The Disappearing Act in Sri Lanka

by Sunila Abeysekera, The Real News Network, Canada, June 13, 2009

Sharmini Peries of Real News speaks to Sunila Abeysekera, award-winning human rights defender and the Executive Director of INFORM. Ms. Abeysekera is the daughter of Charles Abeysekera, at one time President of MIRJE and the Chairman of the Official Languages Commission.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
AHRC-STM-135-2009
June 16, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Registers on entry and leaving of internally displaced persons needs to be created urgently to prevent forced disappearances

Every day 20 to 30 young persons are taken away and their whereabouts are unknown, a leading human rights organisation in Sri Lanka, INFORM, reported this week. The source of information is the testimonies of the relatives of the IDPs who have visited the camps. There are severe restrictions on civil society organisations and the media visiting the camps.

In an interview to the BBC Sinhala Service, a spokesperson for the organisation said that persons wearing hoods are brought into the IDPs camps and that they indicate by signs as to whether one of the IDPs had connections with the LTTE or not. If identified positively the IDPs are removed from the camps and their whereabouts are thereafter unknown. The spokesperson referred to the practice of using ‘Gonibilla’ (the bogeyman). On previous occasions, like the time of the JVP suppression between 1987 and 1991, many persons were identified in this manner and later removed. Many such persons have thereafter been treated as forced disappearances. The official figure of these disappearances in the 1987 to 1991 period is around 30,000. Unofficial figures give a larger number.

A minister taking part in the same interview to the BBC Sinhala Service denied the allegations of the report and said that when persons are removed for investigations their families are informed.

No register is kept in IDPs camps of such removals. In any case a list of persons who have been removed from the camps has not been made available to any of the government authorities who, under the law, are entitled to be informed of such arrests for the purpose of investigations. Under the law, even where anti terrorism laws apply, any authority that arrests a person for the purpose of investigation needs to inform the nearest Magistrate’s Court. The government has already admitted the removal of about 10,000 persons for questioning regarding their former links to the LTTE. These and all others removed daily would, under the law, need to be treated as persons arrested for investigations. On that basis the list of such persons should be available at the Ministry of Defence. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is also entitled to have lists of persons arrested for questioning.

Previous experience in Sri Lanka shows that failure to register an arrest is often a precursor to a forced disappearance. The commissions of inquiry into forced disappearances in the mid 90s of the last century described a disappearance at the time as an abduction followed by the killing and disposal of the body. The absence of registration helps the authorities to deny that abduction ever took place or that the person was in the custody of the authorities at any time.

The problem of registration in taking persons outside the camps itself is a grave violation of the normal rules of any camp for displaced persons or refugees. It is a paramount requirement that a public record should exist of all persons kept inside a camp for IDPs and any removal of the person outside the camp should also be recorded. In fact, all visits to any of the displaced persons should also be recorded. Under these circumstances any authority in charge of a camp which allows visits to IDPs without prior registration and allows the removal of the person without proper registration is committing a serious transgression. Custody within a camp, like custody in any other place, imposes a duty of protection by the authority that controls the facility. The removal of persons from such places without registration should be subjected to inquiry.

The habit of making people disappear during times of instability is an endemic practice in Sri Lanka. Particularly since the JVP uprising of 1971 there has been many such occasions. Due to public outrage on the previous occasions the government and many authorities intervened to devise some rules in the event of the arrest of any person. One such rule was to issue a written notice of arrest to the family or the closest relatives of the arrested person. After this practice was introduced in the early 90s the number of disappearances was reduced greatly. The incumbent president himself issued this same instruction for the issuing of written notices at the time of arrest not very long ago. However, no attempts have been taken to ensure that such instructions are complied with. The recommendations by many concerned groups to enact a law to this affect have not been heeded.

The United Nations Working Group on Disappearances has also made many recommendations to avoid the occurrence of abductions which carry the possibility of a permanent disappearance of persons. One such recommendation was for the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to maintain a central registry of all arrestees and detainees.

Allowing persons to be taken out of IDPs camps without registration of such removals, not making reports of such removals to the courts, other authorities and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka are all fundamental violations of the law and the rights of persons.

