War Crimes in Sri Lanka

by Arthur Dewey, Foreign Policy in Focus, January 26, 2010

The Sri Lankan government has proven time and again that it’s unwilling to ensure accountability for serious violations, an absolutely vital precondition for genuine reconciliation and lasting peace. Secretary-General Ban should now take the initiative and establish a real independent international investigation. The United States, the European Union, and Sri Lanka’s biggest donor, Japan, should support such an effort. A just and peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on dealing forthrightly with its grievous past.

 

More than 200,000 people are trapped in less than 100 square kilometers in the Vanni area in northern Sri Lanka as a result of recent fighting between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. © 2009 Private

This week, Sri Lankan voters go to the polls to elect a new president. No matter the victor, neither of the two main candidates is likely to provide the justice and closure that Sri Lanka’s thousands of war victims deserve.

In 2007-8, I was a member of an independent international advisory group observing Sri Lanka’s investigation of human rights violations dating from 2006. I concluded that the government lacked the political will to hold accountable the perpetrators of these egregious crimes. When the United Nations secretary-general said this month that he is considering naming a commission of experts to “assist the government” of Sri Lanka to look at evidence its soldiers committed war crimes last year, my reaction was a chilling feeling of déjà-vu.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa established a domestic Commission of Inquiry in 2006 to investigate 16 cases of grave human rights violations by government forces and the Tamil Tigers. He appointed me and 10 other international experts as members of an International Independent Group of Eminent Persons to monitor the commission’s work. We observed and commented on the transparency of its investigations, as well as their conformity to international norms and standards.

A Failed Commission

Our group quickly discovered that the commission’s work didn’t conform to those standards, and that the offices of the Attorney General and the Presidential Secretariat repeatedly created obstacles. These actions created a pervasive climate of fear, making potential witnesses reluctant to come forward. Many would testify only via video-conferencing after fleeing the country. But their statements were so devastating that the government arranged to have such testimony declared inadmissible as evidence.

The government ignored or rejected most of the suggestions we made. Official correspondence directed to us was often characterized by a lack of respect and civility. By our fifth quarterly meeting, we saw the mockery being made of the process, and unanimously decided to terminate our work.

The commission’s mandate expired last July. It investigated only seven of its 16 cases. The president hasn’t published its report and not a single person has been prosecuted because of the commission’s work. The commission, like most of the nine such commissions appointed since independence in 1948, was a failure.

New Evidence

But now, there is impetus for another inquiry. Compelling evidence suggests that both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers committed serious violations during what the UN called the “bloodbath” that marked the end of the armed conflict last May. In October, the U.S. State Department published a reportwith information on hundreds of alleged attacks killing and wounding civilians. Human Rights Watch has accused both sides of serious violations of international law, some of which may amount to war crimes. These credible allegations prompted calls for an independent investigation from the United States, the European Union, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch.

In October, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp called on the Sri Lankan government to “develop an accountability process that respects the interests of all.” But Rapp’s trust is completely misplaced in believing that an internal Sri Lankan investigation will produce any results.

Future Promises

Last May, President Rajapaksa promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to investigate allegations of laws-of-war violations. No action was taken, however, until November, when the publication of the State Department report compelled Rajapaksa to appoint a six-member committee of “experts” to “examine [its allegations] carefully.” The committee’s only mandate was to provide recommendations to the president in December (now postponed to April), and its members do not appear to be independent-minded.

As with our commission, it appears this inquiry was intended not to bring accountability, but to avoid it. Sarath Fonseka, the army chief in charge during last year’s “blood bath” and now Rajapaksa’s rival in the elections, isn’t likely to bring about a credible investigation either.

The Sri Lankan government has proven time and again that it’s unwilling to ensure accountability for serious violations, an absolutely vital precondition for genuine reconciliation and lasting peace. Secretary-General Ban should now take the initiative and establish a real independent international investigation. The United States, the European Union, and Sri Lanka’s biggest donor, Japan, should support such an effort. A just and peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on dealing forthrightly with its grievous past.

