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.

Shocking Video Footage from Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government is facing renewed calls for an investigation into human rights abuses after a graphic video was released showing extra-judicial killings.

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, which obtained the material, said this video was filmed in January – when the international media were prevented by the Sri Lankan government from covering the conflict zone.

The video shows a uniformed soldier shooting a naked man in the head. Eight dead bodies can be seen in the video as well.

Although Amnesty International is not able to verify the footage on this video, it raises important questions about violations committed during the recent conflict.

And the reaction to the video underscores the precarious situation in Sri Lanka, where tensions remain high.  In response to the video, the International Secretariat of Amnesty International repeated its call for “an international, independent and credible investigation into what took place during the final days of the conflict.”

The Sri Lankan governmnet has decried the video as “absolutely false”, suggesting that those who put forth the video of supporters of the LTTE.

What remains to be seen is if the video is used–by all parties–to further divisions or to create an important discussion about the violations during the recent conflict.

WARNING: The footage is very graphic.

The Graveyards of Sri Lanka's War Zone

Expansion of a gravesite in Sri Lankan “Civilian Safe Zone”: On April 19 (left) roads are present, but the area is mostly deserted. By May 24 (right), a large graveyard with an estimated 342 graves has emerged. Analysis provided by AAAS.

Expansion of a gravesite in Sri Lankan “Civilian Safe Zone”: On April 19 (left) roads are present, but the area is mostly deserted. By May 24 (right), a large graveyard with an estimated 342 graves has emerged. Analysis provided by AAAS.

A final analysis of satellite images – requested by Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights project – was released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science today. It provides rare evidence of a conflict zone still inaccessible to independent observers. In addition to evidence of impact craters in close proximity to Internally-Displaced Person (IDP) shelters, the final analysis reveals two new alarming features: The new analysis shows large gravesites and evidence of mortars used in and around the so-called civilian save zone, which raises further questions about the military tactics deployed by the Sri Lankan Army and the use of human shields by the Tamil Tigers. The fact that we are forced to rely on satellite technology to collect information about the conduct of hostilities is a pressing reminder of the urgent need for an independent investigation with unimpeded access to the area. The Sri Lankan government has severely restricted access to areas where grave human rights violation may have occurred.

The analysis identified three different graveyards, counting a total of 1,346 likely graves. The satellite images can neither reveal if these graves contain civilians or Tamil Tiger fighters, nor reveal in themselves much about the scope of civilian suffering as a result of targeted or indiscriminate attacks. This uncertainty, together with the highly disputed civilian casualty figures, requires an independent investigation with full and unfettered access to the former war zone and IDP camps. Additionally, the UN must immediately disclose its reports about civilian casualty figures, which – according to media reports – are as high as 20,000.

Probable mortar positions
The identification of potential Sri Lankan Army mortar positions in the proximity of the so-called Civilian Safe Zone (CSZ) are an alarming piece of evidence. Mortars are indirect fire weapons. When used against the Tamil Tigers who set up its defensive positions among tens of thousands IDPS – as confirmed by aerial photographs obtained and analyzed by AIUSA’s Science for Human Rights project – the use of such weapons in that context may constitute a serious breach of international humanitarian law. The satellite images reveal several possible mortar craters in close proximity to IDP shelters.

Numerous possible mortar emplacements are located throughout the area of the CSZ. One such emplacement (left), is arrayed similarly to the ‘Lazy W’ formation detailed in a US Army Field Manual (right; FM 7-90 Tactical Employment of Mortars). Analysis provided by AAAS

Numerous possible mortar emplacements are located throughout the area of the CSZ. One such emplacement (left), is arrayed similarly to the ‘Lazy W’ formation detailed in a US Army Field Manual (right; FM 7-90 Tactical Employment of Mortars). Analysis provided by AAAS

An estimated 17 possible mortar positions were identified on May 10 in the area surrounding the CSZ. One location is arranged in a “Six Star” formation while the other can be categorized as a “Lazy W” by a US Army Field Manual. Most of the sites are simply in a parallel or single line formation, and are oriented both towards the CSZ and surrounding roads. Conclusive evidence is still lacking, as no mortar tubes are visible in the image. There is no indication of heavy artillery pieces, which are generally discernable in imagery unless camouflaged. It has to be noted that the Sri Lankan Army uses various artillery pieces that range beyond the area of analysis (approximately nine kilometers around the CSZ). Although the imagery cannot be fully conclusive, the mortar positions are persuasive enough to require further investigations with full access to the former conflict and civilian zones.

