The course of justice in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court yesterday acquitted five soldiers for the murder of 10 Muslim youths in Udathalawinna on December 5, 2001, during a general election.  The five had been security guards of Anuruddha Ratwatte, the then deputy minister of defence.  Ratwatte and his two sons had earlier been charged for the murders as well but were acquitted in 2006.  Ten young men are dead and no one, to my knowledge, has been convicted for their murder.  Is this how Sri Lanka punishes the guilty?

I couldn’t help thinking of this case when I heard that a verdict is expected on August 31 in the trial of J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan journalist.  Tissainayagam is being tried for allegedly violating the country’s emergency regulations and Prevention of Terrorism Act.  The only evidence against him are two articles he wrote in 2006 in a monthly magazine criticizing the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers and a confession that his lawyer says was obtained under duress.  Amnesty International has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate, unconditional release and for all charges against him to be dropped.  Will we see an acquittal for him on August 31?  Or do acquittals only apply for the powerful and those connected to them?

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?

Sri Lankan doctors "recant" prior testimony

A group of Sri Lankan doctors currently in detention were produced by the Sri Lankan government before the media today in order to recant their prior reports of civilian deaths during the last stages of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  I’d written about three of these doctors in an earlier entry on this blog, expressing concern that their arrest by the government shortly after leaving the war zone was in reprisal for their earlier reports.  The doctors had provided eyewitness accounts from the war zone detailing the extent of civilian suffering earlier this year.

Since January, an intense military offensive by the government gradually reconquered all the territory once held by the Tigers.  In mid-May, the government announced that it had defeated the Tigers and recaptured all their territory.  Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers had been thousands of civilians who were prevented by the Tigers from leaving; some civilians who did flee were shot by the Tigers as they did so.  The government forces repeatedly shelled the war zone, despite the heavy concentration of civilians in an increasingly shrinking area.  The government denied that it had caused any civilian casualties.  Since the government barred independent observers and the media from the war zone, the doctors’ reports were one of the few eyewitness accounts available as to what was actually happening in the war zone.

Despite U.N figures of more than 7,000 civilian deaths this year, the doctors today said only 650-750 civilians were killed this year.  Their estimate also happens to be far below the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate – a Sri Lankan government official last month estimated 3,000 – 5,000 civilians had been killed.

The Sri Lankan government had said, and the doctors today asserted, that their earlier reports from the war zone had been given under pressure from the Tigers who then controlled the area they were in.  Consider this:  the doctors have been in detention by the government since mid-May and have yet to be charged.  At today’s press conference, they expressed hope that they might now be released.

Also consider that last week, Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa had said in an interview with the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, when asked why the doctors couldn’t be released now, “I told them to organize a press conference.  Let the doctors come and say what they have to say.”  You might think that that would mean that the doctors have now done what the President wanted, so they’d now be released.  But note that in the same interview, Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President Rajapaksa, had said about the doctors, “If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent.”

If the doctors had been under pressure earlier from the Tigers while the fighting was going on, have they since been under pressure from the government to “recant” their earlier reports?  AI said today that the doctors’ statements were “expected and predicted,” since we feared that their detention by the government was intended to produce exactly the result we saw today.

I’ll repeat the request I made in my earlier entry about the doctors:  please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  slembassy@slembassyusa.org).  Please ask that the doctors be released immediately from detention unless they’re promptly charged with a recognizable crime.  They should be given all the medical care they may need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice.  Thanks for your help.

Beaches, Palm Trees, Displacement – Welcome to Sri Lanka's War Zone

A glimpse of the former war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka (c) AIUSA. Screenshot taken from Google Earth

A glimpse of the former war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka (c) AIUSA. Screenshot taken from Google Earth

Amnesty’s Science for Human Rights project just released a satellite image of Menik Farm in Sri Lanka, a de-facto internment camp run by the military, which offers a rare glimpse of the massive displacement caused by the conflict. Mark Cutts, the UN official at Menik Farm, recently told the BBC that “nothing less than a new city had been created.”

Through this image, along with aerial photographs displaying the devastation in the so called “safe zone”, we want to offer the public a rare opportunity to see on the ground details in a country where journalists and international monitors are widely prohibited from documenting the results of the recent military showdown. Graves, shelters and a shipwreck are among the things visible on the aerial photographs. We have combined all this information in a Google Earth Layer (recent version of Google Earth required), in order to give activists around the world access – something the government of Sri Lanka is denying us so far–  and to call for accountability for the crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. (Many thanks to AAAS and Ogle Earth for their help in putting this project together).

Satellite image and photograph of Menik Farm. (c) AIUSA, Screenshot taken from Google Earth

Satellite image and photograph of Menik Farm. (c) AIUSA, Screenshot taken from Google Earth

U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes recently described IDP camps in Sri Lanka as “internment camps”, stating that people are not allowed to move freely in and out. The people in Menik Farm are being vetted by the government to determine if there are any links to the Tamil Tigers.

