The Assad regime in Syria has done everything it can to prevent the world from knowing what it is doing to its people: International media is blocked access to crisis points, international organizations are prevented from doing their jobs and human rights organizations are denied entry.
When details come out, the regime pulls out another old trick of claiming the victims are the transgressors and the government is the victim of terrorists.
The anecdote to this is documentation, and this is where Amnesty International can do valuable work. Thursday, in a new 70-page report, Deadly Reprisals, the organization provides fresh evidence of widespread as well as systematic violations, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, being perpetrated as part of state policy to exact revenge against communities suspected of supporting the opposition and to intimidate people into submission.
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By Peter Drury, Colombia campaigner at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London
Members of the Peace Community at the commemoration of the massacre of February 2005. (c) Amnesty International
It’s 3:00am, it’s the center of the village of San José de Apartadó, dominoes are slammed on a table, children play football, cycle around the square, play ludo. There’s a hum of voices and the sound of frogs pierces this tropical night. This all sounds fairly tranquil. Only it’s not.
The year is 1999 and these people are staying up all night, knowing that at any moment, they could be attacked by paramilitaries working with the Colombian Army. Only a few months earlier paramilitaries stormed the community killing at least two people and injuring other members of the Community. After this attack members of the community take it in turns to stay up on guard, ready to react if the paramilitaries strike again.
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Displaced Sri Lankan Tamil civilians watch as unseen French and British Foreign Ministers arrive at camp for talks in the unsuccessful civilian release. Photo credit goes to Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images
If you’re interested in getting an update on the displaced civilians held in internment camps in northern Sri Lanka, I’d highly recommend the statement issued by Amnesty International today entitled, “Sri Lanka’s Displaced Face Uncertain Future as Government Begins to Unlock the Camps“. It’s a good summary of the hurdles the Sri Lankan government is placing in the path of the civilians being able to leave the camps. (For background on this story, please visit our Sri Lanka page.)
If you’ve been following this story, you know the numbers of the civilians involved can get confusing. Amnesty issued another statement today, “Counting the Human Cost of Sri Lanka’s Conflict,” which succinctly describes the numbers involved. I’d highly recommend reading that statement as well.
You may find it instructive as well to read President Rajapaksa’s interview with Le Figaro. In one spot in the interview, he refuses to say whether the Sri Lankan government will honor its earlier pledge to re-settle 80% of the displaced civilians by the end of this year. In another place in the interview, it appears that he may be saying that it could take another 6 months or even a year before all the civilians are allowed out of the camps (it’s unclear whether he’s referring to allowing civilians to leave the camps or ending the state of emergency Sri Lanka is currently governed under).
AI’s “Unlock the Camps” campaign continues. If you haven’t already, please consider participating in our campaign: fill out a petition, send an online letter, hold a demonstration, so the displaced civilians can finally get the rights they’re entitled to, including freedom of movement. If you have any constructive suggestions for how best to persuade the Sri Lankan government to grant the displaced civilians their rights, I’d appreciate hearing them.
The British news company, Channel 4, has released another shocking video on Sri Lanka, this time on the terrible conditions facing Sri Lanka’s displaced Tamils in the internment camps they’re currently held in. (For background on this story, see the Sri Lanka page on the AIUSA website.) Like the earlier execution video released by Channel 4, Amnesty International cannot confirm whether the video and pictures reportedly shot inside the camps two weeks ago are authentic. We could do so if the Sri Lankan government would allow aid workers and independent human rights observers full, unimpeded access to the camps and their civilian population.
It’s imperative that conditions in the camps be improved quickly, especially with the monsoon rains coming in the next few weeks. But even more important, the civilians must be allowed to leave the camps if they wish. On that score, we may have gotten some good news today: the Sri Lankan government announced today that civilians in the camps could be released if they had relatives willing to take them. We’ll see whether this is implemented and how many it will apply to. But even those civilians without such relatives are still entitled to freedom of movement. Being caught in a war zone is not a crime; the displaced civilians should not be treated as criminals. Unlock the camps now!
Amnesty International today issued an urgent action appeal on the five Sri Lankan doctors currently being held by the government under emergency regulations. We are concerned that they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. The doctors had provided medical services to civilians trapped in the war zone, during the last stages of the war earlier this year between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers. Before they were detained by the government on May 15, the doctors had provided eyewitness accounts to the media of the suffering experienced by the trapped civilians. On July 8, while still under detention, the doctors appeared at a press conference organized by the government and retracted their earlier reports. AI is concerned about how genuine their later statments were. The doctors remain in detention without charge.