Arthur E. “Gene” Dewey is a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

End Indefinite Detention of Tamil Tiger Suspects

Incommunicado ‘Rehabilitation’ Raises Fears of Torture and Enforced Disappearances

by Human Rights Watch, February 1, 2010

At checkpoints and in the camps, the authorities separated the more than 11,000 individuals with suspected ties to the LTTE and sent them to “rehabilitation centers.” More than 550 children were among those transferred to these centers.

While the government contends that many of those being held have surrendered to rehabilitation voluntarily, the lack of access to the detainees by humanitarian agencies and other independent monitors makes it difficult to know how many surrendered, how many of this group did so voluntarily, and how many were arrested.

The lack of transparency in the process and of information about the fate and whereabouts of some of the detainees raises concerns about possible torture or mistreatment in custody, and the possibility that some may have been forcibly disappeared..

(New York) – The Sri Lankan government should end its indefinite arbitrary detention of more than 11,000 people held in so-called rehabilitation centers and release those not being prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 30-page report, “Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE Suspects in Sri Lanka,” is based on interviews with the detainees’ relatives, humanitarian workers, and human rights advocates, among others. The Sri Lankan government has routinely violated the fundamental rights of the detainees, Human Rights Watch found. The government contends that the 11,000 detainees are former fighters or supporters of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The government has been keeping 11,000 people in a legal limbo for months,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time to identify who presents a genuine security threat and to release the rest.”

The government has denied detainees the right to be informed of specific reasons for their arrest, to challenge the lawfulness of the detention before an independent judicial authority, and to have access to legal counsel and family members, Human Rights Watch said.  It is unclear whether any have been formally charged with crimes or what acts they are accused of committing that led the government to detain them.

While the government has the right and responsibility to protect public safety, it also has to do so in a lawful manner that respects basics rights, Human Rights Watch said.

During the final months of the 26-year-long conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, which ended with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, the government confined nearly 300,000 people displaced by the conflict in what the government called “welfare camps” in the north. Since early 2008 virtually all civilians fleeing the fighting had been confined in these camps.  At checkpoints and in the camps, the authorities separated the more than 11,000 individuals with suspected ties to the LTTE and sent them to “rehabilitation centers.” More than 550 children were among those transferred to these centers.

While the government contends that many of those being held have surrendered to rehabilitation voluntarily, the lack of access to the detainees by humanitarian agencies and other independent monitors makes it difficult to know how many surrendered, how many of this group did so voluntarily, and how many were arrested.

The lack of transparency in the process and of information about the fate and whereabouts of some of the detainees raises concerns about possible torture or mistreatment in custody, and the possibility that some may have been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said. As documented by Human Rights Watch in a 2008 report, “Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for ‘Disappearances’ and Abductions in Sri Lanka,” enforced disappearances have been a longstanding problem in Sri Lanka, and thousands of people remain unaccounted for.

In an illustrative case, the army detained 32-year-old Jeganathan on May 15, 2009, after he crossed into government-controlled areas with his wife, Aanathi, and their one-year-old son. The military insisted that Aanathi continue to the camp and she heard nothing about her husband for several weeks. “I lost all hope,” Aanathi told Human Rights Watch. “I thought that I would never see him again.”

A relative of Aanathi eventually located Jeganathan in one of the rehabilitation centers, and Aanathi has been able to visit him on occasion. Months after he was detained, the government has not informed him how long he is supposed to stay in the center. He has not had access to a lawyer and he has not been able to contest his detention before a court. During Aanathi’s last visit to see her husband he told her that the authorities continue to interrogate him and that they had started beating some of the other “surrendees.”

The Sri Lankan government has asked international donors to provide financial support for the “rehabilitation centers.” Human Rights Watch said that donors should not support the centers unless and until the rights of the detainees are fully respected.

