Response to General Dostum

Last week’s revelations about war crimes committed in Afghanistan in 2001 and the US supported cover up have caused quite a stir. Even General Abdul Dostum, the alleged perpetrator of the mass killings of Taliban prisoners of war, made a public comment, stating that it is impossible prisoners were abused”. Right. My colleague Sam Zarifi wrote up an excellent response. He brings in his first hand experience in Afghanistan. Here are some excerpts:

If, as Dostum asserts, there were investigations by the Afghan and U.S. governments, they should be made public. If their findings were accurate, Dostum should have nothing to fear from a reexamination of the facts. But the facts currently available indicate very strongly that many detainees – possibly hundreds – died while in the custody of Dostum’s forces in November 2001 and their bodies were dumped in the nearby desert of Dasht-e Leili (adding to the numerous bodies unceremoniously deposited there by various warring factions over the past three decades).
I was a human rights investigator in northwestern Afghanistan in February 2002. At the time, numerous witnesses spoke of seeing several trucks dumping what appeared to be human remains in Dasht-e Leili, while others told of detainees being held for days in overcrowded shipping containers without food, water, or medical care, and, in some instances, being shot while inside the containers.

Crucially, the International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to the Taliban detainees at Sheberghan until December 10, 2001 – and thus could not monitor their conditions during the period when the detainees died. This undermines Dostum’s claim that a massacre could not have occurred because the ICRC would have known about it.
Dostum is correct in one regard: There is a highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the timing of the increased attention to this incident, and that is linked to President Hamid Karzai’s reinstatement of Dostum as the army chief of staff after he had been removed in disgrace last year. Karzai has also nominated as his vice presidential candidate Marshal Fahim, another Northern Alliance commander facing widespread allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes.
Many Afghans, who have repeatedly demanded truth and accountability for the three decades of atrocities they have endured, have told Amnesty International they are extremely disappointed by the presence of such figures in Karzai’s administration. The ongoing impunity of senior government officials has done much to erode public confidence in the Afghan government, something now readily acknowledged even by international militaries.
General Dostum has bemoaned the increasing operations of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after seven years of international nation building. It is time to ask: After seven years of appeasing warlords and human rights violators, isn’t it time for the Afghan government and its international supporters to try truth and accountability?

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Sri Lanka: effective action needed from UN Human Rights Council

The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a special session on Sri Lanka in Geneva on Tuesday, May 26 (and not May 25 as I reported earlier).  Today, the Sri Lankan government tried to head off any serious review by the Council of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka by tabling a self-congratulatory resolution to be adopted by the Council.  For the sake of all the victims of the recent violence in Sri Lanka, the Council should reject Sri Lanka’s proposed resolution.

Even now, after the fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers appears to have mostly ended, Amnesty International continues to receive credible reports of widespread human rights violations by the security forces and their paramilitary allies, including enforced disappearances, torture and political killings.  More than 250,000 civilians displaced by the recent fighting, including some 80,000 children, are being held in internment camps without adequate security, food, water and medical care.  The Sri Lankan government has recently restricted access to the camps by international aid agencies, including the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Human Rights Council should note that the human rights issues in Sri Lanka go beyond the current humanitarian crisis.  They stem from a breakdown in the rule of law and a pervasive climate of impunity which has seen human rights violations by the security forces go unpunished for decades.  I should also mention that the Tamil Tigers have over the years been responsible for gross human rights abuses, including deliberate and indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture of prisoners, and the forced recruitment and use of child soldiers. 

Switzerland also tabled a draft resolution today for the Council’s special session.  While it’s much stronger than Sri Lanka’s own resolution, it doesn’t go far enough.  It calls for Sri Lanka to undertake investigations into human rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice.  Given the Sri Lankan government’s weak institutional mechanisms for human rights and repeated failures to hold violators accountable, we need international involvement.  The Council should set up an international fact-finding mission to investigate abuses of human rights and humanitarian law by both the security forces and the Tigers.  It should also establish a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka, to help the Sri Lankan government to implement reforms to provide effective safeguards for human rights.

Finally, I don’t want to omit the immediate crisis.  The Council must persuade the Sri Lankan government to open up the internment camps so that aid agencies can provide the necessary assistance and reporters can find out the truth of what’s been happening.  International monitors should be placed at all registration and screening points, internment camps and detention places, so that human rights violations are prevented.  The displaced civilians should be allowed to leave the camps if they wish – they’re not prisoners of war, they’re people who were trapped in the crossfire against their will and have already suffered too much.  They desperately need the Council’s assistance now.  We’ll be watching Geneva next week.  I hope we’re not disappointed.

