Sri Lanka: What's happened to Pattani Razeek?

Pattani Razeek, a Sri Lankan human rights defender, has been missing since he was apparently abducted on February 11 in the town of Polonnaruwa.  He may have been taken by the security forces or a group allied to them, and could be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.  Please write the Sri Lankan government and ask them to investigate his disappearance.  Thanks.

Human Rights Agenda for Sri Lanka

In advance of Sri Lanka’s presidential election on January 26, we’ve issued a 10-point Human Rights Agenda.

We’re asking that all presidential candidates commit to the following points, among others:

  • ending arbitrary arrests under emergency laws
  • ensuring protection and respects for the rights of civilians displaced by the recent conflict
  • protecting freedom of expression
  • ending torture and enforced disappearances
  • ratifying international human rights treaties

This is the first national election in Sri Lanka since the war with the opposition Tamil Tigers ended last May.  It could be the start of a new era in Sri Lanka.  Would it be too much to hope for, that the presidential candidates grasp this opportunity to improve the protection of human rights for millions of people in Sri Lanka?  We’ll see.

Sri Lanka unlocks the camps, but not for long

I wish, I really wish, that I had only good news to report today.  Today was the day the Sri Lankan government promised that the displaced civilians who’d been held in military-run camps for the last 6 months would be free to leave the camps “sans any conditions being imposed.”  But it hasn’t worked out that way.  The civilians were told today they could leave but they also have to return to the camps soon

As the war ended in May this year with the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, about 280,000 civilians displaced by the fighting were placed in overcrowded, military-run camps which they weren’t allowed to leave.  The government said that the civilians first had to be  screened to determine whether there were any Tiger fighters among them.  Amnesty International pointed out that this violated the civilians’ freedom of movement and constituted arbitrary detention.  Amnesty launched its “Unlock the Camps” campaign to get the Sri Lankan government to allow the civilians to leave the camps if they wish to do so.

Since the end of the war, the government has released civilians from the camps, but according to the U.N., around 136,000 were still being held as of Nov. 25.

On Nov. 21, the Sri Lankan government announced that, as of Dec. 1, the civilians would at last be free to come and go from the camps.  Yesterday, a government minister said there would be no restrictions imposed on the duration of the civilians’ absence from the camps.

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Sri Lanka: Justice for the ACF 17

You may not have been aware of it, but this past Wednesday, Aug. 19, was the first World Humanitarian Day.  August 19 was designated by the U.N. General Assembly last December as a day each year to honor aid workers around the world, especially those who have given their lives in the line of duty.

The UN website about the World Humanitarian Day noted that in Sri Lanka, 17 staff of the French aid agency Action contre la Faim (ACF) (Action Against Hunger) were killed in August 2006.  While the Sri Lankan government has blamed the opposition Tamil Tigers for the killings, a recent report by the Sri Lankan human rights group, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), provides evidence pointing to the security forces as the killers.  And Amnesty International’s report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, details serious deficiencies of subsequent government investigations into the massacre.

It’s been more than 3 years, and still the killers of the 17 ACF staff have not been brought to justice.  One more example of the continuing impunity enjoyed by the Sri Lankan security forces.  I hope that by next year’s World Humanitarian Day, I won’t be able to make the same statement.

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.

Sri Lankan doctors at risk of torture

Amnesty International today issued an urgent action appeal on the five Sri Lankan doctors currently being held by the government under emergency regulations.  We are concerned that they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.  The doctors had provided medical services to civilians trapped in the war zone, during the last stages of the war earlier this year between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Before they were detained by the government on May 15, the doctors had provided eyewitness accounts to the media of the suffering experienced by the trapped civilians.  On July 8, while still under detention, the doctors appeared at a press conference organized by the government and retracted their earlier reports.  AI is concerned about how genuine their later statments were.  The doctors remain in detention without charge.

Amnesty is calling on the Sri Lankan government to release the doctors immediately, unless they are to be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense.  Please join our appeal and write the government on their behalf.  Write to:  President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka; email:  prsec@presidentsoffice.lk.

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.

Graveyards
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.

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

Must Reads 

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.

Must Reads

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.

IDP's Still Locked Up in Sri Lanka

Menik Farm displacement camp in Sri Lanka. (c) Digital Globe 2009

Menik Farm displacement camp in Sri Lanka. (c) Digital Globe 2009

The IDP situation in Sri Lanka continues to worsen as weeks continue to pass without the release of civilians locked up in the camps. The government, in violation of international law, has since March 2008 confined virtually all civilians displaced by the fighting in detention camps, euphemistically called “welfare centers” by the government. In a press statement this week, Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, described his short visit to Sri Lanka’s Menik Farm:

“[T]he vast majority of displaced persons remain confined to camps, and my visit to Manik Farm – and my conversations with displaced person – underscore for me the hardships they are enduring. Moreover, there remain burdensome limitations on access to those camps for those international humanitarian organizations and others who are in a position to ameliorate the conditions faced by these victims of conflict.”

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?