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Sri Lanka: Testimony Before the European Parliament Committee on Development

Public Hearing: The Human Rights Situation and Humanitarian Space in Sri Lanka

Your Excellencies and Colleagues,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak at this gathering. This event could not be happening at a more timely moment.

Sri Lanka faces a human rights crisis. The cease-fire between the government and the LTTE exists only in name. Over the past 14 months, as major military hostilities between the two sides have resumed, civilians have paid a heavy price. This has happened both directly in the fighting and in the ever-increasing number of abductions, killings, and enforced disappearances.

The LTTE has consistently violated human rights and international humanitarian law. In its fight for an independent Tamil state, the armed group has directly targeted civilians with Claymore mines and suicide bombers. It has summarily executed persons in its custody and forcibly recruited for combat boys, girls, men, and women. It continues to murder its political opponents, largely in the Tamil community, and runs a near totalitarian state in the areas of the country’s north and east under its control.

At Human Rights Watch, we have consistently documented abuses by the LTTE, particularly the LTTE’s systematic recruitment and use of child soldiers and the group’s heavy-handed fundraising tactics abroad. This is something we will continue to do in the future.

However, what has become a source of deep concern to us is the Sri Lankan government’s human rights track record over the past year, which has taken a decisive turn for the worse. As hostilities increased, eager to destroy the LTTE at all costs, the government’s respect for Sri Lankan and international law has sharply declined.

Some of the most serious violations have taken place in the areas of open conflict, where civilians have died and been displaced. Both the government and the LTTE have shown a brazen disregard for the well-being of civilians.

The treatment of internally displaced persons remains a paramount concern. Some 315,000 people have had to flee their homes due to fighting since August 2006; 100,000 fled in March 2007 alone. This comes atop the 200,000-250,000 people made homeless by the 2004 tsunami and the approximately 315,000 displaced from the conflict prior to 2002. Since January 2006, more than 16,000 Sri Lankans have fled to India as refugees.

Both the LTTE and the government have failed to provide for the needs of the displaced. The LTTE has at times blocked civilians from leaving areas of conflict, while the government through its indiscriminate shelling and restrictions on humanitarian aid has encouraged civilians to flee. The government has forcibly returned scores of displaced persons after it deemed their home areas “cleared” of the LTTE, but without adequate security or humanitarian assistance in place.

The spiraling number of enforced disappearances is also cause for alarm. As of mid-May, more than 1,100 people had “disappeared”. The vast majority of these are Tamils. While the LTTE and other armed groups are responsible for some disappearances, many occurred in government-controlled territory and involved government forces, either directly or with their complicity.

Some of the “disappeared” may be in detention or may have been arrested under newly imposed Emergency Regulations. If so, the government should announce the names of such persons, as well as the charges against them, and the locations at which they are held. Such persons should be detained in accordance with international legal standards, and enjoy all the basic rights of detainees including for example access to medical care and legal assistance. Based on the pattern of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, we believe that many are dead.

On Jaffna peninsula alone, an area of strict military control, the quasi-governmental Human Rights Commission recorded 707 cases of missing persons since December 2005, 492 of whom were still missing as of March 2007. 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.

We are deeply concerned about the Emergency Regulations that came into effect after the LTTE’s assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005. These vaguely worded regulations allow for the detention of any person “acting in any manner prejudicial to the national security or to the maintenance of public order, or to the maintenance of essential services.” The authorities may search, detain for the purpose of a search, and arrest without a warrant any person suspected of an offense under the regulations. Detainees can be held up to 12 months without charge. This is a clear violation of international law, and specifically Sri Lanka’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, Article 9).

While most people arrested are ethnic Tamil men between the ages of 18 and 40, some arrests expanded beyond the Tamil community. By February 2007, security forces had arrested and detained 11 Sinhalese civilians under the regulations, charging them with supporting the LTTE.

In December 2006, the government introduced another Emergency Regulation called the Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities. The broad, sweeping language allows for the criminalization of a range of peaceful activities that are protected under Sri Lankan and international law. Some of the regulations could be used to justify a crackdown on the media and civil society organizations.

