to use child conscripts", The Times of India, 21/10/99.

1807 University Teachers for Human Rights – Jaffna; Bulletin No 23, 11/7/00. See also Balachanddran, P.K., "'Join us, be a hero', new LTTE mantra", The Hindustan Times, 2/2/00.

1808 UN Wire 13/7/00.

1809 Daily News, 28/12/00.

1810 UNICEF 17/3/01, op. cit.

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