Sri Lanka: are releases of displaced civilians genuine?

Amnesty International has been calling on the Sri Lankan government to grant freedom of movement to over 250,000 displaced civilians now being held in internment camps in the north.  The government has said that it can’t allow civilians to leave the camps until they’ve been screened to determine if any of them are connected to the opposition Tamil Tigers.  (For more information on this subject, please see our Sri Lanka page.)  The Sri Lankan government has announced releases of some of the civilians.  But are they actually being released?

Amnesty has received reports that some of those released have apparently been transferred to other camps where they may be subjected to additional screening by local authorities.  The UN has also reported that some of the displaced civilians have been transferred from the camps and are now being held in transit sites in other areas with restricted freedom of movement.  The UN refugee agency last week said that they were concerned about approximately 3,300 displaced civilians who’ve been held in transit sites for more than two weeks rather than being returned to their homes.  A British minister visiting the camps this week said that the British government funding couldn’t support people simply being transferred from one “closed” camp (meaning, a camp which people aren’t free to leave) to another closed camp.

The displaced civilians should be immediately allowed to leave the camps if they wish.  Unlock the camps now!

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: while day passes are good, freedom would be better

There was some news this week regarding the internally displaced civilians in northern Sri Lanka.  Amnesty International has been campaigning for the civilians to be allowed freedom of movement; currently, most of them have been held in overcrowded camps which they are not permitted to leave, until the Sri Lankan government has completed a screening process to determine whether any of the civilians have links to the Tamil Tigers.  (For background on this story, see our Sri Lanka page.)  This past Monday in Geneva, the Sri Lankan Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights told the Executive Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees this past Monday that:

“The authorities in charge of maintaining the camps have also put in place a system of day-passes whereby IDPs [internally displaced persons] who need to attend to specific wants, ranging from attending a family wedding to visiting their bank in a nearby town, can leave the camps for a limited period of time.”

This was the first I’d heard of a day-pass system.  I think it’s a welcome development.  However, it doesn’t substitute for the freedom of movement the displaced civilians are entitled to.  The Sri Lankan government should immediately allow the displaced civilians to leave the camps if they wish.  Unlock the camps now!

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: Time for action by the UN

The UN Human Rights Council started its twelfth regular session in Geneva today.  I’m hoping that this time, unlike last May, we’ll see the Council take some effective action to protect the human rights of the displaced civilians in Sri Lanka.

In her statement today to the Council, Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had the following to say of the displaced civilians in Sri Lanka:

“In Sri Lanka, internally displaced presons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.  Humanitarian agencies’ access to these camps remains restricted, and the mandates of relief agencies are increasingly coming under threat.”

In response to the High Commissioner’s statement, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Sri Lankan Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, told the Council that the internally displaced civilians would be allowed to leave the camps once they were screened to ensure that they weren’t members of the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The Minister gave no timeframe for when this screening might be completed.  So far, 6,490 people are reported to have been released from the camps, out of a total population of about 265,000.

Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan government, arbitrary detention of the displaced civilians isn’t allowed under international law – specifically, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.  The Principles do say that if in “exceptional circumstances” it is “absolutely necessary” to confine internally displaced civilians in a camp, such confinement can’t “last longer than required by the circumstances” (see Principle 12(2)).  The Sri Lankan government claims that members of the Tigers may be hidden among the civilians and that if these members of the Tigers were released, they could resume attacks.  If the Sri Lankan government’s logic were correct, the government would be equally justified in rounding up the entire Tamil population throughout the country, and detaining them all until they could prove they weren’t members of the Tigers.  The internally displaced civilians shouldn’t have to prove their innocence to win the freedom of movement they’re entitled to.

I hope the UN Human Rights Council takes up again the situation in Sri Lanka and gets the Sri Lankan government to release the internally displaced civilians from the camps as soon as possible.

It was also reported today that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was sending the UN’s political chief, B. Lynn Pascoe, to Sri Lanka tomorrow for talks with the Sri Lankan government, including on the issue of getting the internally displaced civilians released from the camps.  Even if the UN Human Rights Council doesn’t act, I hope the Secretary-General is able to get the displaced civilians released soon.

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: 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 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.

Sri Lanka: what the UN council should have addressed; possible help from Rep. Shuler

Yesterday, I wrote on this blog about how the UN Human Rights Council failed to protect human rights with its recent resolution on Sri Lanka.  If you want to learn about the violations that the Council should have addressed, read the Sri Lanka entry from the Amnesty International 2009 Report, which has just been released.  It details the abuses committed during 2008 by the Sri Lankan security forces as well as the opposition Tamil Tigers.

On a separate note, if you’re a constituent of U.S. Representative Heath Shuler (11th District, North Carolina) or know someone who is, you should know that the Congressman has just concluded a visit to Sri Lanka (at least, according to the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry).  It’d be great if his constituents could write to him and get him to press the Sri Lankan government to give journalists and aid agencies full, unimpeded access to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in internment camps in northern Sri Lanka.  I’d also appreciate it if his constituents could get him to come out publicly in favor of an international investigation into the human rights abuses and war crimes committed by both sides during the conflict in Sri Lanka.  If the Congressman adds his voice to those of Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and The New York Times (all of whom have called for such an international investigation), maybe we can get the U.S. and other governments to establish one during next week’s regular session of the UN Human Rights Council.