Dear Human Rights Council Member:
Human Rights Watch is writing at the start of the Fourth Session of the Human Rights Council to urge action on the disturbing human rights situation in Sri Lanka. We raised the need for action before the Council’s Third Session, but the Council has not yet taken steps. We renew our request on the basis of new research findings, which confirm that the situation continues to get worse.
In recent months, the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has resulted in deaths and injuries to hundreds of civilians and the displacement of thousands more. Abductions, killings, and enforced disappearances implicating pro-government forces are on the rise. Particularly troubling is a government crackdown on the media, humanitarian agencies, and nongovernmental organizations on unsubstantiated claims they are supporting the LTTE.
Violations of International Humanitarian Law
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 (the laws of war).
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 suggest that the government is returning some families to Vaharai and Trincomalee without their consent.
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.
One individual incident in the area highlights the tenuous security situation. In early February, after the government defeated LTTE forces in Vaharai, army soldiers arrived at the home of a local Hindu priest, Salliah Parameswar, and demanded that he come with them. They took him to a victory ceremony in Vaharai, where the priest was instructed to garland President Mahinda Rajapakse as a sign that Tamils in the area welcomed what the government called their “liberation.” The event was widely publicized in the media. Five days later, unknown gunmen came to the priest’s house, took him from his family, and shot him dead.
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.
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 defence 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.
A presidential commission of inquiry and a corresponding group of eminent persons was established last year to investigate 15 cases of serious human rights violations. The commission was created in part to deflect growing pressure for the creation of a United Nations human rights monitoring mission. Human Rights Watch considers the commission an inadequate mechanism for addressing the wide spectrum of serious and ongoing abuse by all sides. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted, 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 a United Nations human rights monitoring mission is urgently required. We welcome the March 12 statement of Minister Mahanda Samarasinghe at the Human Rights Council announcing the government’s invitation to the UN special representatives on torture and the internally displaced. However, this is inadequate to report on serious abuses by the government and the LTTE that have already occurred and will not address the critical protection needs of Sri Lankans under threat from the government, LTTE and other armed groups. Monitors on the ground will help temper the behavior of all parties to the conflict, thereby saving lives. 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.
Human Rights Watch welcomes efforts to engage in dialogue with Sri Lanka but cautions 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. In particular, we urge Council members to take the following steps:
- Use the Fourth Session of the Council to raise human rights in Sri Lanka during the “other issues” part of the agenda and in response to reports by relevant UN experts, and encourage other concerned states to do the same.
- Help develop with the Sri Lankan government and other relevant parties a plan to place United Nations human rights monitors on the ground at the earliest opportunity.
- Commit to assessing the situation in Sri Lanka at the fifth Council session, or at a special session if necessary.
- Monitor the progress of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry and request the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report back on its progress at this and the next session of the Council.
We appreciate your attention to these pressing issues and stand ready to meet with you in Geneva or elsewhere to discuss these issues further.
Global Advocacy Director
Other UN member states
UN Secretary General
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights