Will UN Finally Act On Syria Atrocities?

© Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

The situation in Syria further escalated over the weekend. Yesterday alone, more than 100 people were reportedly killed across the country and the death toll is feared to be increasing.

In a by now familiar pattern, Syrian authorities used tanks and snipers to attack civilians. We believe that the crimes committed in Syria constitute crimes against humanity.

I just learned that the UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Syria later today and I urge you to sign our online petition to call on Brazil, India and South Africa to end their opposition to a Security Council resolution condemning the grave human rights violations.


UN: Investigate Sri Lanka War Crimes

This past Monday, the U.N. finally released the report of its advisory panel on accountability in Sri Lanka.  Thanks go to everyone who sent an online letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking him to release this report.

The report found credible allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in early 2009, and that both the government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers violated international law, including committing war crimes.  The panel recommended, among other things, that the U.N. establish an international investigation into these allegations.

Sri Lanka's military held many of those who escaped the conflict in miserable conditions © Private

Today, Ban’s spokesperson explained that Ban would not initiate an international investigation into these allegations unless the Sri Lankan government consented or he was asked to do so by a U.N body such as the Security Council, the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.

Well, the Sri Lankan government isn’t likely to consent.  They’ve rejected the panel’s report, calling it “flawed” and “biased.”  President Rajapaksa has called for mass protests against the report on May 1.

We’ll need action by U.N. member states to establish an international   investigation.  The U.S. government could play a vital role in this effort.  Please write to Secretary Hillary Clinton and ask her to support the establishment of an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.

UN: Release Sri Lanka Panel Report

Yesterday, the United Nations advisory panel on accountability in Sri Lanka turned over its report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  The panel had been established by Ban last June to advise him on how to pursue accountability for reported war crimes and other human rights abuses committed by both the government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war (which ended with a government victory in May 2009).

While the Secretary-General’s spokesperson said yesterday that the U.N. intends to make the report public, he didn’t give a timeframe for doing so.  It’s critical that the report be made public as a first step towards achieving accountability.

Amnesty International has been asking the U.N. to establish an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.  This past February, I accompanied Yolanda Foster, the Amnesty researcher on Sri Lanka, and Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan, the father of one of the “Trinco 5” students killed by the security forces in 2006, as we delivered to the U.N. offices in New York over 52,000 signatures on a petition to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for such an international investigation.  Above is the trailer of a short film of our trip, which Amnesty has just released.

Please write to Ban Ki-moon and ask him to make the U.N. advisory panel’s report public.  It’s important that the U.N. hears from everyone concerned about truth and justice for the victims and their families in Sri Lanka.

War Crimes in Sri Lanka: Time for UN to Act

Delivering the petition to the UN

Last May, Amnesty International launched a global action calling on the UN to establish an international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed during the war in Sri Lanka.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers were responsible for massive human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war during the 26-year conflict.

In response to Amnesty’s call for action, over 52,000 people signed our petition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanding an international investigation as a first step toward accountability for these crimes.

This past Tuesday, Feb. 22, I had the privilege of accompanying Yolanda Foster, the Amnesty researcher on Sri Lanka, and Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan, the father of one of the “Trinco 5” students killed by the security forces in 2006, to the UN offices in New York as we delivered the signed petitions to the UN.  We pressed the UN to act on our petition without delay and let them know we would be following up to make sure an international investigation is promptly established.

The U.S. government has not yet joined Amnesty in our call for an international investigation.  We could use their support.  Please write to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ask that the U.S.  government encourage the establishment by the UN of an international investigation into war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka.  For Dr. Manoharan’s sake and that of all the other families of the victims, we cannot stop campaigning until they receive justice.

State Dept.: no accountability yet for Sri Lanka war crimes

As my colleague Christoph Koettl mentioned in his earlier post on this site, the State Department today issued its follow-up report on war crimes in Sri Lanka.  Why a follow-up report?  Last October, the State Department issued a report describing over 300 reported human rights abuses (including war crimes) committed by both sides during the final months of the war in Sri Lanka.  That earlier report cited incidents documented by Amnesty International, among others, and was based on traditional and innovative evidence, including satellite imagery and aerial photographs.   Congress then instructed the State Dept. to issue a second report about what the Sri Lankan government has done to investigate these abuses, and to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts.  That second report by the State Dept. was issued today.

