War Crimes in Sri Lanka: Time for UN to Act

Delivering the petition to the UN

Last May, Amnesty International launched a global action calling on the UN to establish an international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed during the war in Sri Lanka.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers were responsible for massive human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war during the 26-year conflict.

In response to Amnesty’s call for action, over 52,000 people signed our petition to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanding an international investigation as a first step toward accountability for these crimes.

This past Tuesday, Feb. 22, I had the privilege of accompanying Yolanda Foster, the Amnesty researcher on Sri Lanka, and Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan, the father of one of the “Trinco 5” students killed by the security forces in 2006, to the UN offices in New York as we delivered the signed petitions to the UN.  We pressed the UN to act on our petition without delay and let them know we would be following up to make sure an international investigation is promptly established.

The U.S. government has not yet joined Amnesty in our call for an international investigation.  We could use their support.  Please write to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ask that the U.S.  government encourage the establishment by the UN of an international investigation into war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka.  For Dr. Manoharan’s sake and that of all the other families of the victims, we cannot stop campaigning until they receive justice.

The Long Arm of the Law

Yesterday a spokesman for former US President George W. Bush announced that he was abandoning a planned visit to Switzerland because of “security concerns”.

Although President Bush’s team officially played down the possibility, it seems likely that the decision was taken in part because of fears that he might be arrested by the Swiss authorities. In 2005 former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cancelled a visit to Munich, Germany, for the same reason.

Last Friday Amnesty International wrote to Genevoise and Swiss federal prosecutors outlining a lengthy and detailed case calling for the local authorities to investigate President Bush for authorizing the use of torture during the ‘war on terror’.

Since President Bush admitted in his memoir Decision Points that he personally ordered the water-boarding of terrorism suspects and water-boarding comfortably falls within the spectrum of acts prohibited by the Convention against Torture (and for that matter domestic US law) this frankly wasn’t a hard case to make.

Switzerland has an obligation under international law arising from the Convention against Torture to investigate these allegations. Switzerland ratified the Torture Convention in 1986 but even if it had not the prohibition of torture, and the duty to investigate suspects, is considered customary international law.

Furthermore, the Bush administration seized on the law of war as the framework within which it pursued Osama bin Laden and there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. Water-boarding, walling and learned compliance all amount to war crimes.

To borrow a turn of phrase used by General Petraeus, President’s Bush’s criminal liability for these abuses is non bio-degradable.

The reports that have emerged from Cairo this past week about the torture and abuse of pro-democracy activists by Egyptian security forces remind us of the company we keep if we allow the use of torture to go unpunished.

Ending impunity for human rights abuses is not a cause we can only pursue overseas. If our values are to have any meaning we must first put our house in order at home.  We can’t just ‘turn the page’.

It can be easy to get discouraged fighting against impunity when progress is most often measured not in years but in decades. However, this weekend we have been reminded that the law has a long arm and that even Presidents can’t ignore its reach.

Amnesty Calls on Iraqi Government to Protect Christians

As Christmas draws closer, Amnesty International calls on the Iraqi government to protect the country’s Christians who have been threatened, bombed, and displaced since the US invasion in 2003.

In February this year Christian families were killed in their homes in Mosul by unidentified armed groups. Later this year, on October 31, gunmen held worshippers hostage at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. After the Iraqi army stormed in, the gunmen detonated their explosive belts, killing more than 40 worshippers, including a priest.

Other places of worship have been bombed as part of the rampant sectarian violence since 2003, such as the attack on the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006 and the targeting of various shi’ite shrines across Iraq. Not a month goes by in Iraq without suicide bombings taking the lives of tens of Iraqis of all religions, and injuring hundreds more. In August 60 army recruits of different religions were killed in a suicide bombing at the Baghdad Ministry of Defense Building. In February of this year 40 shi’ite pilgrims were killed, and in July another 28 pilgrims were killed in a suicide attack. More than 400 people were killed in bombings at Al-Qahtaniyya and other Yazidi villages in 2007.


Call your Senators TODAY on War Crimes in Sri Lanka

Update:  the letter was sent to Secretary Clinton on Dec. 10, with 17 signatories!  Here’s who signed:  Sherrod Brown, Burr, Murray, Hutchison, Casey, Gillibrand, Hagan, Cornyn, Mikulski, Cardin, Lieberman, Lautenberg, Boxer, Feingold, Coons, Manchin and Menendez.  Thanks to everyone who lobbied your Senator!