Sri Lanka: Red Cross needs security guarantees

Yesterday, a ferry chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) evacuated 495 sick and injured patients from the Sri Lankan war zone and delivered 25 metric tons of food for distribution to civilians trapped in the zone.   The ICRC reported that heavy fighting was taking place near the medical assembly point in the war zone, which was jeopardizing the lives of patients and hampering medical evacuations.    The ICRC has been delivering food and evacuating sick and wounded civilians from the war zone since February.

The Sri Lankan military has confined the opposition Tamil Tigers to a small strip of coastal land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who are being held by the Tigers as human shields.

The ICRC has called for security guarantees from both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers so that it can safely deliver food and evacuate patients.  The Tigers have offered a security guarantee to the ICRC in response.  The Sri Lankan government has asked the ICRC to work things out with the Tigers; they haven’t offered any security guarantees, to my knowledge.

Both the ICRC and the Sri Lankan government acknowledge that the amount of food reaching the war zone is inadequate.  The Sri Lankan government should work with the ICRC immediately so that sufficient food can be delivered to the war zone and all the sick and injured evacuated without delay.

Rising civilian casualties, "catastrophic" situation

A day after my last post, what’s the situation of the estimated 100,000 civilians trapped in the war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka?  AI stated today that more than 4,500 civilians have died in the fighting in recent days, with hundreds of civilian casualties reported on Monday alone.  The International Committee of the Red Cross said today that the situation for the civilians trapped in the government-designated “no-fire zone” (which is the last remaining area controlled by the opposition Tamil Tigers) was “nothing short of catastrophic.”  Not only are the civilians being killed or wounded by every rocket or mortar fired, but they haven’t been receiving sufficient food or medical supplies, and so face growing threats of deaths from epidemics, malnutrition and lack of medical treatment.

Hours after Monday’s ultimatum given by the Sri Lankan army to the Tigers to surrender or face military action expired, the Tigers said they would never surrender.  The Sri Lankan army attacked the “no-fire zone” today and reportedly cut it in two.

The Sri Lankan government and the Tigers must immediately cease hostilities and agree to a temporary truce, so that civilians can leave the “no-fire zone” safely and aid supplies can be provided to those in the zone unable or unwilling to leave.  Both sides must immediately stop any attacks against civilians.

If you haven’t already written the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers, please visit the AIUSA website and do so today.   We need every voice.  Thanks.

Gestapo vs. USA

As if we needed more justification for a commission of inquiry, a new secret report by the International Committee of Red Cross was leaked this past weekend, and describes in great detail the unfathomable horrific abuse of detainees well into 2007.  Andrew Sullivan compares the reports’ table of contents with the Gestapo’s list of torture techniques, and the two are eerily similar:

ICRC report:

1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime….

As Andrew notes, the ICRC list looks objectively worse than the Gestapo’s. And this is just what we know. What else is hiding behind the shroud of “states secrets”?

Sri Lanka: Suicide Bombers and Impunity

The opposition Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are well-known for their use of suicide bombers, especially female bombers. So I wasn’t shocked to hear on the radio yesterday the words “In Sri Lanka,” closely followed by “a female suicide bomber.” But I was outraged when I learned that she had been dressed as a civilian and blew herself up at a checkpoint for civilians fleeing into a government-declared “safety zone.” 28 were killed, both civilians and military, and dozens more wounded. It seems pretty clear that the Tigers are trying to discourage civilians from fleeing the conflict area, which would deprive them of their human shield. I hope the Tiger supporters will impress upon the Tigers that they must abide by the laws of war and immediately stop such tactics.

At the same time, yesterday’s suicide bombing shouldn’t give the Sri Lankan government any excuse to abuse the displaced civilian population. Their forces also should observe international law and take care to protect civilians. As the army and the Tigers fight, more civilians are being killed. There’s been ongoing shelling in the government-declared “safety zone.” 48 people were killed and 174 wounded last Friday. The next day, another 126 civilians, including 61 hospital patients, were killed. In another area, 80 were killed by shelling and another 198 fatally injured. There aren’t any independent observers in the “safety zone” or the rest of the war zone, so it’s not possible to determine which side is responsible. All we can do is appeal to both sides to protect the civilians trapped in the fighting.

One small piece of good news: You may recall that last week a hospital in the war zone had been closed due to repeated shelling and the patients moved to another area in the war zone lacking clean drinking water. The Red Cross reported today that it was evacuating the patients today and tomorrow by sea; the ferry will take them outside the conflict area. Unfortunately, 16 of the patients won’t be evacuated; they were killed by shelling yesterday.

