US Pressure Mounts For Sri Lanka War Crimes Accountability

I remember vividly my recent encounter with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, who angrily dismissed any concerns regarding alleged war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Unfortunately for the minister, and luckily for the human rights movement, I am not the only one who is concerned about serious human rights violations that were committed by both the government and the Tamil Tigers during the final stage of the conflict. International concerns regarding alleged war crimes are not fading. To the contrary, this week new pressure is building up to ensure true accountability. This week, fifty-seven eight members of Congress sent a letter (pdf) to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to press for an independent international inquiry into the alleged war crimes. The congressional action is gaining considerable media attention, with stories run by AFP, AP, BBC and Al Jazeera.

We are still awaiting Secretary Clinton’s response to the serious concerns raised by the US lawmakers. The congressional letter highlights the limitations of Sri Lanka’s sham commission on Lesson’s Learnt and Reconciliation, which started its work today, and which is not expected to produce any more credible results than its predecessors. Unfortunately, Secretary Clinton so far seems to support the domestic commission, despite the doubts raised about its credibility.

We also just learned that the US Department of State will submit its follow up report on war crimes and accountability in Sri Lanka to Congress this afternoon. This new document will reportedly inform Congress what steps – if any – the Sri Lankan government has taken to ensure accountability for any crimes committed.

To stay updated and to follow new developments on the release of the State Department report, please follow us on Twitter.

Update: State Department report can be found here.

Sec. Clinton's shot at uncovering justice for Sri Lanka's war crimes

Originally posted on HuffingtonPost.comThis post is the first of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

In the context of Amnesty International’s global campaign to establish an international, independent investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, we are currently closely following the US visit of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris, is currently on a public relations tour through the United States, touting his country as the new paradise for foreign investment, and dismissing war crimes allegations on the way. This week, he even took to the Huffington Post website to present his questionable worldview: “A Year After Defeating Terrorism, Sri Lanka Embodies Hope and Change“.

One year after Sri Lanka’s civil war came to a bloody end, the evidence that both parties to the conflict committed serious human rights violations, including war crimes, continues to pile up. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the US State Department have compiled extensive reports on the human rights violations that were committed by both the Sri Lankan army and the armed Tamil Tigers. To date, not one single individual has been held accountable for the crimes committed.

Consequently, Sri Lankan government officials have had difficulties hiding their self-confidence following their successful attempts (so far) to evade official international scrutiny. (This confidence is further boosted by articles such as a recent New York Times piece that declares Sri Lanka as the number one tourist destination to visit in 2010. The New York Times article is now part of the official information package that is handed out by Sri Lankan embassy staff at events where the Foreign Minister is speaking).

Push to lift Leahy law restrictions

This new self-confidence became most visible for me during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), when Minister Peiris openly stated that one objective of his US visit is to change US policy that bars US training of the Sri Lankan military under the Leahy amendment. The Leahy amendment prohibits U.S. security assistance to foreign military or security units, which are believed to have committed gross human rights violations.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Torture of U.S. Citizen is First Test for New U.S. Policy Towards Burma

Burma's Insein Prision, where Kyaw Zaw Lwin is held. © 2009 Digital Globe. All Rights Reserved. Image taken from Google Earth.

Burma's Insein Prision, where Kyaw Zaw Lwin is held. © 2009 Digital Globe. All Rights Reserved. Image taken from Google Earth.

Shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a shift in U.S. policy towards the oppressive military regime in Burma (Myanmar), new details emerged about a U.S. citizen who was arrested on September 3: Activist Kyaw Zaw Lwin is being held in the infamous and feared Insein Prison, where Burmese authorities tortured him during recent interrogations. The torture and ill-treatment that Kyaw Zaw Lwin suffered included beating and kicking. He has also been denied medical treatment for the injuries he sustained from the torture.  He was deprived of food for seven days and moved between different interrogation centers. He was not allowed to sleep at night and was kept awake during interrogation by the authorities. Details of the charges against him are not known.

