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Sri Lanka: Launch of the Human Rights Watch Report “Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege” in the European Parliament

Your Excellencies and Colleagues,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to discuss our recent report on Sri Lanka at this gathering.

Human Rights Watch has consistently documented abuses by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in particular its abominable use of child soldiers and coercive fundraising tactics in Canada and the UK, as well as targeted killings and other serious violations of Sri Lankan and international law. We have called for the UN to impose targeted sanctions against the LTTE due to its “repeat offender” status with regard to child soldiers. Our research on the LTTE’s international fund-raising tactics is presented on the government’s Peace Secretariat website and the Sri Lankan government has used our report on that topic in its advocacy to get the LTTE proscribed in Europe.

It was with a deep sense of sadness and dismay that we researched and released this report on human rights violations by the government in Sri Lanka. This report documents violations by the government because we see serious back-sliding in the government’s human rights record since the resumption of major hostilities in mid-2006. We determined through our research that the Sri Lankan government has not taken adequate care to minimize harm to the civilian population during the fighting, nor has it acted to uphold the basic human rights of all Sri Lankans. As our report shows, government security forces have been implicated in enforced disappearances, forcible returns of internally displaced persons to unsafe areas, restrictions on the media that undermine press freedom, apparent complicity with the abusive Karuna group, and widespread impunity for serious human rights

Human rights defenders, community leaders, and humanitarian workers are under attack in Sri Lanka. In September, figures published by a respected human rights organization showed that 43 humanitarian workers had been killed in Sri Lanka since January 2006.

What is obvious since we published our report is that the government has shown itself unable or unwilling to stem the tide of ongoing human rights violations by state forces. In June Sri Lankan police arrested 16 people, including four policemen and a member of the air force, in connection with the spate of burgeoning abductions, and claimed to have broken the back of the racket. While disappearances and abductions showed a temporary lull in the capital Colombo, in the rest of the country, families continued to report abductions of relatives by unknown persons. The National Human Rights Commission in Jaffna reported that, in the first three weeks of August 2007 alone, 21 cases of enforced disappearances and 13 cases of unlawful killings took place. On September 3, the ICRC reported that in the previous three weeks, it had documented 34 such abductions countrywide.

In the east of the country, despite numerous promises, the government has not made any apparent progress in its investigations of alleged state complicity in abductions by the Karuna group. On the contrary, the abductions and unlawful practices of the group continue.

The condition of internally displaced persons continues to be cause for alarm. The Sri Lankan government retains primary responsibility for ensuring the protection and security of displaced persons within the country. Since fighting in 2006, some 315,000 people have had to flee their homes in the north and east. At present around 189,000 people largely Tamil and Muslim continue to remain displaced. Many have been displaced multiple times. Over the past year, government authorities have in some instances forced internally displaced persons to return to areas that remained insecure. Protection for the displaced has been very weak despite the presence of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with regular threats and occasional violence, including abductions, by both the LTTE and pro-government armed groups. Others will never be able to return to their homes following the government’s announcement in May of the creation of “High Security Zones” that include “special economic areas” on the lands where thousands of families once lived. These people have been left languishing in makeshift camps. Those who have returned have often faced reprisals.

The concerns regarding displaced persons we cited in our report are coming to the fore yet again. Fresh fighting between government troops and the LTTE over the past week have caused more than 3,000 people to flee their homes in north-west Sri Lanka's disputed Mannar district. One of the features of the eastern military operations being repeated in the northern campaign has been the use of the air force to bomb LTTE targets – the military has failed in its past use of aerial bombings to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian loss. There are also severe protection and humanitarian concerns for those caught in the cross-fire and though the government has claimed that this campaign is being conducted without any civilian casualties, more than a dozen civilians have been killed since security forces launched their Mannar offensive.

Sri Lanka suffers from a long-standing climate of impunity. The Sri Lankan government has failed to hold perpetrators accountable for abuses. Key parts of the criminal justice system, such as the police and the Attorney General’s office, have not effectively investigated human rights violations or brought perpetrators to justice. The high level of violence has created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity for civilians, particularly ethnic Tamils. Victims of violence by the security forces and non-state armed groups are apprehensive about complaining to the police or other authorities for fear of retaliation, especially in the absence of functioning victim and witness protection mechanisms. The draft witness protection bill is still pending, which has further frustrated effective investigation.

