Sri Lanka: Red Cross asked to scale down operations

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced today that it had been asked by the Sri Lankan government to scale down its operations in the country.  The ICRC has worked in Sri Lanka for the past 20 years; their activities have included visiting political detainees as well as former fighters with the opposition Tamil Tigers in order to monitor their conditions of detention.  The Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said today that the order was not only directed at the ICRC but at all international agencies; given that the fighting with the Tigers was over, all of the agencies were to now scale down their work.

In its statement today, the ICRC reaffirmed its commitment to address the humanitarian needs of the people affected by the recent conflict in Sri Lanka, which presumably includes the former fighters as well as the thousands of displaced civilians who are still held in government-run internment camps which they’re not permitted to leave.  But as the ICRC cuts back on its operations, will it still be permitted to fulfill its commitment?  Will there still be an independent third party to monitor the conditions in which both the displaced civilians as well as the former combatants are kept?

International access needed to Sri Lankan former war zone

For those who haven’t already heard, the Sri Lankan government announced today that its forces had defeated the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with all the LTTE leaders being killed this morning.  The LTTE (or Tamil Tigers, as they’ve been called) have been fighting for over three decades for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The Sri Lankan military has now reconquered the territory once controlled by the Tigers.

I have previously posted entries on this blog expressing concern for the estimated 50,000 civilians being held as human shields by the LTTE in the war zone.  Should I be happy that the war is over?  After all, the Sri Lankan government announced yesterday that all the civilians trapped in the war zone had been rescued by the army.  According to a Sri Lankan minister, it had been done “without shedding a drop of blood;” he also said that there “was no bloodbath as some people feared.”  I’d like to believe him and the Sri Lankan government.  But they’ve denied access to the war zone for months to aid agencies and journalists, so we only have their word for it.  As the UN said today, it’s hard to be sure about reports from the former war zone.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today said that it hadn’t been able to reach the area so it didn’t have first-hand information about the needs of civilians and wounded people in the area.

Amnesty International today called on the Sri Lankan government to provide aid agencies, including the UN and the ICRC, with full access to the former war zone in order to help all those in need of assistance.  Beyond that, the government should take additional steps to prevent abuses of the displaced.  We’ve already reported that some young men fleeing the war zone had “disappeared” after being detained by the army.  The Sri Lankan government should immediately implement a proper registration process for the displaced civilians and allow international monitors into the area to observe all camps, detention places and registration and screening points.   That’s the best way to protect the displaced and avoid any further human rights violations.  I’m sure we all hope for a better future now for Sri Lanka’s long-suffering people.  Having the Sri Lankan government open itself now to international scrutiny would be an important step toward securing that future.

Sri Lanka: Red Cross needs security guarantees

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.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Late on Friday afternoon, in a move apparently designed to give the media as little time to respond as possible, the Obama administration filed a new motion in the US District Court for the District of Columbia clarifying that the administration still asserted the authority to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely at the US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

The filing marked three departures from the policies of the Bush administration. First, the administration no longer asserted that this power derived from the executive office of the presidency but from the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

Second, in a deliberately symbolic gesture the filing dispensed with the term “enemy combatant.” Third, the threshold for detention has been elevated to just those who are part of or “substantially support” the Taliban, Al Qaeda or associated forces, and excludes the category of “unwitting supporter”. 

How significant are these new positions? In short, beyond the symbolism of retiring a much overused term associated with the Bush administration, little has changed. The power to detain suspected members of Al Qaeda and its affiliates indefinitely and without charge remains entirely intact.

The Attorney General, Eric Holder, held out the possibility that there may be “further refinements” of the government’s position once the interagency review of detention policy is completed but this hardly hints at sweeping change.

The publication over the weekend of comprehensive excerpts from a 2007 report submitted to the United States government by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concerning the treatment of fourteen “High Value detainees” held in CIA custody highlighted all too clearly why ‘staying the course’ is an unacceptable position for the Obama administration to adopt.

The report was leaked to the author of Torture and Truth, Mark Danner, and it leaves little doubt as to the dark and sordid waters to which this course leads. In the words of the report’s authors:

“The allegations of ill treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill treatment to which they were subjected while held in the C.I.A. program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

This finding is about as definitive as it is possible to get. It was compiled from interviews of individuals in US custody who had had no opportunity to collaborate on fabricating a shared story concerning their experiences. The assessment was conducted by an organization famous for both its discretion and neutrality that is charged with upholding the Geneva Conventions.  It is a damning indictment of acts that amount to war crimes.

And where did it get us? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, told the Red Cross:

“I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop…. I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent…wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the US.”

The Obama administration seems to be finding it very difficult to turn the page on one of the darkest chapters in recent American history. It is vitally important that we continue to keep up the pressure on them to reject the discredited policies of the Bush administration. The only change we can truly believe in, is the change we bring about for ourselves.

Gestapo vs. USA

As if we needed more justification for a commission of inquiry, a new secret report by the International Committee of Red Cross was leaked this past weekend, and describes in great detail the unfathomable horrific abuse of detainees well into 2007.  Andrew Sullivan compares the reports’ table of contents with the Gestapo’s list of torture techniques, and the two are eerily similar:

ICRC report:

1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime….

As Andrew notes, the ICRC list looks objectively worse than the Gestapo’s. And this is just what we know. What else is hiding behind the shroud of “states secrets”?