“In the absence of due process guarantees, support for these centers is support for the government’s illegal detention policy,” said Adams. “No donor should be associated with that.”

UN HRC General Debate on Sri Lanka

by TamilKovil, January 24, 2010

CAROLINE MILLAR (Australia) said Australia remained concerned that over 300,000 civilians remained displaced in camps in northern Sri Lanka…

GOTZON ONANDIA ZARRABE, of Franciscans International, said in Sri Lanka, internally displaced persons were not being resettled as promptly nor as safely as the Government promised to the Council, and they continued to suffer within the camps.

UN Human Rights Council at its12th session in Geneva has concluded general debate on human rights situations that require the council’s attention. Representatives from several countries and NGOs participating in the debate expressed concern about the situation in camps for internally displaced persons in the north of Sri Lanka.

KAREN PARKER, of International Educational Development, said in her statement that there should be institutional reform and study of the root causes of conflicts as essential to transitional justice. In Sri Lanka, the Government resisted any purview of accountability, and was still prosecuting the war against the Tamil people. The only remedy for the latter was to submit to ever-harsher oppression and abuse. The international community had not looked into the underlying causes of the Sinala-Tamil war for many years. The people were in detention camps because they were Tamil, not because they were civilians. The whole issue of this war was because the Tamil people had sought their right to self-determination, among other rights, and the Government had refused them. Massive ethnic cleansing was occurring, and the Council should act for the Tamils.

Excerpts from some of their statements are as follows:

CHRISTIAN STROHAL (Austria) said that no country had a perfect human rights record and all needed to work constantly and self-critically to address their shortcomings and do better for the promotion and protection of human rights. This fact obliged countries to openly address situations that were of particularly concern to them in order to enter into a dialogue on how to improve the implementation of international standards on the ground. Austria pointed to the human rights situations in Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Sudan, which were all situations where Austria failed to see the necessary political will and determination to improve the protection of human rights effectively.

JANICE MCGANN (Ireland) said that the situation in Sri Lanka was over but the peace there remained to be won as serious breaches of humanitarian and human rights law had taken place during that war.

PETER HERTEL RASMUSSEN (Denmark) said the Government of Sri Lanka should fully respect all human rights.

CHRISTINE GOY (Luxembourg) said that Luxembourg was equally concerned for the grave situation in Sri Lanka with regards to the freedom of expression. The situation of internally displaced persons and the allegations of violations of international law during the armed conflict had not yet been the subject of an independent international enquiry, and therefore required particular attention from the Council.

MURIEL BERSET (Switzerland) said that the evolution of the situation in Sri Lanka remained of concern to Switzerland which reiterated its appeal. The humanitarian actors needed to be able to conduct their work without constraints. The holding of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced peoples must end and their safe and voluntary prompt return enabled.

CAROLINE MILLAR (Australia) said Australia remained concerned that over 300,000 civilians remained displaced in camps in northern Sri Lanka.

REINHARD SCHWEPPE (Germany) said as for the situation in Sri Lanka, Germany stressed that reconciliation was strongly based on the full respect of human rights and urged the Sri Lanka Government to create conditions which ensured the safe and dignified return of all internally displaced persons.

WENDY HINTON (New Zealand) said In Sri Lanka, New Zealand remained concerned about the situation for those in camps for internally displaced persons. The Government should engage in a reconciliation process taking into account the legitimate aspirations of all minority groups.

GOTZON ONANDIA ZARRABE, of Franciscans International, said in Sri Lanka, internally displaced persons were not being resettled as promptly nor as safely as the Government promised to the Council, and they continued to suffer within the camps. Human rights defenders, journalists and anyone voicing a differing opinion on the Government’s current policies continued to be the target of violent attacks and harassment by both State and non-State actors.

