UN: bloodbath now in Sri Lanka

Yesterday, a doctor working in Sri Lanka’s war zone reported that at least 378 people were killed by shelling over the weekend.  The doctor said that 1,122 others had been injured and that the firing appeared to have come from the government side.  Gordon Weiss, the U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, said:

“We’ve been consistently warning against a bloodbath, and the large-scale killing of civilians including more than 100 children this weekend appears to show that the bloodbath has become a reality.”

Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a civil war for about 26 years between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers, who seek an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Both sides have been responsible for massive human rights abuses during the conflict.  Since a 2002 ceasefire broke down in mid-2006, the government’s offensive has reconquered most of the territory once controlled by the Tigers.  The Tigers are now confined to a small coastal strip in northeastern Sri Lanka, surrounded by the Sri Lankan army.  With the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians who are being held by the Tigers as human shields and prevented from fleeing the area.

The Sri Lankan government today said that the Tigers were responsible for the shelling that killed the civilians.  The government also claimed that the doctor reporting from the war zone was in no position to give an independent account “as he is virtually another captive of the Tigers.”  Since independent observers, including journalists, are barred from the war zone, it is difficult to verify reports from the war zone.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to have an informal session about Sri Lanka today.  The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary claimed that the Tigers were using the latest charge of civilian casualties in an attempt to influence the discussions at the Security Council.

Ahead of today’s meeting on Sri Lanka at the Security Council, Amnesty International and three other international organizations (Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect) issued a joint letter to the Japanese Prime Minister, urging Japan, as a member of the Security Council, to support formal action on Sri Lanka at the Council.  The Security Council has only considered Sri Lanka in informal settings so far; it would reportedly need to elevate discussion on Sri Lanka to a formal level before the Council could take action.

We can’t wait for the discussions at the Security Council, formal or informal.  Thousands more civilians may be dead long before the discussions ever result in any action.  Please write to the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government now; we need maximum international pressure on both sides to stop the bloodbath immediately.

New Report Confirms Hamas' Deadly Campaign During Gaza War

Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week released a report detailing the unlawful killings and torture of Palestinians by Hamas during the recent Gaza conflict. This report confirms Amnesty’s own findings, published in February, of instances where Hamas murdered and tortured Palestinians. They accused the victims of “collaborating” with Israel, or the victims were members of opposing Palestinian parties, including Fatah.

The HRW report provides a more in depth analysis of the situation. The report claims that Hamas forces and masked gunmen alleged to be members of Hamas extra-judicially executed more than 30 people since December and injured dozens more by shooting them in the leg. Those responsible must be held accountable for their actions and the government of Hamas should address these crimes. According to HRW, the Hamas authorities have begun investigations into only four of these cases, but more needs to be done. Hamas should work to uphold international law and protect human rights as it has said that it will do.

Calls Grow to Investigate Bush Detention Policies

Yesterday a coalition of 18 leading human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute launched a call for the establishment of a non-partisan commission of eminent persons to investigate and examine the detention, treatment, and transfer of detainees following the 9/11 attacks.

The call was backed by former FBI Director William Sessions, Major General Antonio Taguba who headed the military investigations into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, Juan Mendez, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the President of the United Church of Christ Dr. John Thomas.

Former FBI Director Sessions commented:

“The president has a responsibility to protect and defend Americans and unfortunately, many questions remain unanswered as to whether the detention, transfer, and treatment of detainees following the September 11th attacks were in the country’s best interest. We need to understand what happened and how to prevent any illegal actions form taking place in the future.”

The United States used to inspire the world as a beacon for human rights.  The U.S. championed the international rule of law and pressed other countries in Latin America, Europe and Africa to bring human rights abusers to account for their actions.  The past eight years have greatly damaged America’s image in the world.  We need to repair than damage by showing that we hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold other nations.

Hospital Shelled in Sri Lanka, 9 Civilians Killed – But Does Anyone Care?

As the deadly violence continues to escalate in Sri Lanka I am distraught by the lack of attention it’s receiving.  Just last week a hospital in northern Sri Lanka, where more than 800 people were sheltering, was shelled four times.  At least 9 were killed and 20 injured by the attack.  It’s not clear who did the shelling; both the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been blamed.

