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.

UN names war crimes panel on Sri Lanka

A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that the Secretary-General has appointed a three-member panel of experts to advise him on the issue of war crimes reportedly committed in Sri Lanka during the war between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Is this the international investigation that Amnesty International has been calling for?  No, unfortunately.  According to the spokesperson’s statement, the UN panel will look into “modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience” on how to provide accountability for reported violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.  While the panel is to advise the UN Secretary-General, it hopes to cooperate with Sri Lankan officials and is supposed to be available as a resource to the Sri Lankan government.

The Sri Lankan government, for its part, is reportedly not happy with the Secretary-General naming the panel.  One Sri Lankan official yesterday, in anticipation of the panel being named today, said that it amounted to “an attempt to provide oxygen” to the Tamil Tigers (who were militarily defeated a year ago).  Another Sri Lankan official called the move by the UN “unwarranted” as the Sri Lankan government had recently appointed its own reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.

But as Amnesty International’s report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” documents, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its own forces accountable for violations of human rights and war crimes.  One of the prior commissions of inquiry described in our report was a 2006 commission set up by the Sri Lankan government to investigate several high-profile cases of human rights violations.  That commission’s activities were observed, at the Sri Lankan’s government’s request, by an “International Independent Group of Eminent Persons” (known as IIGEP).  After a little more than a year in operation, IIGEP quit in protest, saying that the commission’s proceedings didn’t satisfy basic international standards for such commissions.

As it happens, Mr. Marzuki Darusman, the Chair of the new UN panel, was also a member of IIGEP.  This fact has already been used by a Sri Lankan official to criticize the new UN panel.  I hope Mr. Darusman’s experience on the new panel will turn out more positively than the IIGEP experience, but judging from the Sri Lankan government’s reactions so far, I’m not very optimistic.  I do hope that the UN panel will help lead to an independent international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka, sooner rather than later.

Tissa is finally free!

The Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa“) is finally free!  As I wrote on this site earlier, Tissa had been sentenced last year to 20 years’ hard labor, after an unfair trial, for criticizing the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers in a couple magazine articles.  Amnesty International had adopted Tissa as a “prisoner of conscience,” since he was being prosecuted solely for his legitimate journalistic activities.  While the Sri Lankan government had announced on May 3  that President Rajapaksa had decided to pardon Tissa, as of June 9 the pardon still hadn’t been issued.  Nor did we know whether his rights would be fully restored, including the right to leave the country.

Well, his pardon has finally come through and he has gotten his passport back.  As the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported, Tissa arrived in Washington, DC yesterday morning.  Thank you very, very much to all those who wrote on his behalf; I’m sure it helped a lot in getting his freedom restored.

Now’s the time for the Sri Lankan government to take other steps to demonstrate its respect for media freedom and human rights, including determining the fate of the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the emergency regulations.  I hope I’ll be able to report more good news again soon.

Tissa's pardon – we're still waiting

On May 4, I wrote on this site about the Sri Lankan government’s announced pardon of the journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa”), who’d been unjustly convicted and sentenced to 20 years’ hard labor just for criticizing the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Amnesty International has adopted Tissa as a “prisoner of conscience” since we believe that he was imprisoned solely for his journalistic activities.  I was reluctant to start celebrating until details of the pardon had been clarified.

Well, it’s now been 37 days since the announcement of the pardon, and the government still hasn’t issued it!  The Sri Lankan Attorney General said in mid-May that Tissa’s lawyers had to withdraw his appeal against his conviction, and then the pardon could be issued in a “couple of days.”  His lawyers reportedly withdrew his appeal on May 31 but the pardon has still not been issued.

Why all the delay?  Please write the Sri Lankan government and ask that the granting of the pardon be expedited.  Let the  government know that the world is still watching and that we won’t rest until Tissa’s rights are fully restored.  Thanks.

Lessons Learnt (or not) in Sri Lanka

This post is part of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

This post was contributed by M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

I have served two Presidential Commissions appointed by the Sri Lankan government to look into very serious human rights violations – including tens of thousands of enforced disappearances and massacres of civilians by state forces.  And I can attest to the fact that none of their findings or recommendations were taken seriously by the Sri Lankan authorities.  Their detailed conclusions and recommendations aimed at securing justice and redress for victims and their families have never been implemented and their inquiries had no deterrent effect on future violations.

The Sri Lankan government has just appointed the latest in a long line of these Presidential Commissions.  This one is on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ to look into the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended last year. This cynical gesture – vague in its particulars and bound to failure — in no way substitutes for an independent international investigation by the United Nations into allegations of war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Abductions, illegal arrests and detentions, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (many politically motivated or committed in the context of supposed anti-terror operations) continue in Sri Lanka. Police blame ‘unknown persons’ for these incidents and rarely investigate. Torture in custody is almost the norm. When deaths in custody occur police often claim the victim was shot while trying to escape.

Domestic Commissions of Inquiry have failed to prosecute more than a handful of perpetrators in the security forces despite the fact hundreds of officers have been named in reports. This failure to challenge a culture of impunity gives the security forces carte blanche to continue to carry out violations.

Periodically the world wakes up and takes notice of Sri Lanka’s terrible human rights record, as it did briefly last May when the Sri Lankan government sacrificed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and maimed thousands of others in its efforts to wipe out the LTTE. The government is accused of ignoring several international conventions relating to the conduct of war. Only an independent body can confirm the facts.