LUKAS MACHON, of International Commission of Jurists, said in Sri Lanka, humanitarian aid had been continuously obstructed by Government limitations on access to internally displaced persons and the maintenance of internment camps through unjustifiable restrictions on freedom of movement.

MICHAEL ANTONY, of Asian Legal Resource Centre, said the Universal Periodic Review was clearly not a sufficient mechanism to address the worst human rights situations in an effective or timely manner. The Council was currently failing to effectively address situations of human rights crisis, such as those in Sri Lanka and Myanmar; this was not simply a failing of political will, but also one of approach. In Sri Lanka, the continuing grave situation of internally displaced persons was testimony to this.

KAREN PARKER, of International Educational Development, said there should be institutional reform and study of the root causes of conflicts as essential to transitional justice. In Sri Lanka, the Government resisted any purview of accountability, and was still prosecuting the war against the Tamil people. The only remedy for the latter was to submit to ever-harsher oppression and abuse. The international community had not looked into the underlying causes of the Sinala-Tamil war for many years. The people were in detention camps because they were Tamil, not because they were civilians. The whole issue of this war was because the Tamil people had sought their right to self-determination, among other rights, and the Government had refused them. Massive ethnic cleansing was occurring, and the Council should act for the Tamils. There should be a protective presence in Camp Ashraf as soon as possible. The Council should reflect its decision on Honduras in taking a new decision on Myanmar, where a similar situation prevailed.

SATHLYASANGARY ANANDASANGAREE of Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada, said so far the Sri Lankan Government had failed to live up to its commitments to the international community. Over 300,000 Tamil civilians were still being held against their will in open prisons and their freedom of movement restricted; clean water, sanitation, food, medicine and the basic necessities of life were in dire need. The Government had also failed to allow independent observers access to the camps. The deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka desperately required the attention of the Council – the international community must demand the unconditional release of the civilians within the 180-day timeline proposed by the Government of Sri Lanka and supported by a majority of Council members.

NIMALKA FERNAND, of International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), in a joint statement with Asian Forum for Human Rights; and Asian Legal Resource Centre, said with regard to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, although the war had arguably ended, the threats to democracy as well as the human rights violations had not diminished. Further, over 250,000 people were living in camps as internally displaced persons and a leading human rights defender had received a death threat for his advocacy with the European Union. Against this backdrop, the International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism wished to remind the members of the Council, the concerned Member States, the United Nations Secretary-General and other international institutions, of the various commitments and pledges given by the Government of Sri Lanka. It also called on the Sri Lankan Government to facilitate investigations of all allegations that had been revealed by various media institutions regarding extra-judicial killings. Finally, the International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism wished to point out that the implementation of the 13th and 17th amendment was still outstanding and national legislation…

1 comments:

Anonymous said on January 26, 2010…

The first point is to determine whether the video is, in fact, real. I believe Alston’s three highly qualified experts have affirmed that the video is real. What is interesting is that the “experts” hired by the Sri Lankan Government reached the opposite conclusion. At this stage, the question is who do you believe? By any yardstick, if we lay down the credentials of Alston’s experts and the Sri Lankan experts side-by-side, it is evident that Alston’s experts are far more qualified. We can reasonably infer that Alston’s experts have access to more sophisticated technology, are more competent in their fields (if we just go by the number of publications) and have no connections to either GOSL, LTTE, or the United Nations. From this we can conclude that the Sri Lankan experts reached a different conclusion because (I) they are less competent, (II) they intentionally lied, (III) there was no concrete investigation. Regardless of the reason, we can safely conclude the Sri Lankan experts reached an erroneous conclusion. Therefore, it remains for them to accept the findings of Alston’s experts, and in doing so, conduct a proper investigation, as you have said here. Because, as I have stated earlier, in the absence of a smoking gun that renders the video counterfeit, the Sri Lankan Army is a possible suspect. Also, as a member state of the United Nations, Sri Lanka is in fact signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and such behavior on its part, as portrayed in the video, is a gross violation of its obligations.