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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We'll believe it when we see it!

I finally have good news to report:  the Sri Lankan government announced this past Saturday that the displaced civilians unlawfully trapped in internment camps will be free to come and go as of December 1Amnesty International has been calling for this for the past several months in our “Unlock the Camps!” campaign.

However, while the government announcement and a Sri Lankan newspaper article said that the civilians were being given total freedom of movement as of Dec. 1, other accounts of the government’s announcement have been less positive.  Another Sri Lankan government report referred to the civilians being allowed freedom of movement only within the region of the camps, while the BBC and Oxfam spoke of civilians just being granted day passes to leave the camps temporarily (and a day-pass system had been announced last September by the Sri Lankan government).   U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes said yesterday that the civilians could leave the camps for days at a time, but it was still being discussed whether they could leave the camps permanently.   Human Rights Watch today said that some of the displaced civilians have been told by the government that they won’t be released on Dec. 1 but instead moved to other detention camps.

So, while I want to be optimistic and hope that the Sri Lankan government will actually let all the displaced civilians leave the camps if they wish as of Dec. 1, here it’s a case of “seeing is believing.”

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AIUSA says "Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka!"

AIUSA activists demand the release of Internally Displaced People in Sri Lanka. November 2009. (c) AI

AIUSA activists in Chicago demand the release of Internally Displaced People in Sri Lanka. November 2009. (c) AI

Across the U.S., from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco, Amnesty International activists are demanding:  “Unlock the camps in Sri Lanka!”

As the 26-year-old war between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers ended this past May, about 280,000 Tamil civilians fleeing the fighting were put in overcrowded, military-run camps which they were not allowed to leave.  The Sri Lankan government said that the civilians first had to be screened to determine if any of them were Tiger fighters.  Amnesty International has pointed out that this constitutes arbitrary detention and violates the civilians’ right to freedom of movement.

Although some civilians have been released from the camps, around 150,000 still remain and camp shelters have deteriorated as Sri Lanka has entered the rainy season.

Amnesty’s “Unlock the Camps” campaign calls on the Sri Lankan government to let civilians leave the camps if they wish, to put the camps under civilian (not military) management, and to allow aid agencies full access to the camps.

Earlier this month, AIUSA members gathered in Boston and San Franscisco signed petitions and postcards demanding that the Sri Lankan government “Unlock the Camps!” SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

U.S. State Department Releases Sri Lanka War Crimes Report

The U.S. Department of State‘s Office of War Crimes Issues released its investigation into the final stage of the conflict in Sri Lanka today. Requested by Congress, the report (pdf) covers the period between January and May 2009 and consists of an overview of incidents that happened during the final stage of the conflict. It is based on a wide range of sources, including Amnesty International’s own reporting, and uses both traditional, and innovative evidence such as satellite imagery and aerial photographs.

While the report “does not reach any legal or factual conclusions”, it provides a disturbing overview of what happened in the so-called “No-Fire Zone”, looking at both the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE): SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Two hazards for Sri Lankan displaced civilians

I have two issues on my mind about the displaced civilians being held in internment camps in Sri Lanka:  (1) will the camps be able to cope with the coming monsoon rains, and (2) are the civilians safe in the camps now?

On the first issue, a British minister visiting the camps said Tuesday that freedom of movement for the displaced was critical now, especially with the rains expected soon.  (Amnesty International has been calling on the Sri Lankan government to allow the civilians to leave the camps if they wish; for more information on this topic, please see our Sri Lanka page.)   The BBC was allowed to accompany the minister as he toured the camps and heard heartrending pleas from the displaced civilians about poor conditions in the camps.  The Sri Lankan government has said that the camps will be ready for the monsoon, although a UN expert who visited the camps last week expressed serious concerns about whether the camps would be equipped to deal with the heavy rains.

On the second issue, the UN refugee agency said last week it was concerned for the safety of the displaced civilians in the camps, after an incident on Sept. 26th in which some civilians attempting to move between areas of a camp were stopped by the security forces.  The angered civilians then attacked the security forces who responded by opening fire, resulting in several injuries, including a child who is now paralyzed.

As the visiting British minister said, allowing displaced civilians to leave the camps would do much to address the first issue.  I think it would also help a lot on the second issue; allowing people more control over their own lives would do a lot to ease any bitterness or tension.  If you haven’t already, please consider joining in our Unlock the Camps campaign and ask the Sri Lankan government to restore freedom of movement now to the displaced civilians.

Sri Lanka: time to end irregular detention

Mostly I’ve been blogging about the internally displaced civilians who are being held in internment camps in northern Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lankan government says they can’t be released until they’ve been screened to determine if any are former fighters with the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International is conducting our “Unlock the Camps” campaign to demand that these displaced civilians get the freedom of movement they’re entitled to.

