Human Rights Developments
Sri Lankan security personnel, government-linked vigilante groups, and members of the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued in 1991 to engage in a pattern of gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including massacres of hundreds of civilians, torture, abductions and arbitrary arrests. The high level of reported abuse has been fairly constant since June 1990, when a cease-fire broke down and fighting resumed between government forces and the LTTE. The Sri Lankan military's indiscriminate bombing and strafing of civilian areas destroyed homes, hospitals and businesses. The northern city of Jaffna and its surrounding area, the base of LTTE operations, remained without electricity as a consequence of the military's targeting of the main power grid in 1990. Storage of medicines and blood for transfusions remained virtually impossible. In the eastern part of the country, at least seven hundred may have disappeared since January 1991. In the same period in the south, local sources have reported some seven to ten disappearances a month of suspected supporters of the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (People's Liberation Front, or JVP).
In July, the most intense battle of the civil war took place in the northeast. On July 9, five thousand Tamil militants attacked an army base at Elephant Pass which guards the railroad and main road between the Jaffna peninsula and the mainland. Armed with new 14.5 mm artillery, the LTTE laid siege to the camp, frustrating the army's aerial attempts to rescue some eight hundred soldiers, many seriously wounded, who were trapped within. There were also reports that the LTTE had pressed hundreds of civilians into service to dig bunkers and otherwise aid its defense, and that LTTE guerrillas kidnapped over one hundred doctors and nurses from northeastern Sri Lanka to treat those wounded in the Elephant Pass battle.
Not only did this battle involve more combatants than any previous encounter, but it also proved that the LTTE was capable of conventional warfare against the Sri Lankan army. As many as two thousand combatants and hundreds of civilians were killed in more than three weeks of combat. Civilians in Jaffna reported serious shortages of food and other necessities as a result of the fighting. The siege was broken on August 3 by a relief column of over ten thousand government soldiers. By late October, the army had begun a second assault surrounding the Jaffna peninsula and attacking LTTE targets in Jaffna from the outlying islands.
A government blockade of the north restricted transport of all essential supplies including food and medicine, which resulted in severe food shortages by late July. The embargo was relaxed on August 8, but at the end of 1991, there was still a lengthy list of prohibited items, including medicine, soya-based foods, surgical equipment, batteries, gasoline and matches. Fighting on the Jaffna peninsula in October led to another food emergency.
The government's response to international criticism of human rights abuses has been largely superficial. Despite its eagerness to improve its human rights image by appointing commissions of inquiry to address certain highly publicized human rights cases and issues, such as the problem of disappearances, the results of these inquiries have been disappointing.
The government's failure adequately to address charges of massive human rights violations became one of the main accusations used by the opposition in its bid to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa and return to a British-style parliamentary system. On August 28, over one hundred parliamentarians, including forty from the ruling United National Party (UNP), moved to bring impeachment proceedings against President Premadasa on charges of treason, bribery, misconduct and intentional violation of the Constitution. The motion charged that the President had
failed to protect and intentionally and knowingly prevented the investigations and conduct of inquiries and/or to punish those responsible for the...murder of the well-known journalist Mr. Richard De Zoysa, the disappearance of Mr. Lakshman Perera, the disappearance of Mr. Krishna Hussain and thousands of others including youth who were arbitrarily abducted, tortured, killed and otherwise disposed of by hired killer groups.
It also accused Premadasa of operating a "police state" to intimidate political opponents and discourage public dissent.
The president responded to the impeachment motion by suspending Parliament until September 24, and ejecting eight leading dissidents from the UNP. The Supreme Court upheld the ejections on December 3.
In several incidents in 1991, parties to the Sri Lankan civil war indiscriminately attacked noncombatants. On May 3, four workers from the human rights organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were injured, two seriously, when a military helicopter fired at their clearly marked vehicle. The team was following a route which it said had been provided by Special Operations Command in Colombo. The Sri Lankan government initially claimed that the helicopter pilots were actually targeting another vehicle, which was said to have fired shots and to have been traveling behind the MSF vehicle. The MSF workers denied that there was any other vehicle in the area. In response to international protest, the Sri Lankan government appointed a one-man commission of inquiry to look into the attack. He concluded that the team had been on the wrong road during a curfew, the helicopter was flying too high to see the vehicle's markings, and no government personnel was responsible for "any wrongful act of omission or commission." MSF officials, who called the inquiry a "whitewash," suspended operations in Sri Lanka until the government could guarantee the safety of their personnel. The commission of inquiry suggested steps to prevent such attacks in the future and, in July, MSF and the government signed an agreement to expand the MSF program in Sri Lanka.