A Congressional sign-on letter is circulating in the Senate now, sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown and Richard Burr.  The letter asks Secretary Clinton to publicly call for an independent international investigation into war crimes and other abuses committed during the war in Sri LankaAmnesty International has been campaigning for such an international investigation for the past several months.  Amnesty has received credible, consistent reports that both the Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels committed violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and human rights abuses during the war in Sri Lanka.

This past summer, Amnesty activists supported a similar letter in the House of Representatives, and we obtained 58 co-signers!  It’d be great if we could get a similar success in the Senate.

Here’s how to take action:

1. Call the Congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to speak to your Senators.  Tell your Senators about the letter and encourage them to support it.

2. If your Senators have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, encourage them through those platforms to sign on to the letter.

Hey Bush: If Waterboarding's So Great, Put this Video in Your Museum!

Warning: This video is not suitable for children. Do not try this at home.

Last night in a TV interview former President Bush reiterated that he personally approved waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and would do it again.

According to Bush, “the lawyer said it was legal.” Try that defense the next time you’re accused of a crime. It should become one of the great catchphrases of our time, the “Where’s the beef?” of the aughts.

Bush also said waterboarding saved lives. First of all, even if it did it’s still wrong and a crime. Second, where’s the proof?  Actual military interrogators say torture cost American lives.

Bush is just trying to cover his butt from being prosecuted for torture.

Let’s call him out:

Email the waterboarding video above to Bush’s Presidential Library and Museum at  museum.gwbush@nara.gov.

I’m going to include the message “Torture is part of President George W. Bush’s legacy. Please add this video of waterboarding to his museum.”

What will you say? Let us know in the comments.

Still Waiting for Justice for the ACF 17

Today, Aug. 19, is World Humanitarian Day, designated by the U.N. to honor aid workers around the world.  Today, Amnesty International remembers 17 aid workers killed in Sri Lanka.  Their killers have yet to be brought to justice.

The 17 were local staff of the French aid agency Action contre la Faim (ACF) (Action Against Hunger).  In August 2006, they were executed in the town of Mutur in eastern Sri Lanka, after an intense phase of fighting between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The Sri Lankan police bungled the criminal investigation into the murders.  A subsequent commission of inquiry failed to identify the killers despite compelling evidence of their identity.  The government blamed the Tigers for the killings although a respected Sri Lankan human rights group provided evidence of the government forces’ involvement.

Last year, I wrote on this site that I hoped that a year later, the ACF 17 would no longer be an example of the ongoing impunity enjoyed by the security forces for human rights abuses.  Well, it’s a year later and that hope hasn’t been fulfilled.

Sri Lanka has time and again failed to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses, including war crimes.  Please sign our online petition to the U.N.  calling for an international investigation into war crimes and other human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.  The families of the ACF 17 and the other victims need justice now!

Digging Deeper Into Naomi Campbell’s "Dirty Little Stones"

By Tom Turner, Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Did Naomi Campbell know who Charles Taylor was, before the then president of Liberia gave her a bag of rough diamonds? Did she immediately know that the “dirty little stones” in the bag were in fact diamonds? What did she do next? All of this seems rather far from the concerns of Amnesty International, and perhaps more suited to Entertainment Tonight or TMZ than to a serious news outlet.

As I conceded during an interview on WCCO News Radio 830 (Minneapolis), perhaps we should be grateful for the brief attention to the blood diamonds issue in 2010, which had almost disappeared from view since receiving vast attention in 2006, when the Hollywood film starring Leonardo Di Caprio was earning millions of dollars. In my view, that is not really the case. The film stressed the link between the precious stones and the violence they fueled, albeit in a formulaic manner.

This time, however, the brief news stories and video footage provided too little information to enable the listener or viewer to contextualize the Campbell-Taylor episode. Often, one had to read several paragraphs of celebrity “she said, she said” regarding Campbell, her former assistant, and Mia Farrow, before even learning that all this was taking place in an international courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands).

A diamond merchant shows his wares in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Despite its pledge to support the Kimberley Process and Clean Diamond Trade Act, the Diamond Industry has fallen short of implementing the necessary policies for self-regulation. © Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Charles Taylor is alleged to have traded weapons for rough diamonds from Sierra Leone and in so doing, to have fueled the civil war in that country. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, approximately 75,000 civilians were killed. Over one-third of the population—two million people—was displaced. More than 5,000 children were recruited to fight in both government and opposition forces. Many civilians suffered amputated limbs.

Former President Taylor stands accused of unlawful killings, mutilations, rape, sexual slavery, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, abduction, and the use of forced labor by Sierra Leonean armed opposition groups, which he is alleged to have actively supported.

Amnesty International supported the Kimberley Process, by which diamonds would be certified conflict-free. It has called on the Kimberley Process to strengthen its commitment to protecting human rights and to improve the peer review mechanism. Amnesty continues to press the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in their countries. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done.

