A Diminished Force for Good

president obama sri lanka speech

Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday the United States sponsored a resolution at United Nations Human Rights Council calling on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged human rights abuses that occurred in the final days of the country’s struggle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A United Nations Panel of Experts has estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the conflict as the Sri Lankan Army overran the last few pockets of LTTE opposition.

As Amnesty’s recent report Locked Away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees makes clear, there are good reasons to believe that human rights abuses still continue to this day. Instances of arbitrary and illegal detention have been widely reported, as have acts of torture and extrajudicial execution.

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Sri Lankan Report Doesn't Fully Address War Crimes

Displaced Sri Lankan Tamil civilians.

I’ve been waiting for months for the final report from Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (often referred to as the “LLRC”).  The commission had been appointed by President Rajapaksa in May 2010 to examine events during the last seven years of the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers (the war ended in May 2009 with the government’s victory over the Tigers).

The Sri Lankan government has used the existence of the commission to say that an international investigation into war crimes and other human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka wasn’t needed.  On Dec. 16, the Sri Lankan government released the LLRC’s final report.  I have to say that I’m disappointed with the report.

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UN: Investigate Sri Lanka War Crimes

This past Monday, the U.N. finally released the report of its advisory panel on accountability in Sri Lanka.  Thanks go to everyone who sent an online letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking him to release this report.

The report found credible allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in early 2009, and that both the government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers violated international law, including committing war crimes.  The panel recommended, among other things, that the U.N. establish an international investigation into these allegations.

Sri Lanka's military held many of those who escaped the conflict in miserable conditions © Private

Today, Ban’s spokesperson explained that Ban would not initiate an international investigation into these allegations unless the Sri Lankan government consented or he was asked to do so by a U.N body such as the Security Council, the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.

Well, the Sri Lankan government isn’t likely to consent.  They’ve rejected the panel’s report, calling it “flawed” and “biased.”  President Rajapaksa has called for mass protests against the report on May 1.

We’ll need action by U.N. member states to establish an international   investigation.  The U.S. government could play a vital role in this effort.  Please write to Secretary Hillary Clinton and ask her to support the establishment of an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.

Death threats for law school exam complaints

You wouldn’t expect to receive death threats for complaining that an exam was unfairly administered, would you?  You wouldn’t expect to be abducted for telling school officials that a test paper had been leaked, would you?  Yet that’s exactly what happened to D.M. Thushara Jayaratne, a final-year student at the Sri Lanka Law College.

Thushara publicly complained last November that President Rajapaksa’s son (also a student at the College) had received preferential treatment during final exams, including being seated in an air-conditioned room with access to a computer.  On December 3, Thushara alerted school officials that the test paper for the Commercial Law II exam had been leaked and was being discussed by students before the exam.  Instead of taking action, College officials rejected his complaint.  He approached the Bribery Commission, which also turned him away.  Then he filed a police report.  The police questioned College officials about his complaint.

Thushara later told the police that after filing his police report, he had received calls from the College Office Manager threatening him repeatedly with abduction or death if he didn’t withdraw his complaint.  He went into hiding and didn’t complete his last two exams.  The threats decreased after his case was featured in numerous press reports.

But on Mar. 4, he was abducted by two men and held for nearly 12 hours before being released.  During his abduction, he was questioned about complaints he had made against the College Registrar and his statements to international organizations.

Harassment, intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders and others who expose abuses in Sri Lanka are not uncommon these days.  Thushara’s case is one more example.

I’m very concerned for Thushara’s continued safety.  Please write to the Sri Lankan government and ask them to immediately provide him with effective protection and hold accountable those responsible for his abduction.  Thanks.

Sri Lanka: when will displaced civilians be released?

Displaced Sri Lankan Tamil civilians watch as unseen French and British Foreign Ministers arrive at camp for talks in the unsuccessful civilian release.

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.

Sri Lanka: end impunity for human rights violations

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said last Tuesday that no one should be above the law, including members of the police or armed forces.  This follows a widely publicized incident last week in Sri Lanka:  two youths were arrested by the police on August 12 and their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered the next day.  The killings sparked public anger and riots against the police.  Several police officers have since been arrested in connection with the murders.

I dearly hope justice is done in this case and the killers held accountable.  But there remain thousands of cases of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan security forces, including the police, where no one has been prosecuted or convicted.  The recent Amnesty International report on presidential commissions of inquiry in Sri Lanka details the government’s failure to deliver justice for serious human rights violations for decades.  I hope President Rajapaksa’s recent statement will lead to a serious, sustained effort by the Sri Lankan government to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice at last.  The ongoing impunity enjoyed by the security forces for past violations must end.

