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Human Rights Watch is writing prior to your meeting with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. We are deeply concerned about the deteriorating human rights environment in Sri Lanka as major hostilities between the government and the armed opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) take place. We believe international actors have an influential role to play in protecting and promoting human rights, and we urge you to raise these matters with the president during your talks. A list of concrete recommendations comes at the end of the letter.
As the armed conflict in Sri Lanka continues, both the government and LTTE have shown a brazen disregard for the safety and well-being of civilians. By directing artillery fire at military targets and civilians without discrimination, firing artillery from populated areas, summarily executing persons, and unnecessarily preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid, both sides have violated international humanitarian law.
Members of the clergy have been among those targeted. We are particularly troubled by the case of Reverend Fr. Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown, who “disappeared” after he was stopped at a Sri Lanka Navy checkpoint on Kayts Island near Jaffna on August 20, 2006. He had reportedly been receiving death threats from senior Navy personnel.
Violations of International Humanitarian Law
For many years, Human Rights Watch has criticized the LTTE for its violations of international humanitarian law, including the use of children as combatants. We have called upon the Security Council to impose targeted sanctions against the LTTE for its use of child soldiers over many years. Yet the very disturbing trend of recent months has been the growing involvement of Sri Lankan military and police forces, as well as proxy armed groups, in serious violations of the laws of war and human rights. To date the government has taken no effective action to end these ongoing abuses.
The protection of internally displaced persons by the government remains a paramount concern as civilians continue to flee areas under LTTE control after government offensives. More than 100,000 displaced persons are currently in the eastern district of Batticaloa, and hundreds more are arriving every day as the fighting spreads. Government protection for these people has been very weak despite the presence of UNHCR, with regular threats and occasional violence, including abductions, by both the LTTE and pro-government armed groups.
In recent days the government has begun to return families to the area of Vaharai, which the government “cleared” of the LTTE in January, as well as parts of Trincomalee. In February Human Rights Watch spoke with displaced persons from both these areas who did not want to go home due to security concerns and worries about ways to secure their livelihood. Initial reports coming out of Batticaloa this week strongly suggest that the government is returning some families to Vaharai and Trincomalee against their will.
Child Recruitment and Government Support for Karuna and Other Armed Groups
Of deep concern is the government’s continued support for abusive armed groups. There is now a clear pattern of the state turning a blind eye to abductions, extrajudicial executions, and extortion committed by these groups. In the east, the Karuna group, a breakaway faction of the LTTE, is responsible for ongoing child recruitment, abductions, and targeted killings, as well as intimidation and violence against the internally displaced. Despite widely publicized criticisms of the group’s practices by the UN special advisor to the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Human Rights Watch, and other nongovernmental human rights organizations, the Karuna group continues to abduct and use children as soldiers, often with blatant complicity of the Sri Lankan military and police.
Although the Sri Lankan government has denied these reports, the evidence that state security forces are aware of, and in some cases working with, the Karuna group is overwhelming. In February Human Rights Watch observed armed children guarding Karuna political offices in plain view of the Sri Lankan army and police. A top Karuna commander was seen riding atop an army personnel carrier. Armed Karuna cadre openly roam the streets in Batticaloa district in sight of security forces, and in some cases they jointly patrol with the police. Despite its denials, the Sri Lankan government knows about the abductions and has apparently done nothing to make them stop.
President Rajapakse and other top government officials have repeatedly promised to investigate allegations that Sri Lankan security forces are complicit in these crimes. To date, no serious investigation has taken place. On the contrary, some parents of abducted children have been threatened not to report their case, or to state that the abductor of their children is unknown.
Enforced disappearances attributed to state security forces are also on the rise. In the Jaffna peninsula alone, the government’s Human Rights Commission has recorded 707 cases of missing persons since December 2005, 492 of whom are still missing. In the vast majority of reported cases, witnesses and family members allege that security forces were involved or implicated in the abduction. Jaffna residents reported 55 abductions over the past three months during curfew hours, when only security forces are on the streets in this heavily militarized region.
Abductions continue in the capital, Colombo. As of February 7, the Civil Monitoring Committee, an organization documenting disappearances, had recorded 51 abduction cases in and around the city over the previous year. Thirty-four of the people were still missing and six had turned up dead. Most of the others were released after paying a ransom. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed more than one dozen families of persons missing from Colombo and other parts of the country, who were last seen being taken away by the military or police.
Father Jim Brown, a parish priest in the village of Allaipiddy on Kayts Island, and another man, Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas, left Allaipiddy in the early afternoon of August 20, 2006, for the nearby village of Mandaithivu. The Sri Lankan military did not allow them men to enter. On the way back to Allaipiddy they were stopped at a navy checkpoint, and they have not been seen again.
Father Jim Brown was known to have helped many civilians to move from Allaipiddy
to the town of Kayts after fighting in the area between the Sri Lankan Navy at the LTTE. In fighting on August 13, at least 54 civilians were injured and 15 lost their lives.
Dangerous Emergency Regulations
Enforced disappearances could be facilitated by the sweeping emergency regulations, reinstated in December 2006, after the LTTE’s attempt to assassinate Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, brother of the president. The regulations give the security forces’ expansive powers of search, arrest, detention, and seizure of property, including the right to make arrests without warrants and to hold individuals in unacknowledged detention for up to twelve months. Most of those detained under the emergency regulations are young Tamil men deemed by the security forces to have LTTE ties. Increasingly, however, the regulations are being used against Muslims and Sinhalese who challenge or criticize the state.
