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Japan: Break Silence on Sri Lanka Rights Abuses

New Administration Should Urge Release of Detained Civilians and Accountability for War Crimes

(Tokyo) - Japan's new administration should publicly press the Sri Lankan government to end the illegal detention of approximately 250,000 Tamil civilians, five Japanese and international human rights organizations said in a joint letter to Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, made public today. The new government should also urge Sri Lanka to ensure justice and accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the letter said.

The groups urged Okada to take a principled position on rights and use Japan's unique influence as Sri Lanka's largest donor to protect civilians. While the fighting in Sri Lanka ended with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, the suffering of a quarter million detained civilians continues. The letter was signed by the Women's Active Museum on War and Peace, Amnesty International, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination (IMADR), Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights Now.

"Japan is in an excellent position to make its influence felt with Sri Lanka," said Kanae Doi, Tokyo director at Human Rights Watch. "The new government needs to make clear that it expects Sri Lanka to free the people locked up in the camps and pursue justice for the victims of the war years."

In the letter, the five organizations urged the new Japanese administration to:

  • Call upon the Sri Lankan government to end the arbitrary detention of civilians and permit those who wish to leave the detention camps to do so immediately; and to use every opportunity to express Japan's profound dismay at the deprivation of the fundamental right to liberty and absence of freedom of movement of the civilians there;
  • Urge the Sri Lankan government to respect and follow the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and abide by these principles in the return and resettlement process;
  • Insist that the Sri Lankan government facilitate safe, unimpeded, and timely access to camp residents by humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations and to allow these groups to undertake protection and monitoring activities; and
  • Publicly denounce the Sri Lankan government's clear lack of will to investigate impartially credible allegations of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and to see that those responsible are brought to justice.

Since March 2008, the Sri Lankan government has confined virtually everyone displaced by the war with the LTTE in detention camps, depriving them of their liberty and freedom of movement, in violation of international law. The government is still holding about 245,000 internally displaced persons in overcrowded, sewage-infested camps, breaking its repeated promises of rapid return. With the monsoon season fast approaching, the health and welfare of these civilians is increasingly at risk. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and India have all called on the government to release civilians detained in camps as soon as possible, but the Japanese government has remained silent.

In addition, five months after what the head of the United Nations' humanitarian agency described as a "bloodbath" in northern Sri Lanka, there has been no government investigation, despite the promise made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a joint statement with the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, in May 2009. The armed conflict in Sri Lanka was characterized by serious violations of international humanitarian law by both sides.

"The new Japanese administration should not continue the silence on rights from the previous administration," said Kinhide Mushakoji, president at the IMADR-JC.

The organizations said that, "There will be no reprieve and there will be no accountability unless Japan and others within the international community persistently demand it," and called on Japan to "press for the speedy establishment of an independent international investigation" and "take strong action" to end illegal detention of civilians.

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