Sri Lanka's Killing Fields

Sri Lanka

Civilians, in between Kilinochchi and Mulathiv, Sri Lanka, May 2009, during the last few months of the war. (c) Private

Last night, I watched a harrowing new documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” by Channel 4, a British media company, about the final months of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009.

The 49-minute film depicts the massive human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war committed by both the Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.  The film is available online at Channel 4′s website until June 21.

Please note:  some of the scenes in the film are very disturbing.  It is NOT for younger viewers.

The film includes an extended version of the “execution video” released in 2009, in which naked prisoners are shown being shot in the head.  There are scenes of dead female Tamil Tigers who appear to have been raped and murdered.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

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.

Call your Senators TODAY on War Crimes in Sri Lanka

Update:  the letter was sent to Secretary Clinton on Dec. 10, with 17 signatories!  Here’s who signed:  Sherrod Brown, Burr, Murray, Hutchison, Casey, Gillibrand, Hagan, Cornyn, Mikulski, Cardin, Lieberman, Lautenberg, Boxer, Feingold, Coons, Manchin and Menendez.  Thanks to everyone who lobbied your Senator!

A Congressional sign-on letter is circulating in the Senate now, sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown and Richard Burr.  The letter asks Secretary Clinton to publicly call for an independent international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed during the war in Sri LankaAmnesty International has been campaigning for such an international investigation for the past several months.  Amnesty has received credible, consistent reports that both the Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels committed violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and human rights abuses during the war in Sri Lanka.

This past summer, Amnesty activists supported a similar letter in the House of Representatives, and we obtained 58 co-signers!  It’d be great if we could get a similar success in the Senate.

Here’s how to take action:

1. Call the Congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to speak to your Senators.  Tell your Senators about the letter and encourage them to support it.

2. If your Senators have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, encourage them through those platforms to sign on to the letter.

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.

Sri Lanka: live up to your promises

The Sri Lankan President said last Saturday that no members of the Sri Lankan military would be charged for any crimes during the recent war with the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International has been calling for an international investigation into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes, committed by both sides during the fighting.  (For background on this topic, please see our Sri Lanka page.)  The Sri Lankan government promised the U.N. last May that it would address the need for accountability for past abuses during the war.  The Sri Lankan government should live up to its promises to the U.N. and should facilitate an independent, international investigation now.

Sri Lanka: international investigation still needed

Human Rights Watch said something on Sri Lanka yesterday at the UN Human Rights Council that bears repeating:

“Additionally, the Council should establish an independent international investigation into violations of international humanitarian law during the fighting between the government and the LTTE.”

Amnesty International has been calling for such an investigation for some time.  Thousands of civilians were killed in the last stages of the fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Amnesty has received testimonies that both the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE were responsible for severe violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including war crimes, during the fighting.  The Sri Lankan government had promised the UN in a joint statement in late May to investigate those violations, but since then nothing has been done by the Sri Lankan government to fulfill those promises.  Yesterday, a UN official said that the UN was concerned about the lack of progess on this issue, among others in Sri Lanka.  The UN should establish an international investigation now.

Sri Lanka: what price "stability"?

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.