Yesterday also saw another important development: 10 independent UN human rights experts issued a joint statement on Sri Lanka. They pointed out that human rights abuses in Sri Lanka don’t just occur in the area of fighting; the crisis is deeper and more endemic. The experts said they have received reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances through the country, not just in the war zone. If the Sri Lankan government wants to demonstrate a commitment to human rights, it should immediately accept the experts’ offer of assistance and take steps to combat the continuing impunity the security forces have long enjoyed for past human rights violations.

Sri Lanka: 52 Civilians Killed

Disheartening isn’t the word for it; it’s worse than that. It had been bad enough to hear of 9 civilians being killed and 20 injured last Sunday and Monday by shelling in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka. This morning, over my coffee, I learned from the UN that 52 civilians were killed by shelling in just one day yesterday. The UN said it didn’t know who was responsible for the shelling. According to the UN tonight, the hospital in the war zone that had been bombed repeatedly over last weekend is now empty; all the staff and patients have fled. According to the Red Cross, the patients have been moved to a community center in an area that lacks clean drinking water.

Yesterday’s shelling included a cluster bomb attack. Cluster bombs scatter dozens of bomblets over a wide area, some of which usually fail to explode, posing a lasting threat to civilians. Cluster bombs have been banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, since they’re indiscriminate weapons (Sri Lanka, though, hasn’t signed the Convention).  Amnesty International said today that the use of cluster bombs in yesterday’s shelling was “despicable.” The Sri Lankan government has said that it wasn’t responsible for yesterday’s shelling and that it doesn’t have cluster bombs.

The world is taking greater notice of the civilians at risk in Sri Lanka’s war zone. On Feb. 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a joint statement calling on both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies. That same day, Norway, Japan, the US and the EU issued a joint statement asking both sides to declare a temporary ceasefire to allow evacuation of the wounded and aid to the civilians remaining in the area. Today, Pope Benedict XVI publicly appealed for an end to the fighting.

The forces targeting the civilians or engaging in indiscrimate attacks should remember that they’re committing war crimes, for which they may one day be held accountable. Before that day, let’s hope that both sides heed the statements from the international community and immediately take steps to protect the civilians at risk.

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.

Sri Lanka: Nowhere Safe

The war in Sri Lanka has escalated this past weekend but one thing about the 26 year conflict has not changed; Tamil civilians bear the brunt of the attacks, injuries, and deaths. 70,000 civilians have been killed. The Red Cross reports that hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed or wounded in fighting since last week.
Vanni area in Northern Sri Lanka, including Puthikudiyiruppu and many Internally Displaced People’s camps.

Vanni area in Northern Sri Lanka, including Puthikudiyiruppu and many Internally Displaced People’s camps.

“The origins of the conflict arise from decades of the Sinhalese majority’s systematic discrimination against the Tamil minority, and its denial of the Tamils’ meaningful participation in the political process. The Sri Lankan army is almost exclusively Sinhalese. Successive Sinhalese-dominated governments have failed to effectively address these longstanding injustices.” Senator Patrick Leahy.

Civilians are sitting ducks, with 250,000 Tamil civilians trapped in the Vanni area conflict zone.  The Sri Lankan government called a 48 hour safe passageway last Friday to allow civilians to escape; only 236 emerged from the conflict zone.

“People are on the move because they are looking for a safe place. But there is no safe place,” ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad

Those still trapped in the conflict zone and displaced from their homes are reliant on humanitarian aid that is waiting on the edge of the conflict zone.

The civilian toll rose with strikes on February 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on the hospital in Puthikudiyiruppu hitting the pediatric unit. Twelve civilians have been killed and 30 wounded due to artillery strikes over the past two days. The government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels have denied responsibility for the assault.

Bits of news from inside the conflict zone come from the Red Cross and healthcare professionals; journalists are barred from entry. Sixteen journalists have been killed since 1992 and 3 imprisoned in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the conflict. Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader, predicted his own death:

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended,” he wrote in the column titled, “And Then They Came for Me.”

Civilians must be protected under international humanitarian law, be they women, children, journalists or healthcare workers. Humanitarian aid must reach civilians trapped in conflict zones and the international community should be allowed access to assess the damages.

“We are deeply troubled by comments by the Sri Lankan Government threatening to expel foreign diplomats, aid agencies, and journalists. Reporters have already experienced physical attacks and intimidation, including the latest brazen assassination of renowned journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga. Together, we urge the Government of Sri Lanka to protect all of its citizens and conduct swift, full, and credible investigations into attacks on journalists and other civilians.” Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Luger.

Written by Ally Krupar, Edited by Zahir Janmohamed