We put out the following statement today on his case in light of the U.S. administration’s shift in policy:

This is the first test for the United States’ new policy of engagement. Amnesty International hopes that this new engagement also covers protecting human rights in Burma. If Secretary Clinton fails to act, there will be many questions about the United States’ latest strategy to end the oppression of the Burmese people.

In its new approach, the U.S. administration is planning more engagement with the regime, while maintaining sanctions:

(…) we will be using a mix of policy tools. Sanctions remain important, as the Secretary said today, an important tool. By themselves, they have not produced the results we would like, but that does not mean they don’t have value. And also dialogue, as well as continuing things that help the people of Burma – humanitarian assistance, those sorts of things. So going forward, we can expect to use a mix of tools. (…) we think that going forward with a more nuanced approach that focuses on trying to achieve results and that’s based on pragmatism, it increases the chances of success over time.

Recent reports suggest that U.S. officials have protested Kyaw Zaw Lwin’s mistreatment and American officials have visited him in Insein prison last weekend. However, more urgent action is needed.

Angola Releases POC Fernando Lelo

Journalist Fernando Lelo was released from prison on August 21st. Lelo spent nearly 2 years in prison, convicted by the Cabinda Military Court for crimes against the security of the State. Amnesty International considered Lelo a Prisoner of Conscience; convicted for his non-violent expression of criticism and opinion against the government of Angola. On appeal, the Supreme Military Court released Fernando and acquitted him of all charges, ordering his immediate release.

Amnesty International spoke to Fernando since his release, who thanked AI for all the work done on his behalf and encouraged us to continue to work for the release of other prisoners of conscience. In addition to Amnesty International speaking with Lelo once during his incarceration, he said that he knew of the continuing work Amnesty International was doing on his behalf while he was in prison through his lawyer and friends. Amnesty International USA also called attention to his case in its letter to Secretary of State Clinton prior to her visit to Angola in July. Thank you to everyone who took action on his behalf.

Angola, Meet Secretary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Angola today on the latest stop of her seven nation tour. Our Country Specialist Jen Ziemke contributed these comments regarding issues Secretary Clinton will hopefully address in her meetings with President dos Santos.

Since 2001, Amnesty International has documented thousands of families forcibly evicted from various neighborhoods in the Angolan capital of Luanda in order to make room for public and private housing projects. These forced evictions were typically carried out without due process of law, including prior notification or consultation and the ability to dispute the evictions in a court of law. Nearly all of the evictions were accompanied by excessive use of force. Officials specifically targeted poor families who had little access to the means of securing their tenure. Angola is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and should honor its obligations to ensure its citizen’s rights to an adequate standard of living are protected.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos previously scheduled presidential elections for late 2009, but recent reports indicate these elections will be delayed again until at least 2010. Secretary Clinton must ensure that the US will be carefully monitoring the upcoming election process and demand that the elections to be held as soon as possible. Furthermore, President dos Santos must give all candidates and eligible parties equal access to media and campaigning and organizational resources, without fear of intimidation.

Whenever they take place, the elections will be the first presidential elections since 1992′s failed attempt that led to escalating violence and a resumption of civil war. The likelihood of violence is not as high as during that time, and it should be noted that in September 2008, legislative elections remained free from violence and were considered “generally credible.” Those elections, however, were marred by state-run media affording undue advantage to the incumbent party. Indeed the incumbent MPLA won over 80% of the vote.

Furthermore, reports that the freedom and security of human rights defenders, associations, and journalists is not being protected under the current leadership in Angola is of great concern. This is a good example of where Secretary Clinton can relay the message that, in order for the upcoming presidential elections to be considered valid in the eyes of the world, the treatment of journalists, advocates, student groups, human rights defenders and other members of civil society must improve.