Human Rights Flashpoints – August 4, 2009

MYANMAR - Tensions rise in anticipition of verdict

The situation in Myanmar (Burma) is getting more tense this week in anticipation of a verdict against Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, August 11.  She is currently held in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison, awaiting her verdict in a trial that has gathered worldwide attention.  Given the fact that the “Four Eights” anniversary is to take place only 3 days prior to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi’s verdict, these two highly politically charged events can prove to be a galvanizing force for major protests.  Looking at the regime’s track record of violent suppression of any dissent, recent developments justify major concern of what will happen in the country in the next few days.  Last week, authorities detained 30 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in an apparent attempt to block them from organizing protests on July 31, the day the verdict was originally expected.  All those arrested are at risk of torture.  While some of the opposition members were released, further arrests can be expected in the run up to the announcement of the verdict.  If there are outbreaks of demonstrations in spite of government attempts to forestall them, there is the added concern that we will see violent tactics by the police and armed forces to suppress them like the ones we saw in the uprisings of August and September of 2007.  Reports are indicating that the regime has heightened its alert and has deployed security forces in strategic areas of the country, something that is very characteristic of the government preparations to prevent suspected dissent.

Call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi

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Overheard

“(…) we have consistently had a very consistent public message that we believe that she should be immediately and unconditionally released, along with the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.  I know Secretary Clinton has been very engaged with her colleagues, with some of her foreign minister colleagues.  It was a topic at the ASEAN meeting, and she took every opportunity to urge her colleagues to make a similar message on the need for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released conditionally.” – Ian Kelly, Department of State, July 30, 2009.

“Suu Kyi’s continued detention, isolation, and show trial based on spurious charges cast serious doubt on the Burmese regime’s willingness to be a responsible member of the international community.”  President Obama, May 26, 2009.

SRI LANKA - Local elections without independent monitors

There are growing concerns over the upcoming August 8 local elections due to the prohibition of media and independent monitors of the first elections since the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.  This Saturday’s elections in the cities of Vavuniya and Jaffna are being hyped up by the government as the first democratic elections in this war-torn region.

The two cities fall just on the other side of the former de facto state of the Tamil Tigers in the north.  Tamils remain the majority in the area.  The cities in which the elections are held are surrounded by checkpoints, only accessible with permission from the Defense Ministry.  Lakshman Hulugalle, the head of the government’s security information center, stated that reporters will not be allowed into the cities to report on the elections, relying solely on handouts from the government. The Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa originally stated to let civilians who lived in the Tamil Tigers’ self-declared state to vote in an election. However, close to 300,000 civilians are currently held in military run de-facto internment camps.

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Coming This Week

  • August 3: Secretary Clinton arrived in Africa for an 11 day tour
  • August 4: Former president Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea to discuss the release of two American journalists
  • August 8: Sri Lankan local elections
  • August 11: Verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi expected

Jacki Mowery, Anil Raj and Jim Roberts contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

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.

Sri Lankan Civilians Trapped in War Zone Urgently Need Protection

You may not have heard about it, but there’s a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka right now – over 250,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone between the Sri Lankan Army and the rebel Tamil Tigers and can’t escape.  The army has been steadily encroaching on the Tigers’ territory over recent months.  The civilians caught in the area are running out of safe space.  They can’t simply leave the war zone due to restrictions imposed by the Tigers, who are also using them as an involuntary pool of recruits and laborers.  The civilians are also facing tremendous shortages of food and shelter, aggravated by the fact that many of them have already sold most of their possessions due to earlier displacements.  For its part, the Sri Lankan government has restricted the ability of outside agencies to provide assistance to the civilians.  While the government has made assurances that the humanitarian situation is under control, there’s evidence to suggest that the authorities lack the capacity to provide the needed aid to the people.  An aid mission visited the area at the end of 2008 and noted the increased vulnerability of the civilian population, including reduced available materials to address urgent needs for shelter and sanitation.

Last November, AI drew attention to acute food and shelter shortages affecting the civilians in the war zone and produced a video on the issue.

Please raise your voice for the suffering civilians trapped between the two sides.  Send an email to the Tamil Tigers.  Ask them to allow the civilians trapped in the war zone to leave safely without any restrictions; ask that the Tigers also stop forcing civilians to join their ranks or work as laborers for them.  Also, send an email to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya.  Ask them to allow international monitors into the war zone to assess the humanitarian needs of the civilian population and to ensure proper distribution of food and other assistance to the people.

Jim McDonald
Sri Lanka Country Specialist