Skip to main content

It is unfortunate that some Sri Lankan officials have spoken out against a proposal by European Union states, senior United Nations officials, and local and international human rights groups to establish an international human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka. While a monitoring mission under UN auspices cannot end all serious abuses in Sri Lanka, it can help reverse the deterioration in the human rights situation that now threaten Sri Lankans of all communities. What would an international human rights monitoring mission mean for Sri Lanka?

To be effective, the mission would be mandated to investigate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), government forces, and armed groups such as the Karuna faction; report publicly on its findings; and play a mediating role to help reduce local tensions. A monitoring mission will make it harder for those who commit serious human rights abuses to deny responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, the presence of international monitors on the ground could deter some atrocities - of which Sri Lankans have endured too many for too long - from ever taking place.

A monitoring mission would include trained and experienced monitors from all over the world, working under the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They would be based in key locations in the North and East, as well as in Colombo. Sri Lankan government officials and others have raised some objections to the proposed monitoring mission. It's useful to consider these one by one:

Objection 1: A human rights monitoring mission would infringe upon Sri Lankan sovereignty. A monitoring mission can only take place with the approval of the Sri Lankan government, and can only remain in place so long as the government agrees. So it's hard to see how this is an infringement of state sovereignty. In fact, the government has already permitted an international monitoring mission, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), to operate without any loss of state sovereignty.

For all its weaknesses, the SLMM has saved lives. This should be something the Sri Lankan government sees as an important contribution. It's also important to be clear that a UN monitoring mission is very different from the more familiar UN peacekeeping forces: a peacekeeping force consists of UN military personnel - "blue helmets" - intended to keep two armies from fighting, while a monitoring mission consists of a small group of civilian monitors whose focus is on deterring and investigating human rights abuses.

Objection 2: The SLMM and the UN are already monitoring abuses. The SLMM only monitors violations of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement between the government and the LTTE, not the full range of human rights abuses that continue to occur, and which would fall within the mandate of a UN monitoring mission. It doesn't really have the capacity or resources to investigate cases, but mostly just records them. The tiny UN human rights office in Sri Lanka has recently been increased from one professional staff member to three, and likewise is not able to conduct field investigations, so it is not a substitute for a UN mission that could monitor violations and protect Sri Lankans.

Objection 3: The government already established a presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate abuses since August 2005. We hope that the Commission of Inquiry will bring about prosecutions of all those responsible for the cases under its mandate, including the assassination of the foreign minister, the killing of five Tamil students in Trincomalee, and the murder of 17 humanitarian aid workers in Mutur. Unfortunately, the commission provides an easy excuse for existing investigatory bodies to delay their investigations and for the government to avoid greater demands from the international community. We hope the commission will show itself to be a serious institution. But however successful it proves to be, the commission doesn't have the resources or the mandate to investigate other serious offenses taking place daily - including the hundreds of politically motivated abductions reported in the past year.

Objection 4: A monitoring mission would only report on government abuses. Concerns have been raised that the international community is unfairly targeting the Sri Lankan government by proposing an international monitoring mission. This is not serious. Human Rights Watch and others requesting a UN human rights monitoring mission have long reported on LTTE abuses. The LTTE, like the government, has accused those of reporting on abuses of being biased.

The reality is that serious human rights investigators follow the facts. Any human rights monitoring mission would and must be politically impartial and capable of investigating abuses by anyone, including the LTTE, the Karuna group and government security forces. But the dramatic increase in human rights abuses and laws of war violations in the past year have for good reason brought the situation in Sri Lanka to the world's attention. The government should take advantage of this raised international concern to seek the assistance of foreign governments in addressing the problems facing the country and in protecting the lives of its citizens.

Objection 5: The LTTE would never agree to the establishment of an international human rights monitoring mission. The LTTE's anticipated response is no reason for Colombo to reject a monitoring mission. For practical and security reasons, it would be necessary for the LTTE to agree to international monitors.

Were the government to work with other countries to properly plan and resource a monitoring mission, it would put the LTTE on the spot: the LTTE constantly seeks acceptance from the international community and it would only look bad if it objected to international monitors.

The Sri Lankan government would also be sending a very strong signal to the international community that it was genuinely concerned with the state of human rights in the country and - more importantly - was willing to take a bold step to do something about it. Instead of dismissing out of hand the idea of a UN human rights monitoring mission, the Rajapakse government should take the initiative and begin discussions with concerned states to make this proposal a reality. Countless Sri Lankans will be grateful it did.

James Ross is Senior Legal Advisor at Human Rights Watch.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country

Most Viewed