A second incident took place on June 11. Minutes after an LTTE land mine blew up an army tractor, killing two soldiers, angry government troops reportedly massacred over one hundred civilians in the village of Kokkaddichcholai, in Batticaloa District. According to local sources, fifty-six bodies were burned and sixty-seven were buried, while forty people were hospitalized. There are also unconfirmed reports from local sources and international observers that as many as twenty-one women were raped during the attack. Residents of Kokkaddichcholai managed to get news of the massacre to journalists in Colombo, forcing the government to respond with unprecedented speed. It appointed a three-person commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre and began holding hearings at the air-force base in Batticaloa on July 29. Testimony also has been taken in Colombo.
According to a government report of late November, 136 witnesses have testified before the commission regarding deaths and missing persons, and forty-six more must testify before the commission begins to hear the testimony of army personnel and other official witnesses. The remaining civilians witnesses are expected to give evidence regarding damage caused to homes and property during the massacre. As a result of this testimony, the government estimates the death toll to be between fifty-two and sixty-seven. The same report indicates that between June 12 and November 27 nineteen soldiers were arrested in connection with the massacre, eighteen from the 5th Battalion Gemunu Watch and one from the Pioneer Corps. They are being held at the headquarters of the Gemunu Watch in Diyatalawa.
The government's practice of arming and training extramilitary forces and anti-LTTE Tamil militant groups to fight alongside regular army forces led to escalating violence between Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese civilians.113 In August 1990, after a series of brutal massacres of hundreds of Muslim civilians by the LTTE, Muslim leaders demanded that the Sri Lankan government arm their communities. The government responded by establishing Muslim "home guards" in eastern Sri Lankan villages who were soon accused of retaliatory killings of Tamils and other civilians in neighboring villages. Similarly, Sinhalese "village defense units" were armed by the government in April 1991 after a massacre in a village south of Moneragala in which some forty Sinhalese civilians were reportedly killed. In July 1991, according to the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, the army announced that it was stepping up recruitment for the National Guards Battalion, a volunteer force which normally receives only five days' training, with a view toward deploying it in eastern Sri Lanka. Defense officials were quoted as saying that they planned to continue to deploy civilian home guards and members of "non-LTTE Tamil groups" to protect the districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. In the last eighteen months, these three districts were the sight of some of the worst massacres of civilians by all parties.
In July, the government reportedly also began negotiations with India for the release of several hundred members of rival Tamil militant groups held in camps in Tamilnadu, with plans to repatriate them to Sri Lanka to fight against the LTTE. Asia Watch is concerned that if poorly trained militias are authorized to use lethal force without adequate supervision, the result will be a sharp increase in human rights abuses.
The Sri Lankan government took a few steps toward establishing human rights safeguards in 1991, but it remains too early to assess their efficacy. Disappearances of people in the custody of government forces have been a hallmark of the Sri Lankan civil war over the past eight years. After much pressure from human rights organizations and the international community, the Sri Lankan government appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal of Persons, which began hearings on August 5. It has a severely limited mandate. According to press reports, the Commission rejected 535 of the 601 complaints received through August 5 because they had occurred prior to January 11, 1991, when the Commission's mandate authorizes it to begin its study. The mandate thus excludes tens of thousands of disappearances that took place between 1987 and early 1991. According to local human rights groups, the Commission has now received about 160 cases that fall within the mandated time frame and have refused over two thousand cases from before 1991. While the great majority of disappearances since January have occurred in eastern Sri Lanka, only about half of the total number of complaints received by the Commission are from that region. Travel to Colombo from the east to submit claims is difficult and dangerous, and according to human rights organizations, the Commission has not been well-publicized there. Of the sixty-six cases accepted by the Commission prior to the beginning of hearings in August, press reports indicate that thirteen were traced and family members have been informed. The details of these cases have not been made public, but Amnesty International reported in September that in eleven cases, the disappeared persons were found to be in custody, on remand or released. Public hearings have been held in only two cases.