The current set of emergency regulations has also reintroduced a provision allowing the disposal of the bodies of persons who die in police custody without public notification. This gives uncontrolled discretionary power to the police in ordering the cremation of bodies, which could lead to the premature destruction of forensic evidence. Given the large numbers of “disappearances,” the prospect for misuse is a deep concern.
Intimidation of Civil Society and Threats to the Media
At the same time, the government is using the “war on terror” paradigm to intimidate the media, non-governmental organizations, and others with independent or dissenting views. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that the government, driven by the Sri Lankan defense establishment, is dismissing critics as allies of the LTTE and traitors of the state.
The government has dangerously ratcheted up its criticism of civil society, especially in the media. In February 2007 Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Champika Ranawaka of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Buddhist monk party in the government coalition, advocated extrajudicial methods to deal with human rights groups, journalists, and others who criticize the state’s militaristic aims. “Those bastards are traitors. We can’t do anything because of wild donkey freedom in this country,” he told the Ravaya newspaper on February 18. “If those can’t be handled with existing laws we know how to do it. If we can’t suppress those bastards with the law we need to use any other ways and means, yes.” To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, no one in the government has condemned the minister’s words.
On March 8 the government’s peace secretariat vehemently dismissed the growing allegations of human rights violations as propaganda of the LTTE, suggesting that those reporting human rights violations were assisting the insurgent group. “Any group or organization, falling prey to this malicious propaganda of the LTTE, without prior inquiry, investigation or reliable verification, could as well be accused of complicity in propagating and disseminating the message and motives of the LTTE,” a statement said. Given Sri Lanka’s new emergency regulations, which criminalize “aiding and abetting the LTTE,” this lumping of human rights groups with the LTTE could silence local and international organizations working to report objectively on human rights.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that these verbal attacks will lead to physical assaults. Nongovernmental organizations have reported an increase in death threats from anonymous people over the phone.
The media has also come under attack. On February 26 officials from the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the police detained Dushyantha Basnayake, Director of the Sinhala newspaper Mawbima. The TID has held another journalist from the paper, Munusamy Parameshawary, without charge for the last three months. On February 5, three trade unionists who write for their union publication were abducted from suburbs around Colombo; three days later the government announced that they had been arrested under the emergency regulations for suspected ties to the LTTE.
Over the past fifteen months nine media workers have lost their lives in varying circumstances, and no one has been charged with the deaths. The Karuna group in the east has issued death threats to the distributors of the Tamil-language newspapers Sudar Oli, Virakesari and Thinakkural. The military has been denying journalists access to LTTE-controlled areas and, as before, those journalists working in LTTE-controlled territories are under pressure not to criticize the LTTE.
Impunity Remains the Norm
Sri Lanka’s law-enforcement authorities have proven woefully incapable of dealing with the abuse. The peace secretariat’s statement of March 8 provides the results of police investigations into nine cases of abductions and “disappearances,” but this represents a small fraction of the total number of cases reported every month. A positive sign came on March 6 when the Inspector General of Police, Victor Perera, announced that the police had arrested over 400 persons since September 2006 on charges of abduction, including “ex-soldiers, serving, soldiers, police officers and underworld gangs and other organized elements.” Perera refused to provide further details and it remains to be seen whether these people will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
A barrier to accountability lies in the non-implementation of the constitution’s 17th amendment, which provides for the establishment of a Constitutional Council to appoint independent members to various government commissions. By ignoring the amendment, the president has been able to directly appoint commissioners dealing with the police, public service and human rights, thereby robbing these important institutions of their independence and legitimacy.
Sri Lanka’s law-enforcement authorities have proven woefully incapable of dealing with the abuse. The much publicized Commission of Inquiry and its group of international observers, including one US expert, established last year to investigate 15 cases of serious human rights violations may bring results, but Human Rights Watch considers it an inadequate mechanism for addressing the wide spectrum of serious and ongoing abuse. The commission will only investigate a selection of cases, and a broader international mechanism is needed to monitor and ultimately prevent human rights violations in the longer term.
To address the intensifying abuse, Human Rights Watch believes an international human rights monitoring mission under UN auspices is urgently required. Monitors on the ground will help temper the behavior of all parties to the conflict, thereby protecting lives. A number of European Union states have already publicly expressed support for such a monitoring mission. We hope that the US government will back such an initiative and encourage key allies such as India to do the same.
In particular, Human Rights Watch encourages you to raise the following points with President Rajapakse when you meet:
1. The Sri Lankan government should bring an end to child abductions by the Karuna group in the east, which is now done in plain view of the military and police. Abducted children and young men should be released and returned to their families.
2. The government should end the “disappearances” by the state and state-sponsored armed groups, including the Karuna group, EPDP and PLOTE, and prosecute those responsible.
3. The government should make public a list of all persons detained by the military and police under emergency regulations and other laws, and provide these people proper access to their families and legal representation.
4. Under no circumstances should the government forcibly return internally displaced persons and should instead work with displaced communities to provide for genuinely voluntary and safe returns.
5. The Sri Lankan government should accept a United Nations human rights monitoring mission to monitor abuses by both the LTTE and state security forces.
We greatly appreciate your attention to these pressing issues and your consideration of the recommendations above. We hope our proposals will help protect civilians, promote human rights, and assist the development of a lasting political solution.
Human Rights Watch