(New York) - Ongoing killings and abductions of Tamils throughout Sri Lanka have created a climate of fear among Tamils across the country. Human Rights Watch called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into the killings and abductions in order to identify those responsible and recommend measures to end the abuses.

The killing in early May of well-known Tamil journalist D. Sivaram by unknown assailants is only one of a long line of assassinations of outspoken members of the Tamil community. Since the beginning of the ceasefire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2002, an estimated 200 Tamils have been killed for apparently political reasons, though numerous such killings occurred prior to the ceasefire. As of November 2004, there had been 900 reports of abductions, of which almost 400 have been certified by the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) as violations of the ceasefire agreement.

The evidence available places responsibility for many of the killings on the Tamil Tigers. Most victims were considered to be LTTE opponents and in many cases there is circumstantial evidence of LTTE involvement, such as threats from LTTE members or agents prior to a killing. Other killings have been linked to persons loyal to Colonel Karuna, a Tamil Tiger commander who broke off from the LTTE in March 2004. A number of the victims were persons deemed to be supporters of one faction or the other.

The LTTE denies all involvement in the killings. The Sri Lankan government has not responded forcefully to the killings. The government claims it can do little to protect even obvious targets and the few investigations into killings it has conducted have been ineffectual.

“The ceasefire between the government and LTTE is welcome, but some are using it as an opportunity to kill their opponents,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Everyone hopes for a lasting peace, but this raises serious questions about what kind of peace it will be for Tamils who fall out of favor with the LTTE or other factions.”

In a country where Tamil grievances have been the primary cause of a protracted and complicated civil war, the failure by the government to pursue these killings is particularly troubling and raises serious questions about its stated commitment to take Tamil human rights concerns seriously. Following the attempted murder last year of Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and a member of parliament, the government’s initial response, delivered through its spokesperson Harim Peiris, was essentially to dismiss the attack, saying: “It is the LTTE going after a political opponent. It is that and absolutely nothing else.”

In June 2003, following the killing in Jaffna of T. Subathiran, a senior member of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the police chose not to question the chief suspect in the case. It was not until late 2004 that the government spoke out condemning the spate of political killings, but this has not resulted in any concrete actions. There have been no prosecutions.

“Government announcements of investigations are welcome, but each and every case must be vigorously investigated,” said Adams. “In all these years of killings, we have yet to see the government seriously investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for politically motivated killings of Tamils.”

The international community, which is uniquely positioned to be heard in Sri Lanka, has also remained largely silent. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, responsible for monitoring and reporting on violations of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the government and the LTTE, only recently acknowledged that political killings of opposition Tamil activists by the LTTE are violations of the agreement, and therefore fall within its mandate. Disturbingly, it has stopped short of investigating any of the killings, although its mandate stipulates that they will “enquire” into complaints and violations of the CFA.

Human Rights Watch noted that the Sri Lanka donor conference strongly endorsed a “joint mechanism” to coordinate tsunami aid with the LTTE, but did not demand an end to the political killings and abductions. Norway, the facilitator of the ceasefire agreement, and other key states, such as Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom have also chosen not to use their leverage to demand an end to the killings. The European Union and Canada have spoken out more recently in strong terms against the killings. EU Commissioner for external affairs, Benito Ferrero-Walnder, on March 8 publicly condemned the killings and abductions. She specifically called on the LTTE to stop the killings and to allow room for dissent within its areas of control. Human Rights Watch called on all external actors with influence in Sri Lanka to also speak out forcefully.

“The only way to end this campaign of violence and impunity is to refuse to ignore it,” said Adams. “These killings are part of a concerted campaign to destroy opposition voices. The silence on the killings simply fuels more killings and leads to more impunity.”

Human Rights Watch supported calls by local human rights groups and others in Sri Lanka for the establishment of an independent and impartial commission of inquiry into the killings and abductions. Such an effort may serve as a deterrent to future violations and could start to address the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. However, the organizations warned that serious security concerns must be addressed in order for such a commission to be able to conduct proper investigations.

“The LTTE has effectively silenced human rights groups in the east through fear and intimidation, and there is a real danger that a commission probing the killings would be similarly silenced,” said Adams. “All sides must publicly commit themselves to cooperate with investigations and ensure the security of investigators.”

Human Rights Watch pointed out that continuing violence in eastern Sri Lanka is particularly tragic given the reconstruction and rehabilitation work required in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in December 2004. The violence intensifies the deep psychological and physical insecurity wrought by the tsunami, especially for Tamil communities in the eastern part of the country, where the bulk of the killings have taken place.