Amnesty is calling on the Sri Lankan government to release the doctors immediately, unless they are to be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense. Please join our appeal and write the government on their behalf. Write to: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an interview published today in The Nation, a Sri Lankan newspaper, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, claimed that an international investigation into abuses committed by both sides during the recent fighting could destabilize Sri Lankan society. In mid-May, the Sri Lankan government had announced that it had defeated the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reconquering all the territory held by them and killing their leaders. The LTTE had been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island for over 26 years. Both sides committed gross human rights abuses during the course of the conflict. Amnesty International has called for an international investigation into the abuses committed by both sides in recent months.
The Minister said in the interview:
The armed forces had to do what they had to do to eradicate the ruthless terrorist outfit and give a new lease of life within a democratic framework to the citizens. In the process of doing that many thousands of lives had to be sacrificed.
In response to another question about the number of civilian casualties killed during the last stages of the war, the Minister said:
No one knows really how many civilians were killed because of the complex nature of the conflict. How do you distinguish between the appearance of a LTTE cadre and a civilian? We know that LTTE cadres were not always wearing uniforms. . . So to talk about numbers in respect of civilian casualty [sic], it is like walking on thin ice, no one can authoritatively support numbers and therefore it is best not to speculate.
It seems to me that the Minister is saying, in effect, that thousands of civilians may have been killed but it was necessary in order to defeat the LTTE, so let’s just forget the past and move on. And without an investigation, we’ll never know how many of the dead were civilians or LTTE cadre but let’s not try to find out for fear of “destabilizing” the country. How would the truth be “destabilizing”? It could be if an investigation determined that the military committed war crimes but the government held no one to account for them. Is this what the Minister has in mind – there will never be any accountability, so best not to expose what the military did toward the end of the war? If this is indeed what the Sri Lankan government has in mind, the international community shouldn’t stand for it. We need an international investigation now.
Good news! The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a special session in Geneva on Monday, May 25, on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government has recently reconquered all the territory controlled by the opposition Tamil Tigers. The Tigers had been fighting for over 26 years in pursuit of an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The conflict has been accompanied by scores of human rights abuses and war crimes committed by both sides.
The Human Rights Council should at least do the following for the people of Sri Lanka:
- Establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and human rights abuses by both sides and hold accountable those found responsible
- Persuade the Sri Lankan government to open up the conflict zone and the internment camps holding displaced civilians to aid agencies and journalists, so that the civilians can get the aid they need and the truth about the war can emerge
- Get international monitors deployed at all places where the Sri Lankan government is screening people to separate captured Tigers from civilians, so that the rights of everyone being screened are protected
- Have the Sri Lankan government allow displaced civilians to leave the internment camps if they choose
- Have the Sri Lankan government immediately release the detained journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, and drop all charges against him
- Get the Sri Lankan government to release the three doctors who had been reporting from the war zone and were recently detained, unless they are promptly charged with a recognizable crime
Yesterday, a ferry chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) evacuated 495 sick and injured patients from the Sri Lankan war zone and delivered 25 metric tons of food for distribution to civilians trapped in the zone. The ICRC reported that heavy fighting was taking place near the medical assembly point in the war zone, which was jeopardizing the lives of patients and hampering medical evacuations. The ICRC has been delivering food and evacuating sick and wounded civilians from the war zone since February.
The Sri Lankan military has confined the opposition Tamil Tigers to a small strip of coastal land in northeastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island. Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who are being held by the Tigers as human shields.
The ICRC has called for security guarantees from both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers so that it can safely deliver food and evacuate patients. The Tigers have offered a security guarantee to the ICRC in response. The Sri Lankan government has asked the ICRC to work things out with the Tigers; they haven’t offered any security guarantees, to my knowledge.
Both the ICRC and the Sri Lankan government acknowledge that the amount of food reaching the war zone is inadequate. The Sri Lankan government should work with the ICRC immediately so that sufficient food can be delivered to the war zone and all the sick and injured evacuated without delay.
Yesterday, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told a press conference in New York, following his two-day visit to Sri Lanka, that “both sides are pursuing their military logics, if I can put it that way.” He was referring to the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to agree to a humanitarian pause in hostilities and the refusal by the opposition Tamil Tigers to let the civilians trapped in the war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka leave the area. Will continued fighting in a shrinking war zone, combined with tens of thousands of civilians being held captive by the Tigers, inevitably mean massive civilian deaths?
We may not have much more time to find out. President Rajapaksa said today that the government planned to conquer the remaining Tiger-held area in the next five or six days.
“With relatives like these…”: A Sri Lankan government minister said today that the civilians who’ve managed to flee the war zone already “are totally free and willing to be members of a single Sri Lankan family.” Meanwhile, a Tiger spokesman today denied that the Tigers were holding the estimated 50,000 civilians in the war zone as human shields, saying, “We all are family. How could anyone hold his or her family as a ‘human shield?'”
Before it’s too late, the Tigers must announce that civilians are free to leave the war zone and the Sri Lankan government must agree to a pause in the fighting, so the civilians can leave safely and aid can get into the zone.