The release of journalists like José Fernando Lelo from prison could also help bolster Angola’s human rights reputation. Lelo’s work is an example of a critical voice from civil society being silenced by the authorities. On September 19, 2008, Lelo was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment by a military court in Cabinda, Angola, after being convicted of crimes against the security of the state. Amnesty International believes his arrest and conviction were politically motivated, his trial unfair, and thereby we consider him a prisoner of conscience and call for is unconditional release from prison.

Humanitarian organizations operating in Angola also face uphill battles because their ability to operate is being infringed. In April 2008, the Director General of the Technical Unit for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, a government department, announced that the government would soon stop the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “without a social impact”. In July he accused several NGOs of inciting violence and threatened to ban them: the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy (Associação de Justiça, Paz e Democracia, AJPD); Mãos Livres; the Open Society Foundation (Fundação Open Society); and SOS-Habitat. These organizations have been doing critical work in the area of civil society, forced evictions, and human rights and should not be subject to government intimidation.

Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to help change Angola’s future by correcting its human rights past. We’ll be watching…

Clinton Arrives in South Africa

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in South Africa today for meetings with President Zuma and Foreign Minister Mashabane. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to answer the phone when Hills called to ask which issues she should be sure to broach in those discussions. Don’t laugh; it could totally happen in some alternate universe. But if she had asked my advice, this is what I would have said:

Secretary Clinton must encourage South Africa to meet the promises enshrined in its Constitution and acceptance of international human rights treaties by taking a stronger stand as a leader in promoting human rights in Africa. Recent violent protests over inadequate housing and social services in several South African provinces highlight the deep tension that remains regarding the promises made by the government following apartheid and the ability of the government to honor those commitments.

As host of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa is in a unique position to demonstrate its commitment to human rights on a global stage. As a way to exemplify this commitment, I would love to see Hills push South Africa to ratify the International Convenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but that would probably be a little awkward since the US hasn’t ratified it either.

South Africa also must do more to protect its women and girls. A recent survey revealing one in four men admits to committing a rape showcases the epidemic nature of the crisis. Further, Amnesty International has reported that women in rural areas are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, domestic and sexual violence, lack of access to health care and inadequate police protection. Secretary Clinton should raise these issues with the South African government and promote the need to protect women from all forms of violence and discrimination.

South Africa also must do more to protect those who cross its borders. Immigrants were the focus during xenophobic attacks that occurred last year on a large scale in South Africa and continue on a lesser scale today, as people already displaced from their homelands are forced into camps with minimal protections. With the special visa for Zimbabwean’s delayed in Parliament and reports of serious violence occurring near the Musina border crossing, South Africa must make greater efforts to ensure the safety and humane treatment of all persons residing there.

Finally, South Africa’s role as regional powerhouse means not only honoring its commitments to its own citizens, but also taking the lead as a regional authority in urging its neighbors to honor democratic processes and human rights within their borders. As lead negotiator and guarantor, along with the other Southern African Development Community (SADC) member States, of the Zimbabwe power sharing agreement, South Africa has a responsibility to ensure that all processes in the agreement are honored, including a new constitution, an end to impunity and respect for political parties and human rights defenders to operate without harassment by state security forces.

U.S. must stand firm on settlement freeze when meeting with Quartet in Trieste

The Middle East Quartet are set to meet this Friday, June 26, in Trieste, Italy.  The meeting comes at a critical time with hopes of re-starting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  President Obama has repeatedly stated his position that the Jewish only settlements in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem are ‘illegitimate’ to the chagrin of Israeli officials use to a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ policy where they do what they want concerning settlement activities while the U.S. looks the other way.  This tacit behavior was the norm during past administrations.  The U.S. position on the illegitimacy of settlements is in line with international law and international consensus which has long viewed settlements as illegal.  Israeli authorities, including Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly stated their intentions to continue what they call ‘natural growth’ building.

 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Trieste soon and AIUSA has sent a letter to her and cc’d Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell  urging her to stand firm in the U.S. position on a complete settlement freeze and also containing a few more pressing concerns that we hope Sec’y Clinton remembers in discussions with other members of the Quartet (the EU, the UN and Russia).