In areas under its control, the LTTE has prevented the development of any independent and effective human rights institutions. Domestic human rights organizations critical of the LTTE have justifiable concerns for their safety.

The country’s Human Rights Commission, set up in 1996, has a mandate to investigate incidents of specific violations and recommend redress. But time and again it has been unable to fulfill its mandate, primarily due to the lack of cooperation from the government and the LTTE. The Human Rights Commission lacks sufficient political weight to ensure implementation of its recommendations. Furthermore, its capacity to monitor the human rights situation and investigate specific incidents in conflict areas is limited. The independence of the Human Rights Commission and other constitutional bodies was undermined in 2006 when Sri Lanka’s President directly appointed commission members, contrary to the Constitution. It is important that the Constitutional Council be reinstated to comply with the 17th Amendment of the Constitution.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry is not a deterrent for current and on-going human rights abuses. The commission is only advisory. It can only recommend to the government the steps to take, including by the attorney general, but there is no legal obligation for the president to act on them or make the findings public. The mandate of the commission allows a high level of participation by the attorney general’s office and the police. The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) has expressed concern about the role of the attorney general’s office in the investigations, citing a potential conflict of interest because investigators “may find that they are investigating themselves.”

The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission’s (SLMM) difficult task has been made impossible. The SLMM has found it especially difficult to verify abuses after the recent escalation in armed conflict because the government has denied its monitors access to areas after certain incidents (including, for instance, to Mutur in Trincomalee district, where 17 humanitarian workers were murdered in August 2006). Further, both the government and LTTE have frequently failed to act on recommendations of the SLMM.

In our report, we argued that given the failure of domestic mechanisms and the continuing culture of impunity, the setting up of a United Nations human rights monitoring mission is essential to save lives in Sri Lanka. Since we released our report on August 6, protection needs in Sri Lanka have increased, not decreased. It is even more vital for the international community to act now.

We have been surprised and disappointed that instead of looking into the information presented in this report, the government quickly dismissed our findings as “tendentious” and “generalized”. It seems like only yesterday that the LTTE was accusing us of bias and the government was quoting our reports at the UN and elsewhere favorably. When we spoke out in Toronto and London against LTTE intimidation against the Tamil communities there, the government applauded and the EU acted.

We haven’t changed our standards. What has changed is the reality on the ground. The research in this report—as in all our reports covering more than 70 countries across the world—is based on thorough and contemporary reporting, which is subjected to a rigorous process of fact-checking and review. Our reporting is based primarily on interviews with witnesses, victims, human rights defenders, humanitarian aid workers and others with direct experience on the ground. We also make inquiries to governments and non-state actors, as we did with the Sri Lankan government for this report. The government has accused us of having an agenda. This is true. It is to protect the human rights of all people. That’s it. There is no more to it.

Instead of using the report as a reason to turn its attention to address human rights violations, conduct effective investigations and stem the culture of impunity, the government has dismissed critics as “traitors,” “terrorist sympathizers,” and “supporters of the LTTE.” Yet in August 2007 chief government whip and Cabinet Minister Jeyaraj Fernandupulle called UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief John Holmes a “terrorist’’ after Mr. Holmes appropriately described Sri Lanka as ”one of the most dangerous places for aid workers in the world.’’ A few days after Mr. Holmes’ comment, two aid workers—one, a Tamil staff member of the Danish Demining Group, and the second, an employee of Sewalanka—were shot dead in the army held Jaffna peninsula.

The suggestion that we are somehow anti-government or pro-LTTE, or naively promoting the LTTE’s agenda, is absurd and beneath the Sri Lankan government. Instead of attacking the messenger, the government would do well to address the issues raised by Human Rights Watch and other serious organizations.

We would encourage the European Parliament to pass a strong resolution on Sri Lanka which would condemn violations both by the government and the LTTE and support a resolution calling for a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

We stand ready to cooperate with the Sri Lankan government to promote and protect human rights in Sri Lanka. That should be our shared, and primary, goal.

Thank You.

Testimony delivered on September 11, 2007, by Charu Lata Hogg, South Asia researcher, Human Rights Watch.

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