Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa yesterday said that the majority of complaints, received from Tamil speaking parents, during a post-war inquiry, related to children forcibly recruited by the LTTE during eelam war IV.
The UNICEF analysis had been carried out in collaboration with the Northern Provincial Department of Probation and Child Care and the Government Agent of Vavuniya, the Defence Secretary told The Island.
He was responding to the UK’s 2011 human rights report, which alleged that UNICEF’s Family Reunification and Tracing Unit still had 600 outstanding cases of children missing during the final stages of the conflict.
The UK also accused Sri Lanka of failing to prosecute LTTE members allegedly responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers.
The Defence Secretary said that it was not a case of responsibility on the part of individual LTTE members, but the LTTE as an organization, which brazenly built a conventional fighting capability, while talking peace.
At the onset of hostilities in mid 2006, the LTTE comprised some 30,000 men and women, mostly children recruited at gun point. He pointed out that former UK HC employee, Anton Balasingham’s wife, Adele, who participated at the passing out of child recruits, was now a UK resident.
Citing the UNICEF report, the Defence Secretary said of 676 complaints received by UNICEF regarding missing children, about 64 per cent related to ex-LTTE child soldiers. At the time of the finalization of the report, the UNICEF had facilitated re-unification of 78 children with their families, he said, adding that a copy of the report was made available to the then UK Defence Minister, Dr. Liam Fox, when he met President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at Temple Trees last July.
External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa attended the meeting.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa handed over a copy of the UNICEF report to Dr. Fox. The British politician was here to deliver the fifth Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture in Colombo.
UNICEF launched the project in December 2009, in response to a spate of tracing requests received since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. At the time the Defence Secretary had received the report, a senior UNICEF official assured him that in spite of difficulties in tracking down those listed missing, more children could be found and re-united with their families.
Those shedding crocodile tears for their personal and political gain should throw their weight behind the UNICEF effort to track down missing children, the Defence Secretary said.
“We never interfered with the UNICEF-led Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR) project,” he said.
Responding to a query, the official said that the survey had been preceded by a large scale poster campaign in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In spite of that, the UN agency had received only 2,564 tracing applications, including 676 regarding missing children. The rest were adults. There’s no doubt that some of the missing adults were LTTE cadres.
“According to a UNICEF analysis, the vast majority of those listed as missing were between 16 and 18-years old. But the most important factor is that 64 per cent of those seeking to locate their children alleged that the LTTE took them away during the war.”
Had there been a genuine attempt by the international community to stop child recruitment at least after the Norway arranged CFA came into operation in February 2002, the lives of thousands of children could have been saved, he said. The UK Foreign Office could obtain from Norway information relating to adults and children abducted by the LTTE, during the CFA, he said.
A case in point is the story of a girl and her younger brother who were taken away by the LTTE from the East to Vanni during Eelam War IV. After the killing of their father in May 2005 in Batticaloa, the LTTE had handed over the children to an orphanage, as their mother was away in the Middle East. As the LTTE retreated from the East, it had moved the children to Sencholai before being taken to Vanni East. After the collapse of the LTTE in May 2009, UNICEF had helped their mother, who returned from overseas, to find her children accommodated at orphanages at Vavuniya and Mannar.
“Child recruitment continued even weeks before the conclusion of the conflict,” the Defence Secretary said.
“Although during a visit to Sri Lanka in 1998, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, obtained an assurance from the LTTE that gave hope for an improvement in the situation of children, the LTTE continued to recruit children during the ensuing three years,” Rajapaksa said.
“On a visit to the North in February 2001, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Andre Roberfroid met senior representatives of the LTTE to express the UN’s growing concerns. But the LTTE continued recruitment.”
The Defence Secretary said that the Norwegian arranged CFA, backed by the US, EU and Japan, gave the LTTE an opportunity to step up child recruitment, under the very noses of the Nordic truce monitoring mission.
The Defence Secretary suggested that those targeting Sri Lanka on accountability issues, too, should be investigated for their complicity in the LTTE build-up
By Shamindra Ferdinando