(New York) – The Sri Lankan government in the past year failed to advance justice and accountability for the victims of the country’s 26-year-long civil conflict, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. While Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north and east became more open, the government deepened repression of basic freedoms throughout the country.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to stall on accountability for abuses by the security forces, threatened media and civil society groups, and largely ignored complaints of insecurity and land grabbing in the north and east, Human Rights Watch said. The long-awaited report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), published in December, largely absolved the military for its conduct in the bloody final months of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009.
“In 2011, accountability remained a dead issue, the media faced increasing censorship, and the long-standing grievances which led to the conflict were not seriously addressed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lankans face a lack of justice, weak rule of law, land grabbing, and a censored media from a government that is increasingly authoritarian.”
In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
The government’s failure to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable remained a key issue throughout the year. No one was prosecuted for atrocities committed during the conflict with the LTTE. The government ignored the findings of a Panel of Experts report, commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which found rampant abuses by both government forces and the LTTE, and called for an independent international mechanism to investigate laws-of-war violations. The government insisted instead that its LLRC would be the mechanism to address wartime abuses, though the mandate, composition and procedures of the commission were deeply flawed. The LLRC effectively exonerated government forces for laws-of-war violations, rehashed long-standing recommendations, and took no concrete steps to advance accountability.
The commission’s findings stand in stark contrast to those of the UN Panel of Experts, the UN special envoy on extrajudicial executions, and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Although the LLRC found that government shelling resulted in civilian casualties, an allegation that the government had strenuously denied, it did not even consider the repeated attacks on civilian areas and hospitals as possible indiscriminate attacks prohibited by the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
“The abuses by government forces detailed in the UN Panel of Experts report are strangely missing in the LLRC’s findings,” Adams said. “Even the LLRC’s useful recommendations seem destined to join those of other Sri Lankan commissions that got filed away and ignored.”
Free expression in Sri Lanka was under assault in 2011. The editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper was beaten with iron bars by a group of unidentified youths in late July. Also in July, a team of Radio Netherlands journalists were harassed by police and later robbed and attacked at gunpoint by men in a white van, a notorious symbol of terror in Sri Lanka. The chairman of the Sunday Leader, whose brother Lasantha Wickrematunge had been gunned down in 2009, received a phone call from President Rajapaksa who threatened to attack him personally in response to articles in the Sunday Leader about high-level corruption. In December, two human rights activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan, disappeared, apparently abducted while en route to a planned protest rally in Jaffna. Weeraraj’s father stated that his son had received anonymous phone calls prior to the protest telling him that he would be eliminated if he continued his political involvement.
In November, the government-owned Daily News announced that the government would issue guidelines and a code of conduct for the country’s media. The Media Ministry called on all news websites to register. At least five websites critical of the government were subsequently blocked inside the country.
“A free media is an essential building block of a democratic state,” Adams said. “The Rajapaksa administration is putting this in jeopardy by reacting to criticism with heavy-handed measures.”
The government says that there has been meaningful progress on reconciliation, but there is little evidence to support that contention, Human Rights Watch said. Talks between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on distribution of powers remained stalled through most of 2011. While campaigning ahead of elections in Jaffna in June, members and supporters of the TNA were attacked by army personnel wielding rods, batons and sticks.
There were some improvements for the Tamil population in the north and east in 2011. Freedom of movement to the north has allowed for greater access by humanitarian, local human rights and media groups, as well as by families. However, the government took inadequate steps in 2011 to normalize living conditions. Security in the region remained poor, with alarming incidents reported of gender-based violence and enforced prostitution. The unsettling attacks mid-year by “grease devils” – unidentified male assailants – exposed the vacuum in the security forces’ ability to respond adequately to civilians’ needs for protection. The heavy military presence in the north and east was a continuing source of distrust among the largely Tamil population.
The issue of land, one of the central problems undergirding the decades-long conflict, remains unresolved. Although the cabinet in April passed a circular intended to address the issue of land ownership and competing claims, particularly for those who fled during the war, little was done to implement its provisions.
Further, the government failed to appoint a National Land Commission, as required under the 13th amendment to the constitution. Reports of land-grabbing by the military in the north and elsewhere in the country increased through 2011. In some cases, the military provided some compensation, but sporadically and only when initiated by the owners, not the occupiers.
“The government has barely made an effort to address the grievances of the Tamil population,” Adams said. “Instead of the government facilitating greater dialogue, Tamil political representatives are subject to threats and harassment.”
Most of the nearly 300,000 displaced persons illegally confined in military-controlled detention centers after the war were able to leave by early 2010, but many have still not been able to return to their previous homes or communities. About 57,000 people live with host families, and another roughly 53,000 remain in the camps, in part because de-mining activities have not yet been completed in their original home areas.
By December, the government had released all but about 1,000 of the nearly 12,000 LTTE “surrenderees,” alleged combatants and supporters that it was detaining without charge or trial, and claimed that those remaining would be released by mid-2012. The government says these former combatants have been rehabilitated and trained to enter civilian life. The government said another 1,000 “hardcore” LTTE members are being held at Camp Boosa. The conditions for all of these detainees are not known.
Allegations of mistreatment and torture in custody have not been investigated.
The Emergency Regulations were allowed to expire on August 31, but the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and other laws and regulations permitting detention without charge for up to 18 months leave an abusive detention regime in place.
Local government elections held between March and October further consolidated the hold of Rajapaksa’s United Freedom People’s Alliance party. It won control over 270 of the 322 local authorites contested. As in previous years, the president relied on close family members to strengthen his hold on government. Various Rajapaksa brothers remain as cabinet ministers with important portfolios. Opposition parties were effectively sidelined.
Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander who challenged Rajapaksa during the 2010 presidential election, was sentenced to an additional three years in prison after his current sentence expires in January 2012.
“As the Rajapaksa government has strengthened its grip politically, basic rights protections in the country have deteriorated,” Adams said.