A Sri Lankan Tamil civillian girl wounded in shelling inside the Island's rebel-held north arrives for treatment at a hospital in the government held northern town of Vavuniya on January 22, 2009. (c) STR/AFP/Getty Images

A Sri Lankan Tamil civillian girl wounded in shelling. (c) AFP/Getty

The hospital is located in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka, where government forces have succeeded in pushing the LTTE into a small area of land.  Trapped with the Tigers are over 250,000 civilians who are not allowed by the LTTE to leave.  The Sri Lankan government, as part of its offensive, has been carrying out aerial and artillery attacks in the area with the result that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured.  The government has declared “safe zones” for civilians to seek shelter, but several civilians in  “safe zone” have killed or injured due to shelling.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that hundreds of civilians had been killed or injured due to the intensified fighting between the two sides.  Shortly thereafter, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued statements calling on both sides to protect civilians.  Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, also voiced his concern.  The Sri Lankan government subsequently announced that the Tigers had 48 hours to let civilians leave the war zone; this appeared to be an unofficial truce.  It expired on Saturday night.  The fighting, and thus the shelling and the civilian deaths, resumed on Sunday.

I can’t help noticing a contrast with Gaza.  Gaza seems to get lots of press attention, while Sri Lanka doesn’t appear to get as much.  Both involve indiscriminate attacks against civilians, in war zones that the media is denied access to.  Yet it seems that the suffering in Gaza deserves more attention than the deaths and injuries in Sri Lanka.  Why is that?  Can’t the world take on another crisis?  If we don’t, we may be reading soon about, not hundreds, but thousands of civilians being killed.  That might be worth thinking about.

Seven Years Later: Our Power, Our Responsibility

This week we mark the 7th anniversary of the day the U.S. government first began warehousing “enemy combatants,” terrorism suspects and hapless wrong-place-wrong-time detainees at Guantánamo.  Since then, hundreds of detainees have been locked up and stripped of their legal rights, at least five have died in custody, and scores have attempted suicide (not to mention the more than 500 documented incidents of detainees trying to harm themselves).  The U.S. government’s malfeasance has metastasized all over globe to include torture, kidnapping and extraordinary rendition, as well as the CIA practice of “ghost detentions”—the secret and illegal imprisonment of in overseas prisons.

The past eight years have certainly been one of the darkest periods in our recent history. We’ve seen our own government trample human rights, commit war crimes and author an era of illegal practices reminiscent of some of the most repressive regimes in recent memory (see Gen. Pinochet). For this, as Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) argues in the current issue of Amnesty International magazine, those responsible should be investigated, and if the evidence warrants it, they should be prosecuted.

Some of us in the human rights community have expressed cautious hope that the inauguration of Barack Obama as our nation’s 44th president will mark the end of this disgraceful era, that it will be the other bookend to January 11, 2002. But for this to become reality, we have to remember that now is not the time to dial down.  We applaud Mr. Obama for pledging to close Guantánamo, an important first step.  But the closure will be meaningful only if it is accompanied by “an unqualified return to America’s established system of justice for detaining and prosecuting suspects,” as Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch have urged in a joint letter delivered to the presidential transition team last month.  We are categorically opposed to the creation of any other ad-hoc illegal detention system that would allow the executive branch to continue to suspend due process.  Any attempt to find a “third way” would amount to having a Guantánamo within our borders.

Since I became executive director of AIUSA three and a half years ago, I’ve often wondered if the inexorable and secretive nature of the Bush administration’s transgressions somehow robbed ordinary citizens of the belief that we can, as individuals with important common goals, make an impact.  If so, then this is the moment to reclaim our power—and shoulder our responsibility.  There is so much work to be done: holding the outgoing administration accountable for the war crimes it has committed, directing international attention and resources to address bloody conflicts overseas, addressing the continuing crisis of violence against women.  It is also a ripe moment for us to apply the human rights framework to urgent problems we face here at home, such as poverty and migrant detentions.

“Change you can believe in” is a phrase that has been trumpeted ad infinitum. But really, it is up to us. We have to make the change we believe in. And yes, we can.