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Sri Lanka: Letter to Human Rights Council

Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch is writing to urge you to act at the Third Session of the Human Rights Council to help reverse the worsening human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Specifically, we hope that you and other concerned states will raise Sri Lanka during the session and work with the Sri Lankan government towards establishing a United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka.

Since the September session of the Council, the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has continued to deteriorate. Civilians remain the primary victims of the escalating armed conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), exemplified by the shelling of a displaced persons camp in the eastern town of Kathiraveli on November 8 that left more than 40 civilians dead and one hundred wounded. Political killings by unknown gunmen occur daily in major towns of the north and east and in Colombo, where on November 10 a Tamil parliamentarian was murdered in broad daylight. And, as reported by Ambassador Allan Rock, Special Advisor to the Special Representative on children in armed conflict to the UN Secretary-General, both the Karuna group, with the complicity of government security forces, and the LTTE continue to abduct children into their armed forces. Investigations in Sri Lanka by Human Rights Watch, whose detailed findings are forthcoming, reached the same conclusion.

The government’s response to these developments has been inadequate. The government Commission of Inquiry, with an international advisory group of eminent persons, being organized to investigate fifteen or more serious cases from the past year, could be a useful step in addressing the longstanding problem of impunity in Sri Lanka. We hope that this commission will act independently and professionally and that its investigations will lead to the facts of each case and successful prosecutions of those responsible. However, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the international eminent persons group will play only a peripheral role, that measures to ensure witness protection will be inadequate to ensure that victims and other eyewitnesses come forward, and that the commission will succumb to delaying tactics by the targets of its investigations.

We are also concerned about the length of time it will take for the Commission to get started and to finish its work—at least one year from its official start date. Given the recent deterioration, we are greatly concerned that the human rights situation may be much worse than at present and that many more lives will be lost before the Commission is functional and issues its findings--after which a significant amount of additional time is likely to pass before its recommendations are acted on, if they are acted on at all.

While we do not know whether the creation of the Commission is a delaying tactic, as some in Sri Lanka fear, it is clear that as currently constituted it will not be able to play the kind of proactive and deterrent role to stop current and future abuses that a UN monitoring mission would play. As new cases arise, it is important that the government promptly investigate them, and not wait for the commission to submit its final report. We think it is crucial for Sri Lankan and international participants to be able to publicly raise concerns about individual cases and other issues prior to the issuance of the Commission’s final report. This would be an important measure to ensure that the process is relevant to the realities of Sri Lanka.

In September, Human Rights Watch issued “Improving Civilian Protection in Sri Lanka,” which set out 34 recommendations for the government and LTTE to protect civilians during hostilities. Most important is the need for an independent, international monitoring mission in conflict areas of Sri Lanka to help deter abuses by all sides, to rapidly investigate incidents that occur, and to promote efforts at accountability.

In addition to the numerous Sri Lankan and international human rights organizations that support this initiative, proponents include the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston. Ms. Arbour stated on November 7 that “It will be critically important for the Commission [of Inquiry] to establish not only individual responsibility for crimes, but the broader patterns and context in which they occur.” She noted that since a commission of inquiry could only investigate a selection of cases, a broader international mechanism was still needed to monitor, ultimately prevent, human rights violations in the longer term. Professor Alston stated on September 6 that recent events in Sri Lanka “demonstrate the urgent need for an international human rights monitoring mission. International human rights monitoring is not, of course, an invariably effective response even to situations involving widespread human rights abuse, but there are specific factors indicating that such an approach would be extremely valuable in Sri Lanka.”

Human Rights Watch has been advocating for innovative and graduated approaches to country situations at the Human Rights Council (“Human Rights Council: New Approaches to Addressing Human Rights Situations,” September 2006). We thus welcome efforts to engage in dialogue with Sri Lanka but caution that this should not result in self-censorship on situations that clearly fall within the remit of the Council. We urge Council members to act now and work with the Sri Lankan government so as not to allow the human rights situation in Sri Lanka to continue to deteriorate. Council members should:

  • Use the Third Session of the Council to raise human rights in Sri Lanka during the “other issues” part of the agenda – and encourage other concerned states to do the same.
  • Help develop with the Sri Lankan government a plan to place international human rights monitors on the ground at the earliest opportunity. The OHCHR mission in Nepal has saved lives -- and so could an international mission in Sri Lanka.
  • Commit to assessing the situation in Sri Lanka at the March Council session, or at a special session if necessary.
  • Monitor the progress of the Commission of Inquiry and request the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report back on its progress at the Council’s next session.

We appreciate your attention to these issues and would be pleased to meet with you in Geneva or elsewhere to discuss these issues further.

Sincerely,

Mariette Grange
Geneva Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch

Brad Adams
Asia Director
Human Rights Watch

Cc: Human Rights Council members

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