Sri Lanka appoints Presidential Commissions of Inquiry only when the government is under extreme diplomatic pressure for violating the rights of its citizens.  These may serve to temporarily derail international criticism, but nobody in Sri Lanka is really fooled by such dubious tactics.  We all know these Commissions are only window dressing.


UN must investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka!

It’s been a year since the war ended in Sri Lanka, with the government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.  In the final months of the war, Amnesty International received credible reports of violations of human rights and war crimes being committed by both sides.  The Tigers kept civilians trapped in the war zone and shot those trying to flee.  The government shelled areas heavily populated by the trapped civilians.  Thousands of civilians were killed or injured.  A State Department report issued last year recounted these crimes in detail.

The Sri Lankan government promised the UN in May 2009 that it would address these violations.  But so far what has it done?  President Rajapaksa appointed a committee of experts to advise him on how to respond to the State Department report.  And within the past week he has appointed a reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.

Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its forces accountable.  Just read the Amnesty report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” and you’ll see what I mean.

We can’t count on getting justice from the Sri Lankan government.  So we’re starting a global action today calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to undertake an independent international investigation into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes, committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  Such an investigation is a necessary first step to achieving justice for the victims and their families.  Please add your signature to our online petition today – every voice counts!  Thanks.

Human Rights Agenda for Sri Lanka

In advance of Sri Lanka’s presidential election on January 26, we’ve issued a 10-point Human Rights Agenda.

We’re asking that all presidential candidates commit to the following points, among others:

  • ending arbitrary arrests under emergency laws
  • ensuring protection and respects for the rights of civilians displaced by the recent conflict
  • protecting freedom of expression
  • ending torture and enforced disappearances
  • ratifying international human rights treaties

This is the first national election in Sri Lanka since the war with the opposition Tamil Tigers ended last May.  It could be the start of a new era in Sri Lanka.  Would it be too much to hope for, that the presidential candidates grasp this opportunity to improve the protection of human rights for millions of people in Sri Lanka?  We’ll see.

UN official says Sri Lankan execution video authentic, calls for war crimes investigation

We mentioned in this site last August that a shocking video had been released which appeared to show extrajudicial killings in Sri Lanka during the final months of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The Sri Lankan government had denounced the video as a fake.  Today, a senior UN official presented the findings of three experts commissioned by him, which concluded that the video was authentic.   The official called for an independent inquiry into war crimes and other violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed during the war in Sri Lanka.   (The Sri Lankan government later criticized the UN official for publicly presenting his findings without first allowing the Sri Lankan government to respond.)

Separately today, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the Secretary-General is considering appointing a commission of experts to advise him on addressing possible violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.

Amnesty International has been calling for an international, independent investigation into reports of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes, by both sides during the closing stages of the war in Sri Lanka.  Will today’s statements at the UN mean that we may finally see such an investigation sometime soon?

Sri Lanka unlocks the camps, but not for long

I wish, I really wish, that I had only good news to report today.  Today was the day the Sri Lankan government promised that the displaced civilians who’d been held in military-run camps for the last 6 months would be free to leave the camps “sans any conditions being imposed.”  But it hasn’t worked out that way.  The civilians were told today they could leave but they also have to return to the camps soon

As the war ended in May this year with the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, about 280,000 civilians displaced by the fighting were placed in overcrowded, military-run camps which they weren’t allowed to leave.  The government said that the civilians first had to be  screened to determine whether there were any Tiger fighters among them.  Amnesty International pointed out that this violated the civilians’ freedom of movement and constituted arbitrary detention.  Amnesty launched its “Unlock the Camps” campaign to get the Sri Lankan government to allow the civilians to leave the camps if they wish to do so.

Since the end of the war, the government has released civilians from the camps, but according to the U.N., around 136,000 were still being held as of Nov. 25.

On Nov. 21, the Sri Lankan government announced that, as of Dec. 1, the civilians would at last be free to come and go from the camps.  Yesterday, a government minister said there would be no restrictions imposed on the duration of the civilians’ absence from the camps.


We'll believe it when we see it!

I finally have good news to report:  the Sri Lankan government announced this past Saturday that the displaced civilians unlawfully trapped in internment camps will be free to come and go as of December 1Amnesty International has been calling for this for the past several months in our “Unlock the Camps!” campaign.

However, while the government announcement and a Sri Lankan newspaper article said that the civilians were being given total freedom of movement as of Dec. 1, other accounts of the government’s announcement have been less positive.  Another Sri Lankan government report referred to the civilians being allowed freedom of movement only within the region of the camps, while the BBC and Oxfam spoke of civilians just being granted day passes to leave the camps temporarily (and a day-pass system had been announced last September by the Sri Lankan government).   U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes said yesterday that the civilians could leave the camps for days at a time, but it was still being discussed whether they could leave the camps permanently.   Human Rights Watch today said that some of the displaced civilians have been told by the government that they won’t be released on Dec. 1 but instead moved to other detention camps.

So, while I want to be optimistic and hope that the Sri Lankan government will actually let all the displaced civilians leave the camps if they wish as of Dec. 1, here it’s a case of “seeing is believing.”