Displaced children at risk in Sri Lankan camps

Yesterday, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (of which Amnesty International is a member) issued a briefing paper on children affected by the recent conflict in Sri Lanka.  The paper details how children in the military-controlled internment camps for displaced civilians are being abducted for ransom, for forced recruitment into pro-government armed groups or due to suspected links with the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In May of this year, the Sri Lankan government completed its offensive against the LTTE, recapturing all the territory formerly held by the group and killing their senior leaders, thus ending the 26-year-old conflict.  The LTTE had been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Both sides committed gross human rights abuses, including war crimes, during the course of the conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were displaced earlier this year by the fighting.  By the end of the hostilities, over 280,000 civilians (included a reported 80,000 children) were being held in overcrowded, military-run camps.  Most of the civilians are not allowed to leave the camps.  The Sri Lankan government has said that they must be screened first to determine the presence of any suspected LTTE combatants.

The Sri Lankan government should tighten security at the camps so that children are no longer at risk of abduction.  But they should also allow all the civilians in the camps freedom of movement, a right they’re entitled to as citizens of Sri Lanka.  Those who wish to leave the camps should be immediately allowed to do so.  Haven’t the displaced children and their relatives suffered enough already?

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.

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.

International tribunal needed on Sri Lanka

While the fighting in Sri Lanka’s war zone reportedly intensified today, we saw a couple of firsts in terms of public statements on the crisis:  for the first time, the U.N. Security Council formally met and called on both of the warring parties to allow civilians to leave the conflict area.  President Obama also spoke out today on the conflict, for the first time since becoming President.  Both statements were very welcome; indeed, Amnesty International just today had called on both the Obama Administration and the Security Council to act to save the civilians trapped in the war zone.

The Sri Lankan government is pursuing its military offensive against the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have been seeking an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The Sri Lankan military has now confined the LTTE to a small pocket of land on the northeast coast, about one square mile in all.  Trapped with the LTTE are an estimated 50,000 civilians who are being used by the LTTE as human shields and prevented from leaving the area.  Since January, AI estimates that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed and13,000 injured due to the fighting.

But while both of today’s statements are welcome, we need more pressure on both the government and the LTTE.  As AI said today, the Security Council must establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of the laws of war committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.  Officials on both sides need to understand that they’ll be held personally accountable for the war crimes their forces have been committing.  That’s our best hope to save the civilians still trapped in the war zone.  The Security Council must act immediately.  Thousands of innocent lives are at stake.

U.N. calls for pause in Sri Lankan fighting

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a temporary pause in the fighting in Sri Lanka between the government forces and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in order to allow humanitarian aid into the war zone to reach the trapped civilians there.  The Secretary-General also urged the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the area and to stop forced recruitment.

Today, the Sri Lankan government announced that President Rajapaksa had invited the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka to see for himself the situation of civilians displaced by the fighting.  It’s unclear whether Ban would be allowed to visit the war zone, though President Rajapaksa  apparently did say that Ban’s visit would permit him to be able to make a better assessment of the conditions faced by the civilians still being held by the LTTE in the war zone.  The Sri Lankan government still won’t permit a U.N. humanitarian mission to enter the conflict area despite an earlier agreement with the Secretary-General to do so.

I hope the Secretary-General takes up the President’s offer, goes to Sri Lanka and is able to visit all parts of the country in safety, including the war zone.  I also hope President Rajapaksa responds positively to the Secretary-General’s request and orders a temporary pause in the fighting to allow aid into the war zone.  I also hope the LTTE responds to the Secretary-General, allows civilians to leave the war zone and releases all child soldiers and other forced recruits.  I try to live in hope; it’s better than the alternative.

How Did Sri Lanka End Up in this Crisis?

While an estimated 50,000 civilians are still trapped in Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone, a diplomatic push for a humanitarian ceasefire by the British and French foreign ministers did not yield any success yet. For anyone who is interested in how Sri Lanka ended up at this point, IRIN today published a very detailed and useful chronology of the conflict:

1972: Velupillai Prabhakaran forms a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT).

1976: TNT changes its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

1983, 23 July: LTTE attacks an army patrol in Jaffna, killing 13 soldiers and sparking anti-Tamil riots around the country, leaving several hundred dead.

1985, 8 July: Talks held between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE for the first time in Thimpu, Bhutan.

1987, 29 July: Indo-Sri Lanka pact signed between President JR Jayawardena and Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi. India deploys peace-keeping force to north and east Sri Lanka.

1990, 24 March: India withdraws troops due to clashes with the LTTE killing more than 1,200 Indian troops.

1990 June: LTTE kills hundreds of policemen in the east following breakdown of talks between the Tigers and the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

1991, 21 May: Gandhi killed, allegedly by an LTTE suicide bomber.

1993, 1 May: Premadasa killed by LTTE suicide cadres during a May Day rally in Colombo.

1995, January: Government of Chandrika Kumaratunge and LTTE agree to talks.

1995, April: Talks fail after the Tigers blow up two navy vessels.

1995, 2 December: Jaffna, the northern cultural and political nerve centre of the Tamils, falls under Sri Lanka army control.

1996, 31 January: Suicide bomb attack on the Central Bank building in the heart of Colombo kills more than 100 and injures 1,400.

1996, 24 July: Alleged LTTE bomb blast in a railway station in Dehiwela, south of Colombo, kills 70.

