A Diminished Force for Good

president obama sri lanka speech

Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday the United States sponsored a resolution at United Nations Human Rights Council calling on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged human rights abuses that occurred in the final days of the country’s struggle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A United Nations Panel of Experts has estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the conflict as the Sri Lankan Army overran the last few pockets of LTTE opposition.

As Amnesty’s recent report Locked Away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees makes clear, there are good reasons to believe that human rights abuses still continue to this day. Instances of arbitrary and illegal detention have been widely reported, as have acts of torture and extrajudicial execution.


Urge Your Representative TODAY to Demand Accountability for Sri Lanka Crimes

For new developments on Sri Lanka and updates on this action, follow me on Twitter.

UPDATE (July 30): Our action is working! We almost got one new co-signer per hour within the first 24 hours of the start of our action, collecting 22 additional signatures. Even more important, due to the traction we got on this topic over the last days, the deadline to sign on was extended to next Friday, August 6Thursday, August 5! Please keep urging your representative to sign and spread the word. Thanks to everyone who has already done so.

After a US State Department official called for reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka last week, US lawmakers are now taking concrete action to hold the State Department to its own word (unfortunately the State Department seems to support the insufficient domestic investigation into the war crimes). Currently, a congressional sign on letter is circulating at Capitol Hill, gaining support to identify those responsible for the crimes committed in the final stage of

Civilians, in between Kilinochchi and Mulathiv, Sri Lanka, May 2009, during the last few months of the war. (c) Private

Sri Lanka’s civil war. The letter, sponsored by Representatives Jan Schakowsky and James McGovern, urges Secretary Clinton to publicly call for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka. We urgently need your help in asking your representative to sign on. To achieve the highest impact with this congressional letter and keep up the pressure for true accountability, we must collect enough signatures now.

Last year, activists like you spearheaded the global Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka campaign, leading to the release of tens of thousands of civilians who were detained after the end of the war. Now we need your help again. Please take action today by asking your representative in the House to sign the congressional letter, demanding an international investigation. The letter will be closed this Friday, July 30, so please urge your representative now!

Here‘s how you can take action:

  1. Take action online, urging your House representative to sign on to the letter.
  2. Call the Congressional switchboard at 202 224-3121 and ask for your representative. Tell him about the letter and encourage him to support it.
  3. If your representative has a Facebook page or twitter account, encourage him through these platforms to sign on (for an example how to do this on twitter, follow our lead).


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.

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.