We continue to closely to monitor the situation on the ground, so stay tuned for further information.

Establishing accountability in Sri Lanka

Two significant reports were just issued on human rights in Sri Lanka.  The first, AI’s report entitled “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” was released today.  The report describes how for the past 20 years, the Sri Lankan government has used ad hoc commissions of inquiry to investigate human rights violations by the security forces.  The commissions were established, for the most part, to deflect international pressure on the government to combat the ongoing impunity afforded to the security forces for human rights abuses.  The formal justice system in Sri Lanka has failed to provide redress for victims of human rights violations; thus, the violators enjoy impunity for their crimes.  The report details how the commissions of inquiry have been equally ineffective in breaking the climate of impunity.  Amnesty International is calling on the Sri Lankan government to learn from past failures and take measures to establish a justice system that provides real accountability for past abuses.  AI also calls on the international community to help Sri Lanka in this effort.

The second report was issued yesterday by a well-respected Sri Lankan human rights organization, the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna).  The report, entitled “A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Foreboding,” describes in vivd detail the last two months of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The report is equally critical of the Tigers and the government forces:  the Tigers shot civilians fleeing the war zone and forcibly conscripted children to fight the advancing Sri Lankan soldiers, while the Sri Lankan government repeatedly shelled the “no-fire zone” which was crowded with civilians.  The report’s authors remark that confirming certain critical details of the last stages of the war will await an independent investigation into the abuses committed by both sides.

If you read both reports, you’ll see why it’s vital that an independent, international investigation must be undertaken into the abuses committed by both sides during the final stages of the war.  On a longer-term basis, you’ll also see the challenges facing the Sri Lanka government if they really wish to break the cycle of abuse and impunity that has prevailed for decades in that country.  Amnesty International is ready to do our part in helping the Sri Lankan government meet those challenges; I’m sure the rest of the international community would be willing to do so as well.  Let’s hope the Sri Lankan government decides to take up this task.

Sri Lanka: judicial independence threatened

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister reportedly told Parliament yesterday that the government would address within the Sri Lankan legal system any alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the recent fighting between the military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Thus, there would be no need for an international investigation.  The Foreign Minister pointed to a long, well-established tradition within Sri Lanka of an independent judiciary.

Before anyone gets too sanguine about the prospects of an effective investigation being carried out by the Sri Lankan government of the human rights abuses and war crimes committed by both sides during the recent fighting, I’d suggest that you first look at the report on Sri Lanka recently issued by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.   The report has very disturbing findings about the vulnerability of the Sri Lankan judiciary and legal profession to political interference.  It underlines the need for an international investigation if we’re ever to get the truth about what happened during the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka.

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.

Sri Lanka: need stronger action by U.N.

I have to say I’m disappointed.  Today, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed members of the Security Council in an informal session about his May 22 visit to Sri Lanka.  The members of the Council took no action as the session reportedly was just a briefing.  Afterwards, the Secretary-General spoke to reporters. 

Secretary-General Ban told reporters that he’d been informed by the Sri Lankan government that restrictions on access by aid agencies to the internment camps holding displaced civilians had been eased since his visit.  Nearly 300,000 civilians displaced by the recent fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers are being held in overcrowded camps which they can’t leave.  Amnesty International has called for the Sri Lankan government to provide unimpeded access to the camps for aid agencies.  Today, the U.N. World Food Programme said that access to the camps had improved somewhat over the last few days, but also that they hoped there’d be more improvement in access soon.  Other U.N. agencies today said that continuing restrictions on access to the displaced civilians were preventing them from meeting the needs of the civilians, especially some 10,000 children in the camps suffering from acute malnutrition.

The Secretary-General also said today there should be a “proper investigation” into allegations of violations of humanitarian law.  But he clarified in response to a question that he was looking for an investigation by the Sri Lankan government, not an international inquiry.  He referred to the joint statement issued by the U.N. and the Sri Lankan government at the conclusion of his May 22 visit to Sri Lanka, in which the Sri Lankan government promised to establish an investigation into those violations.  Amnesty International has been calling for an international investigation, not one simply conducted by the Sri Lankan government. 

I don’t know if we can expect action by the Security Council anytime soon on Sri Lanka.  I hope the Secretary-General changes his position and pushes harder for immediate, unimpeded access to the camps for the aid agencies.  Further, if the Security Council doesn’t soon establish an international investigation into the human rights violations and war crimes committed by both sides during the fighting, the Secretary-General take steps to set one up himself.  That’s the leadership that the international community, and especially the displaced civilians in Sri Lanka, need from the U.N.

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.

Were 20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lankan offensive?

Take a look at this article in The Times of London newspaper and tell me why we shouldn’t demand an immediate international investigation into the war crimes and human rights violations that occurred during the recent fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The U.S. and other governments should press for one at the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council as soon as possible.