Background Briefing

V. Promoting Adherence to International Human Rights Standards

Serious human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan security forces, the LTTE and other armed groups have continued since the resurgence of fighting. The LTTE has been implicated in more than 200 killings since the 2002 ceasefire, often of Tamils considered to be LTTE opponents, and continues to engage in targeted attacks. The LTTE and the Karuna group frequently engage in tit-for-tat murders, with the victims often having at most a distant connection to either group. Government security forces have been implicated in several massacres since the beginning of 2006, as well as a number of “disappearances.”

A. Cease extrajudicial killings

On April 7 in Trincomalee, unidentified gunmen believed to be connected to the government armed forces shot and killed Vanniasingham Vigneswaran, a local councilor with the Tamil National Alliance, an LTTE-backed political grouping. The killing took place in a high-security area near the police and navy headquarters.71 Vigneswaran was expected to be named to fill the national parliamentary seat held by Joseph Pararajasingham, a Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian who was murdered in Batticaloa on Christmas Eve in 2005.

On the evening of August 12, two unidentified gunmen came to the Colombo home of Kethesh Loganathan, deputy head of the government’s Peace Secretariat, called him outside and fatally shot him. He was a passionate supporter of Tamil rights and a longtime critic of the LTTE. Occurring exactly one year to the day of the LTTE assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Loganathan’s death had all the hallmarks of an LTTE political killing.

Extrajudicial killings by the LTTE, the Karuna group and other armed groups occurred with great frequency throughout the ceasefire period, perhaps totaling 300.72 The great majority of the victims have been Tamils who were viewed as political opponents of the LTTE, or a member—or somehow connected to a member—of one or another group. In the past year, government security forces have increasingly been implicated in extrajudicial killings. Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, summed up the broader social impact of the widespread killings in his March 2006 report to the UN Commission on Human Rights:

The social consequences of these political killings are… exponentially more severe that those that would follow from a comparable number of common crimes or random ceasefire violations. The purpose of these killings has been to repress and divide the population for political gain. Today many people—most notably, Tamil and Muslim civilians—face a credible threat of death for exercising freedoms of expression, movement, association, and participation in public affairs. The role of political killings in suppressing a range of human rights explains why members of civil society raised this more than any other issue.73

Recommendation 23: The Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and all armed groups must stop extrajudicial killings and hold those responsible accountable. The government must investigate all alleged political killings and fully and fairly prosecute those implicated.

B. Stop enforced disappearances

On May 6, eight young Tamil men “disappeared”74 from the premises of a Hindu temple in Manduvil in Jaffna district where they were spending the night prior to a festival. The media reported that in the days before the festival, military personnel from the nearby Varani army camp made several visits to the temple. Villagers said that on the night of May 6 they heard shots and the sounds of heavy vehicles. The next morning the temple was empty; blood stains and ID cards from three of the young men were found on the temple grounds. When family members of the missing called for a search of the scrub jungle nearby, the authorities declared a sixteen-hour curfew, effectively delaying a search by the villagers. 75 The eight men remain “disappeared” and no bodies have been located.

Following fighting in August in Allaipiddy on Kayts Island off the Jaffna peninsula in which at least 15 civilians died and more than 50 were injured, Father Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown assisted civilians fleeing to Kayts town. He then reportedly began receiving death threats from senior officers at the Allaipiddy naval camp accusing him of helping the LTTE to dig bunkers. On August 20 Father Jim Brown and Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas went missing. They were last seen by a friend at a Sri Lankan navy checkpoint outside Allaipiddy. The men had been returning to Allaipiddy, where Father Jim Brown is the parish priest, after the navy prevented them from visiting nearby Mandaithivu Island. Kayts Island is tightly controlled by the Sri Lankan navy. Rear Admiral Upali Ranaweera, commander of the navy’s Northern Region, denied that the two men had been detained. When Kayts police reportedly requested that the navy produce evidence of the registration of the two men when they passed through the checkpoint, the navy refused.76

During two decades of civil war, more than 12,000 cases of “disappearances” have been reported to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.77  Virtually all of those since 1990 have occurred in the context of the armed conflict between the government and the LTTE. In about 5,000 of those cases, the victim has been confirmed dead; in most of the others there has been no resolution. Few cases have been prosecuted.

Recommendation 24: The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE should take all steps necessary to bring an end to the practice of “disappearances.” Investigate all cases of enforced disappearance and continue the investigation until the fate of the victim is clearly and publicly established. Hold accountable all those who order or carry out “disappearances.”