The letter to Clinton not only re-iterates the illegality of the Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but outlines the effect that settlements have had and are having on the local Palestinians living there.  Not only have settlements negatively impacted the Palestinians’ standard of living, housing, education, health and work, but are inherently discriminatory in nature.  Settlements, land surrounding settlements and by-pass roads built for easy commutes to Israel are exclusively for Israelis.  Not only is water accessed in the OPT being re-directed to settlers and Israel at a 4:1 ratio, security measures taken by Israel, including over 600 roadblocks, checkpoints and the wall/fence much of which is being built on Palestinian territory have long been detrimental to any peace negotiations.

AIUSA believes previous attempts at resolving the conflict failed in part because they did not address these key issues.  And actions must include more than just dismantling recently established settlements, referred to as “unauthorized outposts”.  Israel should never have transferred its civilian population into the OPT and given that successive Israeli governments have consistently encouraged Israeli civilians to move to the OPT, Israeli authorities should now provide compensation for settler evacuations and assist them to re-settle.  A study conducted by Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) in 2003 found that the majority of Israelis living in settlements would re-locate if offered an adequate economic incentive.

The letter also addresses our continuing concerns about human rights violations in areas under Palestinian Authority control despite training provided under the leadership of Lt. General Keith Dayton, U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Arbitrary detentions, disregard for due process and ill-treatment and torture of detainees in PA detention centers continue to be reported.

We asked that these issues be raised and that U.S. training of PA security forces results in a professional force that respects human rights while providing security.

UPDATE 6/26/09:  Ha’aretz, an Israeli daily, published ‘Quartet to urge Israel:  Freeze all settlement activity’.  A European diplomat said that the Quartet would tell Israel Friday to put a freeze on all settlement activity, including “natural growth”.

Great animated short on blockade of Gaza

Gisha, Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, an Israeli non-profit organization, produced this powerful animated short, ‘Closed Zone’.   They tapped the talent of Yoni Goodman, the animator of the award winning animated film ‘Waltz with Bashir’:

You can also watch the short video on the making of ‘Closed Zone’.

In the meantime, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is in the Middle East committing $900 million in aid to the Palestinians.  The issue remains how the aid being purchased is to make it into the Gaza Strip to the people that need it.  Secretary Clinton urged the Israeli government to allow more aid into the strip, but stopped short of asking for full, unhindered access.  Israel, as a gesture, has agreed to let more aid in.  Over 80% of the 1.5 million depend on aid from outside sources and the 100+/day trucks being allowed in are simply not enough to deal with the incredibly dire humanitarian situation.

Freed GTMO Detainee Becomes Al Qaeda Chief? Blame Bush (and Clinton).

In a case of interesting timing, today’s New York Times reports in “Freed by U.S., Saudi Becomes a Qaeda Chief”  that a former Guantanamo detainee is now a deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen and opines that this has “underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.” A related Times online forum debates “The Risks of Releasing Detainees.” 

To me, however, this case–and the Pentagon’s reports of recidivism–underscores the failure of the Bush administration’s attempt to identify and prosecute those responsible for 9/11.

By resorting to illegal and untested practices and policies, the Bush administration turned its back on the best tools we have for identifying and prosecuting people responsible for grave acts of violence against civilians–including standard law-enforcement practices and a tried and true federal court system.

As a result, some of the wrong people may have been released and some of the wrong people have been (and continue to be) detained–while those ultimately responsible for 9/11 remain either at large or unprosecuted.

This is criminal. In addition to accountability for torture and other abuses against detainees, there should be accountability for the failure to identify, apprehend and prosecute those who have attacked the United States, whether under G.W. Bush’s administration–or Clinton’s.

If anything, accounts of the radicalization of former detainees underscore the need for a full, independent, investigation into the U.S. government’s detention and interrogation program to find out where things went wrong, make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated and hold those responsible accountable.  

President Obama has the power to make it all happen. Let him know you want him to.