(New York) - The Sri Lankan government is responsible for unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations since the resumption of major hostilities with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last year, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Human Rights Watch documented a dramatic increase in abuses by government forces over the past 18 months, and called on the country’s donors and concerned governments to support a United Nations monitoring mission in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE, an armed Tamil secessionist group, is responsible for serious crimes such as targeted civilian killings, extortion and the use of child soldiers, which Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented and condemned.

The new 129-page report, "Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege,” uses accounts by victims and eyewitnesses to document the shocking increase in violations by government forces. Ethnic Tamils have borne the brunt of these violations, the report said, but members of the Muslim and majority Sinhalese population are not immune to government abuse.

“The Sri Lankan government has apparently given its security forces a green light to use ‘dirty war’ tactics,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Abuses by the LTTE are no excuse for the government’s campaign of killings, ‘disappearances’ and forced returns of the displaced.”

A 2002 ceasefire agreement between the government and the LTTE technically remains in force, but major hostilities resumed in mid-2006. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, have pursued military operations in the country’s north and east, with little regard for the security of the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said.

Security forces have subjected civilians to indiscriminate attacks and impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid. Some 315,000 people have had to flee their homes due to fighting since August 2006, the vast majority Tamils and Muslims. About 100,000 were displaced in March alone. Government authorities have forced some to return to areas that remained insecure.

Human Rights Watch documented a disturbing rise in abductions and “disappearances” over the past one-and-a-half years. More than 1,100 new cases were reported between January 2006 and June 2007, the vast majority of them Tamils. While the LTTE has long been responsible for abductions, the majority of recent “disappearances” implicate government forces or armed groups acting with governmental complicity.

On the northern Jaffna peninsula alone, an area under strict military control, more than 800 people were reported missing between December 2005 and April 2007, 241 of whom were subsequently found. In the vast majority of cases, witnesses and family members allege that security forces were involved or implicated in the abduction.

In December 2006 the government expanded the Emergency Regulations reintroduced in August 2005, labeling as terrorist offenses a range of peaceful activities. The government has since used the regulations to prosecute political opponents and members of the media.

The report documents the deterioration of media freedom in Sri Lanka, where 11 media workers have been killed since August 2005. Tamil journalists in particular work under severe threat from both the LTTE and government, but the government has also pressured Sinhala-language outlets that present critical news and views.

The government has tried to silence those who question or criticize its approach to the armed conflict or its human rights record. It has dismissed peaceful critics as “traitors,” “terrorist sympathizers,” and “supporters of the LTTE.”

“The government is using its conflict with the LTTE and the rhetoric of counterterrorism to suppress dissent in Sri Lanka,” said Adams. “This is an extremely disturbing turn in a country with a long tradition of free speech even during times of conflict.”

Human Rights Watch found that the Karuna group, a Tamil armed group that split from the LTTE in 2004 and now cooperates with Sri Lankan forces against the LTTE, continues to abduct and forcibly recruit children and young men into its force with the complicity or acquiescence of the Sri Lankan government. UNICEF has documented 145 cases of recruitment and re-recruitment of children by the Karuna group since December 2006, and the real number is most likely higher.

The Karuna group has also kidnapped for ransom scores of Tamil businessmen in Batticaloa, Vavuniya, and the capital Colombo. Despite repeated promises to investigate state complicity in Karuna group abductions, the government has thus far not indicated that it has taken any steps to investigate, and the abductions have continued unabated.

In a January 2007 report, Human Rights Watch documented the pattern of Karuna abductions with the complicity or willful blindness of the Sri Lankan government.

Impunity for human rights violations 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, the government has displayed a clear unwillingness to hold accountable those responsible for serious violations.

A Presidential Commission of Inquiry created in 2006 to examine specific cases of serious human rights abuse by the government and the LTTE has proven inadequate to handle the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, the report concludes. The commission seems an effort to stave off domestic and international criticism rather than a sincere attempt to promote accountability and to deter future abuse.

“The government has repeatedly promised to end and investigate abuses, but has shown a lack of political will to take effective steps,” Adams said. “Government institutions have proven unable or unwilling to deal with the scale and intensity of abuse.”

Human Rights Watch called on Sri Lanka’s international donors to use their leverage with both the government and the LTTE to encourage respect for international law, including the protection of civilians during hostilities. International aid is one lever, and governments such as the United Kingdom and Germany have recently elected to limit aid until government practices improve.

Concerned states should also work within the United Nations Human Rights Council to initiate and support strong Council resolutions on Sri Lanka to encourage a change in practices of both the government and the LTTE, the report said.

Most importantly, concerned countries and the Sri Lankan government should work to establish a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka with a mandate to monitor, investigate and report on abuses by the government, the LTTE and the Karuna group.

“A UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka would help protect civilians, end impunity and promote a resolution to the conflict that respects human rights,” Adams said.

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