Today, however, I want to talk about the more than 10,000 suspected Tiger members who are being held, separately from the displaced civilians, by the Sri Lankan government.  Amnesty International reported today that one of those detainees, Sri Chandramorgan, was seriously injured last Tuesday when he tried to escape from the teachers training college where he is being held.  The college is being used as an unofficial detention center to hold suspected former combatants.  It was rumored that Sri Chandramorgan had been killed when he tried to escape; the rumor of his killing sparked a clash between the security forces and the detainees at the college.

Unofficial detention centers, which aren’t officially acknowledged by the government, unfortunately have a long history in Sri Lanka and have been used to facilitate torture, disappearances and political killings by the security forces.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has had no access to the suspected Tiger members being held by the government.  Many of them have not had contact with anyone outside the detention centers, most of which are not officially acknowledged as places of detention by the government.

Although the Tamil Tigers were responsible for thousands of grave human rights abuses during the war with the Sri Lankan government, that does not mean that former Tiger combatants (or those suspected of links with the Tigers) do not have any rights.  They should be treated humanely, in officially recognized places of detention, and not be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.  They should be allowed access to their families, lawyers and doctors and have the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court.  They should be promptly charged with a recognizable crime in civilian courts and provided a fair trial in accordance with international standards.

I know some may say that the Tigers didn’t afford any of this to the people they held prisoner during the war, but surely the Sri Lankan government wouldn’t want to use the Tigers as a standard of measurement for adherence to human rights standards?

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.

Another Shocking Video from Sri Lanka

The British news company, Channel 4, has released another shocking video on Sri Lanka, this time on the terrible conditions facing Sri Lanka’s displaced Tamils in the internment camps they’re currently held in.  (For background on this story, see the Sri Lanka page on the AIUSA website.)  Like the earlier execution video released by Channel 4, Amnesty International cannot confirm whether the video and pictures reportedly shot inside the camps two weeks ago are authentic.  We could do so if the Sri Lankan government would allow aid workers and independent human rights observers full, unimpeded access to the camps and their civilian population.

It’s imperative that conditions in the camps be improved quickly, especially with the monsoon rains coming in the next few weeks.  But even more important, the civilians must be allowed to leave the camps if they wish. On that score, we may have gotten some good news today:  the Sri Lankan government announced today that civilians in the camps could be released if they had relatives willing to take them.  We’ll see whether this is implemented and how many it will apply to.  But even those civilians without such relatives are still entitled to freedom of movement.  Being caught in a war zone is not a crime; the displaced civilians should not be treated as criminals.  Unlock the camps now!

Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka!

Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North Eastern Sri Lanka live now in camps and are being denied basic human rights. In response to this crisis we just launched the Unlock the Camps campaign, in which we urge the Sri Lankan government to allow freedom of movement and the installment of a civilian administration of the military run internment camps. We further call on the Government of India to monitor the aid pledged to the Sri Lankan government. As part of the Unlock the Camps campaign we have developed a Facebook Crisis Application, and produced a new Briefing Paper.

Two months after the end of the fighting, the Sri Lankan authorities are still not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced. The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. In addition, these are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government’s claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period.

Displaced people have even been prevented from talking to aid workers. With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence.

According to government figures, the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displaced over 409,000 people. At least 280,000 are displaced from areas previously under LTTE control. A dramatic influx of people fleeing the fighting and crossing to government controlled areas took place from March 2009. The displaced people, including at least 50,000 children, are being accommodated in 41 camps spread over four districts. The majority of the displaced are in Vavuniya District where Menik Farm is the biggest camp.

When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited some of the camps in May, he said:

I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.

While some progress had been made on providing basic needs, much still needs to be done on the right to health, food, water, family reunion and access to relatives. We continue to urge the government of Sri Lanka:

  • to end restrictions on liberty and freedom of movement
  • to ensure that camps are of a truly civilian nature and administered by civilian authorities, rather than under military supervisions
  • give immediate and full access to national and international organizations and observers, including aid agencies, in order to monitor the situation and provide a safeguard against human rights violations.

Trapped in de-facto detention camps

The Sri Lankan government said on 21 May that the displaced will be resettled in 180 days. But very few have so far been allowed to return to their homes or to join friends or family elsewhere, and people remaining in the camps are not at liberty to leave camp premises. The Sri Lankan government must end its policy of forcibly confining people to camps, which amounts to arbitrary detention.  The Sri Lankan government must allow persons who require temporary shelter in these facilities to come and go freely.

With assistance and support from the international community and the involvement of displaced people themselves, the Sri Lankan government must set up clear benchmarks and timelines to ensure that displaced people can safely return home or find other durable solutions (such as relocation) as soon as possible.