Proper registration of persons is one of the basic norms of any civilisation. This obligation is even greater where the peril to the lives of people is greater due to certain circumstances. IDPs are persons who lives are placed in peril due to circumstances beyond their control. Proper registration of their entry into camps and all that happens to them within the camps should be one of the most basic obligations to them as human beings. It is also an obligation to society so that people in the society could have a clear conscience that at least the basic protection to the IDPs has been ensured by their political authorities.

 

End Illegal Detention of Displaced Population

Nearly 300,000 Tamils Enduring Poor Conditions in Camps

by Human Rights Watch, June 11, 2009

Before the recent massive influx of displaced persons, the government proposed holding the displaced in camps for up to three years. According to the plan, those with relatives inside would be allowed to come and go after initial screening, but young or single people would not be allowed to leave. After international protests, the government said that it would resettle 80 percent of the displaced by the end of 2009. But the government’s history of restricting the rights of displaced persons through rigid pass systems and strict restrictions on leaving the camps heightens concerns that they will be confined in camps much longer, possibly for years.

The Sri Lankan government should end the illegal detention of nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the recently ended conflict in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said today.

Civilians stand behind a barbed-wire fence in the Manik Farm refugee camp in Vavuniya.

For more than a year, the Sri Lankan government has detained virtually everyone – including entire families – displaced by the fighting in the north in military-run camps, in violation of international law. While the government has said that most would be able to return home by the end of the year, past government practice and the absence of any concrete plans for their release raises serious concerns about indefinite confinement, said Human Rights Watch.

“Treating all these men, women, and children as if they were Tamil Tiger fighters is a national disgrace,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Displaced Tamil civilians have the same rights to liberty and freedom of movement as other Sri Lankans.”

While the Sri Lankan authorities are expected to screen persons leaving the war zone to identify Tamil Tiger combatants, international law prohibits arbitrary detention and unnecessary restrictions on freedom of movement. This means that anyone taken into custody must be promptly brought before a judge and charged with a criminal offense or released. Although human rights law permits restrictions on freedom of movement for security reasons, the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.

Since March 2008, the government of Sri Lanka has detained virtually all civilians fleeing areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at so-called “welfare centers” and “transitional relief villages.” A small number of camp residents, mainly the elderly, have been released to host families and institutions for the elderly. The vast majority, however, remain in detention. As of June 5, the United Nations reported that the authorities were keeping 278,263 people in detention in 40 camps in the four northern districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna, and Trincomalee.

A significant number of the detainees have close relatives in the region, with whom they could stay if they were allowed to leave.

“Many people are in the camps not because they have no other place to go,” said Adams. “They are in the camps because the government does not allow them to leave.”

Before the recent massive influx of displaced persons, the government proposed holding the displaced in camps for up to three years. According to the plan, those with relatives inside would be allowed to come and go after initial screening, but young or single people would not be allowed to leave. After international protests, the government said that it would resettle 80 percent of the displaced by the end of 2009. But the government’s history of restricting the rights of displaced persons through rigid pass systems and strict restrictions on leaving the camps heightens concerns that they will be confined in camps much longer, possibly for years.

More than 2,000 people displaced from their homes in northwestern Mannar district by the fighting two years ago were released from the camps only in May, when the government said they could return to their homes.

Conditions in the camps are inadequate. Virtually all camps are overcrowded, some holding twice the number recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Food distribution is chaotic, there are shortages of water, and sanitation facilities are inadequate. Camp residents do not have access to proper medical services and communicable diseases have broken out in the camps.

Since May 16, the military camp administration has imposed numerous restrictions on humanitarian organizations working in the camps, such as limiting the number of vehicles and staff members that can enter the camps, which has delayed the provision of much-needed aid. The military does not allow organizations into the camps to conduct protection activities, and a ban on talking to the camp residents leaves them further isolated. The military has also barred journalists from entering the camps except on organized and supervised tours.

“The poor conditions in the camps may worsen with the monsoon rains,” said Adams. “Holding civilians who wish to move in with relatives and friends is irresponsible as well as unlawful.”