The diamond industry must be reminded that corporate impunity for past crimes relating to blood diamonds will not be tolerated. This is important, as a sign to the victims and the families that the crimes committed against them are not being forgotten. It is equally important as a warning to the people in the industry that we in the human rights community have our eyes on them and will not be as slow to react next time as we were in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Tom Turner is Democratic Republic of Congo Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He is the author of The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality (Zed Books, 2007).

US Pressure Mounts For Sri Lanka War Crimes Accountability

I remember vividly my recent encounter with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, who angrily dismissed any concerns regarding alleged war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Unfortunately for the minister, and luckily for the human rights movement, I am not the only one who is concerned about serious human rights violations that were committed by both the government and the Tamil Tigers during the final stage of the conflict. International concerns regarding alleged war crimes are not fading. To the contrary, this week new pressure is building up to ensure true accountability. This week, fifty-seven eight members of Congress sent a letter (pdf) to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to press for an independent international inquiry into the alleged war crimes. The congressional action is gaining considerable media attention, with stories run by AFP, AP, BBC and Al Jazeera.

We are still awaiting Secretary Clinton’s response to the serious concerns raised by the US lawmakers. The congressional letter highlights the limitations of Sri Lanka’s sham commission on Lesson’s Learnt and Reconciliation, which started its work today, and which is not expected to produce any more credible results than its predecessors. Unfortunately, Secretary Clinton so far seems to support the domestic commission, despite the doubts raised about its credibility.

We also just learned that the US Department of State will submit its follow up report on war crimes and accountability in Sri Lanka to Congress this afternoon. This new document will reportedly inform Congress what steps – if any – the Sri Lankan government has taken to ensure accountability for any crimes committed.

To stay updated and to follow new developments on the release of the State Department report, please follow us on Twitter.

Update: State Department report can be found here.

Taliban Leaders Should Be Prosecuted for War Crimes

Sanam Gul was a widow, 35 years old and pregnant.  According to news reports she was kept in captivity for three days before being shot to death in a public trial by the Afghan Taliban.  The execution took place in the Qadis District of the rural Baghdis province in Western Afghanistan.

The “court” that ordered the punishment, found Sanam Gul, also known as Bibi Sanubar, guilty of having an illicit affair, proof of which was her pregnancy.  She was sentenced to 200 lashes and then executed.  The punishment was carried out by Mohammad Yousuf, the area Taliban commander amid a crowd of onlookers.

Sanam Gul’s death comes soon after the chilling Aug 7 executions of ten medical aid workers who had been returning from a trip to provide free medical care to remote regions of Afghanistan.

These barbaric theatrics meant to intimidate and terrify local populations are not novel tactics for the Taliban.  In the time that they controlled Afghanistan, from 1998-2001, such public floggings and executions were frequent occurrences in towns controlled by the group.   In addition to such tactics of terror which misuse concepts of Islamic law to instate a reign of terror, the Taliban are also guilty of increasingly bloodthirsty killing campaigns that kill hundreds of Afghan civilians.

A U.N report released on August 10 revealed that civilian casualties caused by the Taliban have increased nearly 31% in the first six months of 2010.  This means that over 3,000 Afghan civilians have died in the shootings, killings, suicide bombings that the Taliban carry out with impunity in areas which they control.

In the first half of 2010, the executions and assassinations of civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups increased by over 95% to 183 recorded deaths compared to the same time last year. The victims were usually accused of supporting the According to Staffan De Mistura, Special Representative of the Secretary General of the U.N “Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conflict; they are being killed and injured in their communities in greater numbers than ever before”.


Two Days Left to Contact Your Representative on Sri Lanka War Crimes

As we reported last week, there’s a Congressional letter being circulated around the U.S. House of Representatives calling for the U.S. to support an international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  We still have two more days to get additional Representatives to co-sign the letter, as the deadline for co-signers has been extended to Thursday, Aug. 5. Thanks a lot to those who’ve already contacted their Representatives.

We need all the support we can get for this letter, so the victims and their families in Sri Lanka can receive justice.  Here’s how you can help:

1. Take action online, urging your Representative to co-sign the letter.

2. Call the Congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask for your Representative (if you don’t know who your Representative is, visit the House of Representatives website to find out).  Tell your Representative about the Congressional letter and ask him/her to co-sign it.

3. If your Representative is on Facebook or Twitter, use those media to encourage him/her to co-sign the letter.  For an example on Twitter, follow Christoph’s lead.

Thanks to everyone who can help with this effort.  We’ll keep you posted on how it goes.