Throughout late 2006 and early 2007, the Sri Lankan government continued its support for the abusive Karuna group. This Tamil armed group split from the LTTE in 2004 and now cooperates with the Sri Lankan military in their common fight against the LTTE. Despite ongoing international scrutiny and criticism, including from the United Nations, the Karuna group has continued to forcibly recruit children for use as soldiers with state complicity. There is now a clear pattern of the state being complicit with or turning a blind eye to abductions, extrajudicial executions, and extortion committed by this group.

As the armed conflict intensifies, the government has taken active steps to silence those who question or criticize its militaristic approach. It has dismissed critics as “traitors,” “terrorist sympathizers,” and “supporters of the LTTE.” And it has used anti-terror legislation to prosecute those with alternative information or critical views.

Freedom of the press has taken a serious blow. Eleven media persons have been killed in Sri Lanka since August 2005, placing the country second after Iraq for media worker deaths worldwide. To date, no one has been convicted for any of the killings.

Tamil journalists work under severe threat from both the LTTE and government forces. The circulation of some Tamil newspapers was unofficially banned in parts of the North and East. In October 2006 and again in January 2007 the Karuna Group blocked the delivery of the newspapers Thinakural, Virakesari and Sudar Oli in Batticaloa and Ampara.

In LTTE areas, media freedom is severely restricted. The LTTE has been implicated in abductions of media workers and the killing of journalists. The LTTE has routinely pressured Tamil journalists and attempted to force Tamil media practitioners to resign from state-owned media.

Impunity for crimes by government security forces, long a problem in Sri Lanka, remains a disturbing norm. As the conflict intensifies and government forces are implicated in a longer list of abuses, from arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances to war crimes, the government has displayed a clear unwillingness to hold accountable those responsible for serious crimes under Sri Lankan and international law. Government institutions have proven inadequate to deal with the scale and intensity of abuse.

The non-implementation of the Constitution’s 17th Amendment which provides for the establishment of the Constitutional Council to nominate independent members to various government commissions, including the Human Rights Commission, poses a barrier to accountability. Ignoring the amendment, the president has directly appointed commissioners to the bodies that deal with the police, public service, and human rights, thereby placing their independence in doubt.

In response to rising domestic and international concerns about human rights violations, in November 2006 the government established a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate serious cases of human rights violations since August 1, 2005. Instead of an international commission, as many human rights groups had urged, the commission is composed of Sri Lankan members, along with an international group of advisors and observers, called the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP).

The commission is restricted to investigating 16 serious cases of violations, although the mandate allows the commission to add cases to that list. Still, the commission lacks the resources and mandate to investigate the serious offences that continue to take place on a regular basis, such as indiscriminate attacks on civilians, abductions, and political killings.

Second, the commission has no enforcement power; it can only recommend to the government the steps to take. The president is not even required to make the final report public. Third, the absence of an adequate witness protection program endangers those who may step forward to report abuse by the military or police. Fourth, the attorney general’s office, which has a direct role in the commission’s investigations, has already refused to provide the commission with some requested information, suggesting that the government will impede the commission’s work. Finally, the head of the commission is trying to limit the work of the international experts to an observer-only role, which would prohibit them from conducting investigations and speaking with witnesses on their own.

All of these problems suggest that the Commission of Inquiry will have little impact on breaking the climate of impunity in Sri Lanka today. The present government has shown no willingness to seriously address the downward spiraling human rights crisis, and the commission seems more an effort to stave off domestic and international criticism than a sincere attempt to promote accountability and the rule of law.

Given the Commission of Inquiry’s shortcomings and the rapid escalation in human rights violations, foreign governments and international organizations have an important role to play. They can and should act to help protect civilians and to promote the rule of law.

In particular, international donors should encourage and pressure the government to take the necessary steps to end abuse. The Sri Lankan government has time and again pledged to the international community and its people that it will protect human rights and promote democracy. And now the donors should hold them to respect that claim.

Concretely, the international community should work with the government and the LTTE to establish a United Nations human rights monitoring mission to monitor government, LTTE, and Karuna group violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Thank You.

Testimony delivered on June 5, 2007, by Charu Hogg, South Asia researcher, Human Rights Watch.

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