What’s the verdict?  No effective accountability yet by the Sri Lankan government.  The State Dept. describes how the Sri Lankan government has set up two bodies:  (1) a “Group of Eminent  Persons” to respond to the first State Dept. report, and (2) a reconciliation commission to examine the breakdown of the 2002 ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers and subsequent events.  The State Dept. concludes that the Group of Eminent Persons (which has now been subsumed into the reconciliation commission) was ineffective.

As for the reconciliation commission, the State Dept. points out in its report that the commission has just gotten started but it does mention a couple concerns, among others:

(a) The chair of the commission has a serious conflict of interest.  He used to be Sri Lanka’s Attorney General.  His department hindered the workings of an earlier commission of inquiry (as documented in AI’s “Twenty Years of Make-Believe” report).

(b) Public statements by Sri Lankan officials, such as the Defence Secretary, have been to the effect that the Sri Lankan military didn’t commit any abuses.  In this context, it may be difficult for the reconciliation commission to do an effective job of investigating abuses.

There’s more in the State Dept. report, including discussion of the UN advisory panel and of the “execution video,” which I don’t have room to discuss here (at least, if I want to keep this to a reasonable length).

Amnesty and other organizations have been calling for an independent international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  After reading the latest State Department report, I think our call for such an investigation is only strengthened.  The victims of the abuses and their families shouldn’t have to wait for the reconciliation commission to fail to provide justice.  We need an international investigation now!  If you haven’t already, please sign our online petition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking the UN to set up such an investigation.  Thanks!

UN names war crimes panel on Sri Lanka

A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that the Secretary-General has appointed a three-member panel of experts to advise him on the issue of war crimes reportedly committed in Sri Lanka during the war between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Is this the international investigation that Amnesty International has been calling for?  No, unfortunately.  According to the spokesperson’s statement, the UN panel will look into “modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience” on how to provide accountability for reported violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.  While the panel is to advise the UN Secretary-General, it hopes to cooperate with Sri Lankan officials and is supposed to be available as a resource to the Sri Lankan government.

The Sri Lankan government, for its part, is reportedly not happy with the Secretary-General naming the panel.  One Sri Lankan official yesterday, in anticipation of the panel being named today, said that it amounted to “an attempt to provide oxygen” to the Tamil Tigers (who were militarily defeated a year ago).  Another Sri Lankan official called the move by the UN “unwarranted” as the Sri Lankan government had recently appointed its own reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.

But as Amnesty International’s report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” documents, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its own forces accountable for violations of human rights and war crimes.  One of the prior commissions of inquiry described in our report was a 2006 commission set up by the Sri Lankan government to investigate several high-profile cases of human rights violations.  That commission’s activities were observed, at the Sri Lankan’s government’s request, by an “International Independent Group of Eminent Persons” (known as IIGEP).  After a little more than a year in operation, IIGEP quit in protest, saying that the commission’s proceedings didn’t satisfy basic international standards for such commissions.

As it happens, Mr. Marzuki Darusman, the Chair of the new UN panel, was also a member of IIGEP.  This fact has already been used by a Sri Lankan official to criticize the new UN panel.  I hope Mr. Darusman’s experience on the new panel will turn out more positively than the IIGEP experience, but judging from the Sri Lankan government’s reactions so far, I’m not very optimistic.  I do hope that the UN panel will help lead to an independent international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka, sooner rather than later.

UN must investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka!

It’s been a year since the war ended in Sri Lanka, with the government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.  In the final months of the war, Amnesty International received credible reports of violations of human rights and war crimes being committed by both sides.  The Tigers kept civilians trapped in the war zone and shot those trying to flee.  The government shelled areas heavily populated by the trapped civilians.  Thousands of civilians were killed or injured.  A State Department report issued last year recounted these crimes in detail.

The Sri Lankan government promised the UN in May 2009 that it would address these violations.  But so far what has it done?  President Rajapaksa appointed a committee of experts to advise him on how to respond to the State Department report.  And within the past week he has appointed a reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.

Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its forces accountable.  Just read the Amnesty report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” and you’ll see what I mean.

We can’t count on getting justice from the Sri Lankan government.  So we’re starting a global action today calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to undertake an independent international investigation into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes, committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  Such an investigation is a necessary first step to achieving justice for the victims and their families.  Please add your signature to our online petition today – every voice counts!  Thanks.