C. Revise emergency regulations to meet international human rights standards

On September 1, the inspector general of police announced that the police had arrested three young women, aged 18 to 20, who were being hospitalized for injuries suffered in the military’s August 14 aerial bombing in Mullaitivu district. Two of the women were still being treated at Kandy General Hospital for serious neurological injuries, while the third was in police custody. The inspector general said they were being held for questioning under legal provisions, evidently the Emergency Regulations, that allow for detention for up to 90 days.78 While in custody, the women were questioned about whether the LTTE had provided them with military training.79

The Sri Lankan government has imposed some form of emergency rule or regulations nearly continuously since 1971. Following the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, the government enacted emergency regulations drawn from the Emergency Regulations of 2000.80 The vaguely worded regulations enhance the powers of the police and military to arrest and detain persons suspected for a wide range of acts. The authorities may search, detain for the purpose of a search and arrest without a warrant any person suspected of an offense under the Emergency Regulations. Persons arrested must be turned over to the police within 24 hours and their family provided an “arrest receipt” acknowledging custody. Detentions are for up to 90 days. Additionally, the secretary of defense may order persons held in preventive detention for up to one year. There is no requirement that authorized places of detention be published.81 

The Emergency Regulations on their face raise important due process concerns. As the regulations are implemented, the concerns become magnified. The military and the police routinely detain Tamils suspected of involvement with the LTTE under the Emergency Regulations. The safeguards provided in the regulations are often ignored: family members of those taken into custody are not give arrest receipts; and, the 90-day limit on detentions has little importance because police can easily get remands from magistrates, effectively permitting indefinite detention.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is party, permits limitations on some rights during periods of national emergency. However, such measures are limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. Certain basic rights, such as the right to life and to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, may never be restricted. The principles of legality and the rule of law require that the fundamental requirements of a fair trial be respected even under emergency regulations.82

Recommendation 25: The Sri Lankan government should repeal or amend the Emergency Regulations of 2005 to comply with international human rights standards. Until they are so revised, local authorities must fully comply with the protections provided to persons detained under the regulations and under international human rights standards. The government should carry out an awareness campaign targeting all police stations to ensure that those detained are receiving the security guarantees provided in the regulations.

D. Enforce presidential directives on detention

On Friday, August 18 in Trincomalee at about 11 a.m., unidentified men in a van, supported by masked men on motorcycles, abducted four youth from the Orr’s Hill Kumaran playground. A fifth youth was taken, but was left behind after his parents arrived on the scene. The Sunday Virakesri reported that the police denied any knowledge of the arrests. In light of the extrajudicial executions of five Tamil students in Trincomalee in January and the ongoing shelling in the area, there was considerable concern for the safety of the four youth. One youth was released that Friday night; the Trincomalee police, who reportedly said the youths were turned over to them by the army, released the remaining three on the evening of Monday, August 21.83

Illegal arrests and detentions are a widespread problem. On July 7, in response to public concerns, the government re-issued the Presidential Directives on the Arrest or Detention of Persons. The directives restate the statutory authority of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to monitor the welfare of persons detained through regular inspections of places of detention and require that the police inform the commission within 48 hours of all arrests and detentions. The police must also provide relatives of persons arrested with receipts, though in Batticaloa, for instance, families have been routinely denied receipts for the arrests. Many police stations are believed not to have copies of the directives (which were in legal force but widely ignored before they were reissued).84 On July 19, a ministerial body issued a statement calling for the implementation of the Presidential Directives.85

Recommendation 26: The Sri Lankan government should take steps to ensure the implementation of the Presidential Directives on the Arrest or Detention of Persons, including providing all police stations with the directives in Tamil and Sinhala, ensuring the availability of receipt books, and conducting appropriate training and follow-up to ensure their proper use. Appropriate action should be taken against station officers who fail to implement the directives. Police stations without Tamil speakers should establish contacts with appropriate civil society groups who can provide Tamil language assistance. Local offices of the Human Rights Commission should monitor police compliance with the directives.