1996, 18 July: Army camp overrun by the LTTE near the northeastern town of Mullaitivu. More than 1,000 troops killed.

1998, 25 January: Suicide bomb attack on Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist shrine, Dhaladha Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), in the central town of Kandy, kills 17 people.

1998, 26 September: Tigers overrun Kilinochchi army camp, killing more than 1,000 government soldiers.

1999, December: LTTE attempts to assassinate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge; he survives.

2000, April: LTTE recaptures Elephant Pass, inflicting heavy damage on the Sri Lankan forces during the operation Unceasing Waves III.

2001, July: An LTTE suicide attack on Bandaranaike International airport kills 14.

2002, 22 February: Ceasefire agreement, brokered by Norway, signed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Prabhakaran.

2002, December: Government and LTTE agree to share power at peace talks in Norway.

2003 April: LTTE pulls out of talks after six rounds of negotiations, citing inadequate steps taken to rebuild war-hit areas.

2004, 3 March: LTTE eastern military head, Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna Amman, splits from the LTTE.

2005, 7 February: LTTE political head for the eastern Districts of Batticaloa and Ampara, E. Kousalyan, killed with three others in Batticaloa town.

2005, 12 August: Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar killed by suspected LTTE snipers in Colombo.

2005, 4 December: The LTTE commences claymore and grenade attacks targeting the Sri Lankan troops in the Jaffna peninsula.

2006, 15 June: More than 60 civilians killed in claymore mine attack allegedly by LTTE, targeting a civilian bus in Kebithigollewa, nearly 200km from Colombo.

2006, 20 July: LTTE closes the sluice gates at Mavilaru, south of the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee. Clashes erupt as army launches operations to gain control and succeeds.

2007, 5 January: Bomb attacks on public transport begin in Nittambuwa, about 20km east of Colombo, killing six people. Several bombs target public transport in the following months. The government blames the LTTE for the attacks.

2007, March: LTTE carries out its first air raid on Katunayake air base, about 20km north of Colombo. The Tigers also conduct an air attack on 29 April during the Cricket World Cup Final. The attack targets two fuel-storage facilities on the outskirts of Colombo. The Tigers carry out at least nine air attacks before 20 February 2009.

2007, 15 January: Military captures Vakarai, a coastal town in Batticaloa District in the Eastern province.

2007, 11 July: military captures Thoppigala, the last of the LTTE strongholds in the east after 13 years, thereby regaining the entire eastern province from the LTTE.

2007, 2 November: LTTE political wing leader SP Tamilselvan killed in an air raid by the Sri Lankan Air Force.

2008, 2 January: The government says it will withdraw from ceasefire agreement and does so on 14 January and intensifies attacks on the Tigers. The LTTE, however, states it will stick to the agreement.

2008, September: All international humanitarian agencies and their foreign staff operating in the LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts are ordered by the government to relocate to Vavuniya.

2009, 2 January: Government troops capture Kilinochchi, de-facto capital of the LTTE, after 10 years.

2009, 25 January: Mullaithivu town captured by government troops.

2009, 12 February: Government declares a 12km-long “no fire zone” (NFZ) along the Mullaitivu western coast and calls on civilians to move into it for their own safety.

2009, 20 February: The LTTE conducts a suicide air attack in Colombo.

2008 March: Sri Lankan troops launch operations to regain areas in the Vanni from the western flank. The number of civilians in the NFZ continues to grow.

2009, 14 April: LTTE says it is ready for negotiations, but the government refuses the offer, insisting it should lay down arms.

2009, 20 April: Thousands of civilians trapped in the NFZ cross into government-controlled areas where they are screened and placed in camps. Government gives LTTE 24 hours to surrender.

2009, 22 April: Former LTTE media coordinator Velayutham Dayanidhi, alias Daya Master, and the translator of former LTTE political wing head SP Tamilselvan, Kumar Pancharathnam, alias George, surrender to the military.

2009, 26 April: The LTTE declares a unilateral ceasefire as government forces surround an ever-shrinking NFZ. The government rejects the declaration, calling it a “joke”. The UN estimates 50,000 civilians remain trapped in the NFZ.

2009, 27 April: Facing with diplomatic pressure to declare a ceasefire, Sri Lanka says its military is no longer using heavy weaponry and aerial bombing against the remaining few hundred rebels still fighting in the NFZ.

2009, 28 April: With more than 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes urges that civilians who have been screened be given the chance to leave the camps and to rely on friends and family elsewhere.

Yoland Foster, AI's researcher on Sri Lanka, Comments on the Current Crisis

Watch Yolanda Foster comment on the concerns for civilians still caught up in the fighting in Sri Lanka:

» English

» Tamil

Amnesty International is calling for the Sri Lankan government to extend a humanitarian truce, allowing aid to be received by families who are experiencing heavy shelling, who are unable to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones from within combat areas and who are liable to be killed on their way to receiving medical help.