Sri Lanka expels UN official

Over the weekend, it was reported that Sri Lanka had cancelled the visa of James Elder, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson in Sri Lanka, for comments he had made earlier this year during the goverment’s war with the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Mr. Elder had regularly expressed concern about civilians caught in the conflict and more recently about issues such as malnutrition among children in the camps for displaced civilians.  UNICEF defended Mr. Elder’s earlier comments and said it was very concerned about the Sri Lankan government’s decision.  U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement today through his spokesperson expressing regret for the government’s decision and saying that he would personally raise the issue with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  Yesterday, the Sri Lankan government said that it was reviewing its decision in Mr. Elder’s case.

Amnesty International has reported how freedom of expression has been under severe restriction in Sri Lanka.  I hope the Sri Lankan government reconsiders its decision in Mr. Elder’s case, so he doesn’t become one more example of the dangers of speaking out in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka: need stronger action by U.N.

I have to say I’m disappointed.  Today, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed members of the Security Council in an informal session about his May 22 visit to Sri Lanka.  The members of the Council took no action as the session reportedly was just a briefing.  Afterwards, the Secretary-General spoke to reporters. 

Secretary-General Ban told reporters that he’d been informed by the Sri Lankan government that restrictions on access by aid agencies to the internment camps holding displaced civilians had been eased since his visit.  Nearly 300,000 civilians displaced by the recent fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers are being held in overcrowded camps which they can’t leave.  Amnesty International has called for the Sri Lankan government to provide unimpeded access to the camps for aid agencies.  Today, the U.N. World Food Programme said that access to the camps had improved somewhat over the last few days, but also that they hoped there’d be more improvement in access soon.  Other U.N. agencies today said that continuing restrictions on access to the displaced civilians were preventing them from meeting the needs of the civilians, especially some 10,000 children in the camps suffering from acute malnutrition.

The Secretary-General also said today there should be a “proper investigation” into allegations of violations of humanitarian law.  But he clarified in response to a question that he was looking for an investigation by the Sri Lankan government, not an international inquiry.  He referred to the joint statement issued by the U.N. and the Sri Lankan government at the conclusion of his May 22 visit to Sri Lanka, in which the Sri Lankan government promised to establish an investigation into those violations.  Amnesty International has been calling for an international investigation, not one simply conducted by the Sri Lankan government. 

I don’t know if we can expect action by the Security Council anytime soon on Sri Lanka.  I hope the Secretary-General changes his position and pushes harder for immediate, unimpeded access to the camps for the aid agencies.  Further, if the Security Council doesn’t soon establish an international investigation into the human rights violations and war crimes committed by both sides during the fighting, the Secretary-General take steps to set one up himself.  That’s the leadership that the international community, and especially the displaced civilians in Sri Lanka, need from the U.N.

UN Security Council: action needed on Sri Lanka

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to brief the Security Council tomorrow on Sri Lanka.  As with past sessions on Sri Lanka, it will be a closed-door session and won’t even be held in the Council area, since Sri Lanka isn’t on the Security Council’s agenda, as the Council president recently explained.

Amnesty International today said that the Security Council should stop discussing Sri Lanka informally and instead should address Sri Lanka’s human rights crisis in a formal session resulting in strong action being taken by the Council.  The Sri Lankan government is still denying aid agencies full access to civilians displaced by the recent fighting who are being held in military-controlled internment camps.  The Sri Lankan government recently reconquered the remaining territory held by the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought for over 26 years for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Both sides were responsible for gross human rights abuses during the conflict.  Nearly 300,000 people were displaced in the last few months by the fighting.  Amnesty is urging the Security Council to demand that the Sri Lankan government provide full access for aid agencies to the displaced civilians.

AI also called on the Security Council to demand an international investigation into the abuses of human rights and humanitarian law committed by both the Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE during the recent fighting.  That call was echoed today in Geneva by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who repeated her earlier support for an independent international inquiry.  The Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva responded to her remarks by rejecting an international inquiry, saying that any process of accountability would be handled by Sri Lankan institutions.  You should also be aware that yesterday, a Sri Lankan minister told reporters that the government had no plans to investigate the reported deaths of thousands of civilians during the recent fighting.  So what kind of accountability will we ever see if it’s left to the Sri Lankan government?

We don’t have time to waste.  AI is still getting disturbing reports of family members searching fruitlessly for relatives who were forcibly separated from them at government-controlled crossing points after the families managed earlier this year to flee the war zone.  Given the thousands of human rights violations committed by the security forces, we’re very concerned that the people taken away by the government forces could be at serious risk of torture and enforced disappearances.  We need the Security Council to act now.