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Interview: The Tamil Diaspora

Jo Becker, the children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, talks about the Tamil Tigers' recruitment of child soldiers and about the role that expatriate Sri Lankans play in the ongoing conflict.

POV: Could you give us an overview of your work in connection with Sri Lanka?

Jo Becker Jo Becker: In 2004, I was part of a Human Rights Watch team that investigated the recruitment and use of children as soldiers by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. More recently, I've been investigating the Tamil Tigers' use of intimidation, extortion and even violence against members of the Tamil community in Canada and the UK in order to stifle any public criticism of the Tamil Tigers and to secure funds for their operations.

POV: What issues are most pressing in Sri Lanka now? What's changed since the 2002 ceasefire agreement?

Young LTTE soldiers
No More Tears Sister - Young LTTE soldiers with guns

Young soldiers of the LTTE are recruited from the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka.

Becker: Violence has escalated dramatically in Sri Lanka since mid-2005. In the last few months, several hundred people, many civilian, have been killed in attacks by both government forces and the Tamil Tigers. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. At this point, the ceasefire appears to exist only on paper.

We're also concerned about continued child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers and political killings. Since the beginning of the ceasefire, more than 200 Sri Lankans, mostly Tamil, have been killed, often for being critical of the Tamil Tigers or participating in non-LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) political parties. The Tamil Tigers are believed responsible for the majority of these killings.

POV: Has the recruitment or use of child soldiers increased or decreased?

Becker: Over the last four years, UNICEF has documented over 4,000 cases of child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers. We know that the true number is even higher, as many families are afraid to make reports when their children are taken. In many of these cases, children are taken by force, and families face violent retribution if they resist. More than a third of the children recruited are under the age of fifteen, which is considered a war crime.

The rate of child recruitment has gradually declined since 2002, but the practice continues, and thousands of children are still in the ranks of the Tamil Tigers.

POV: What role do Sri Lankans overseas play in the ongoing conflict? Does support from expatriate Sri Lankans help sustain the conflict?

Becker: Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have left the country over the last 25 years. Many are Tamils who fled government abuses during the war. Between 600,000 and 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils now live abroad, with half of that number residing in Canada and the UK. This Tamil diaspora has been an important source of financial and political support for the Tamil Tigers. In the 1990s, some experts estimated that 90 percent of the Tamil Tigers' military budget came from overseas sources, including the Tamil community. Many Tamils willingly give financial contributions to the Tamil Tigers and actively support their struggle. However, other Tamils are subject to intimidation and harassment, and [are] told that if they do not give money, they may not be able to return to Sri Lanka to visit their families.

POV: Is there a role for outside parties to play in establishing lasting peace? What can regional or Western governments do? What about NGOs?

Becker: The United Nations and western governments should continue to pressure both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers to protect civilians from violence and strictly observe international human rights and humanitarian law. The Sri Lankan government should establish a commission of inquiry to investigate recent attacks by armed groups against Tamils, including their homes and businesses. The UN Security Council should consider targeted sanctions against the Tamil Tigers to address the group's failure to end its recruitment of child soldiers. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be actively engaged in monitoring and reporting on human rights violations by both parties in the conflict.

Jo Becker Jo Becker is the children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, an organization that conducts systematic investigations of human rights abuses in about 70 countries around the world, including the United States. The Children's Rights Division focuses specifically on abuses against children, including abusive child labor, the use of children as soldiers, conditions in institutions (including detention centers and orphanages), police abuse against street children and more. Jo Becker is also the author of the HRW report entitled "Funding the 'Final War': LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora."

Related Links:
Human Rights Watch: Asia: Sri Lanka
An overview of human rights issues in Sri Lanka.

NPR: Talk of the Nation: Child Soldiers
Jo Becker appeared on Talk of the Nation in 2003 to discuss the use of child soldiers in Liberia.





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