E. Support a United Nations human rights monitoring mission

The failure of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement to bring an end to serious human rights abuses by the LTTE, government security forces and various armed groups demonstrates the need for greater human rights monitoring in the country. For reasons of access and safety, domestic human rights organizations cannot carry this burden on their own. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was established under the Ceasefire Agreement to monitor ceasefire violations, including “torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment” of civilians, by the government and the LTTE, which it has done under increasingly difficult circumstances. However, the SLMM has neither the mandate nor the capability to fully investigate the increasing number and range of human rights abuses. The decision by Denmark, Finland and Sweden to withdraw their monitors on September 1 after the LTTE called for the expulsion of all monitors from European Union countries sharply reduced the SLMM contingent—from 57 to about 30 expatriate staff—stretching further the SLMM’s monitoring capabilities.86

Human Rights Watch, along with many Sri Lankan and international human rights organizations, has called for the establishment of an international human rights monitoring mission under the auspices of the Office the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Such a mission would have the mandate and expertise to monitor human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations by all sides throughout government and LTTE-controlled areas in the north and east, as well as in Colombo.87

One model for such an undertaking is the successful UN monitoring mission established last year in Nepal. The Nepal mission was set up to monitor abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by both government and rebel forces with a view to preventive or remedial action. The mission has a detailed mandate to investigate cases, including in rebel-held areas. The mission also advises state and non-state entities on the promotion and protection of human rights.

A UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka would be best placed to deter abuses through the active presence of international monitors; to thoroughly, impartially and independently investigate alleged abuses by all sides and report publicly on its findings; and to support efforts of governmental and non-governmental entities to hold accountable those responsible for abuses.  Such a monitoring mission could help support and build the capacity of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission and other human rights organizations in the country to strengthen human rights monitoring over the long term.

Recommendation 27: The government should request that the United Nations establish an international monitoring mission in Sri Lanka with the capability to monitor and publicly report on the human rights situation in conflict-affected areas of the country, in particular the north and east and in Colombo. The LTTE should express support for such a monitoring mission.

71 See UTHR(J), “When Indignation is Past and the Dust Settles,” p. 6.

72 See Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, “Mission to Sri Lanka (28 November to 6 December 2005),” E/CN.4/2006/53/Add.5, March 27, 2006.

73 Ibid., para. 5.

74 Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, E/CN.4/2005/WG.22/WP.1/Rev.4 (2005), defines a “disappearance” as:

the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.

75 See INFORM, “Some Key Concerns Regarding the Human Rights Situation.”

76 See Amnesty International, “Fear of Safety/Possible “disappearance,” Urgent Action 230/06, August 29, 2006,    

77 UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Working Group on Enforced

or Involuntary Disappearances, “Question of enforced or involuntary disappearances,” E/CN.4/2005/65, December 23, 2004.

78 The women are apparently being held under the Emergency Regulations, which permits 90-day police custody plus indefinite remand thereafter. It is unlikely that they are being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been suspended under the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (“The Parties agree that search operations and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act shall not take place. Arrests shall be conducted under due process of law in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code.” Ceasefire Agreement, article 2.12.).

79 “Police in Sri Lanka arrest 3 suspected female rebels at hospital,” Associated Press, September 1, 2006. The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that the three women had been transferred to the Kandy General Hospital because inadequate medical facilities in the LTTE-controlled area.

80 Article 155 of the Sri Lankan Constitution on public security empowers the president to declare a state of emergency. The parliament has 14 days to approve the measure and then must renew the state of emergency every 30 days thereafter.

81 The Emergency Regulations also provide for house arrest, prohibitions on an individual from leaving the country, restrictions on the movement of certain persons or groups, and limitations on an individual’s business or employment. They empower the police to require homeowners to register at a local police station. The regulations also allow for the censorship of articles related broadly to “sensitive” issues and the disruption and banning of public meetings.

82 See generally, Human Rights Committee, General Comment 29, States of Emergency (article 4), U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11 (2001), reprinted in Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6 at 186 (2003). Sri Lanka ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1980.

83 Human Rights Watch interview, Colombo, August 19, 2006; see also, UTHR(J), “Hubris and Humanitarian Catastrophe,” p. 14.

84 Human Rights Watch interview, Colombo, August 23, 2006.

85 Government of Sri Lanka, Inter-Ministerial Committee on Human Rights, “Implementation of Presidential Directives on the Arrest or Detention of Persons,” Press Release, July 19, 2006.

86 The ceasefire agreement states that the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission shall be composed of representatives from Nordic countries, and requires that any modifications to the agreement have the mutual consent of the government and the LTTE. Denmark, Finland and Sweden apparently agreed to pull out their monitors by September 1 without apparent consent from the Sri Lankan government. This withdrawal left only the non-EU states of Norway and Iceland as part of the mission.

87 A detailed analysis for a proposed international human rights monitoring mechanism in Sri Lanka can be found in the working paper by Alan Keenan et al., “Independent International Human Rights Monitoring in Sri Lanka,” October 6, 2005.