On December 12, a government spokesperson announced that Sri Lanka will accept some thirty of Amnesty International's thirty-two recommendations to improve the functioning of its human rights initiatives. These include the appointment of regional officers to the Presidential Commission investigating "disappearances" and the extension of the Commission's mandate beyond January 1992, when its current term expires. The report also states that the workings of the Commission and the results of its investigations will be made public.
In the face of severe criticism over the treatment of detainees, the number of disappearances of people in custody, and the difficulty experienced by families in tracing detained relatives, the government in August appointed a four-member Human Rights Task Force (HRTF), headed by J.F.A. Soza, a retired Supreme Court justice. According to a government statement, the Task Force will function for three years, and is designed to "monitor the observance of the fundamental rights of persons detained in custody otherwise than by judicial order." The Task Force has begun to collect information necessary to establish and maintain a central registry of detainees and is mandated work to ensure humane treatment and observance of their human rights. It is also charged to make regular inspections of places of detention, investigate complaints and "take immediate remedial action." In its announcement on December 12, the government also agreed to give the Human Rights Task Force unrestricted access to persons in detention camps, to identify all such camps, and to establish a twenty-four hour HRTF public information service.
One of the major criticisms leveled against the Sri Lankan government in recent years has been its failure to prosecute even well-publicized human rights violations by its own forces, such as the murders of lawyer Wijedasa Liyanarachchi and journalist Richard De Zoysa. The inquiry into the September 1988 murder in police custody of Liyanarachchi, a lawyer with ties to the JVP, was perhaps the most publicized in Sri Lanka of all recent government investigations. On March 18, 1991, the Colombo High Court found three police officers guilty of Liyanarachchi's abduction but not of his death, despite detailed testimony by medical examiners and witnesses at the hospital where he was brought by police on September 2, 1988 indicating that he had died of massive injuries caused by beatings with blunt weapons.
All three officers were charged with murder in 1990, but pleaded guilty to amended charges of conspiracy and wrongful confinement. They were sentenced to prison terms, but the sentences were suspended and fines were imposed. The senior officer later committed suicide. A fourth officer is believed still to be under investigation.
The case of the journalist Richard de Zoysa received more attention overseas. To date, all attempts to convince the Sri Lankan government to appoint a commission of inquiry into the abduction and murder of de Zoysa have failed. De Zoysa's death, in February 1990, became the focus of an international campaign demanding accountability for the activities of government-linked death squads thought to be responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances between 1987 and 1991. On February 7, 1991, a motion in Parliament to appoint such a commission was defeated because of pending defamation suits brought against De Zoysa's mother, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu, by the police officers named in connection with his abduction. Those parliamentarians opposed to the commission, according to the Colombo newspaper The Island, claimed that an independent inquiry would raise "the very matter which is the subject of pending judicial proceedings," and that since "abduction and murder are offenses under the penal code of Sri Lanka," they should be "determined by the established courts of the country."
De Zoysa was abducted from his home on February 18, 1990, at about 3:30 A.M., by six armed men, two of them wearing police uniforms. His body was found the next day. His mother, who witnessed the abduction, identified one of the abductors as Senior Superintendent of Police Ronnie Gunesinghe. Dr. Saravanamuttu, her attorney, Batty Weerakoon, and two police officers assigned to guard the attorney have all received death threats in connection with the case. The motive for De Zoysa's killing has never been clearly established, but those close to the case believe he was killed for his human rights reporting.
The Right to Monitor
In past years, civilians involved in human rights monitoring, particularly lawyers and journalists, have been subjected to harassment, death threats, torture, abduction and extrajudicial execution, by both government security personnel and members of militant groups. Travel and fact-finding, never easy, have become increasingly dangerous as the war in the northeast drags on. Mail sent abroad is opened and sometimes seized, and fear of wiretapping restricts all phone conversations. Despite these extraordinarily difficult conditions, a few excellent human rights organizations continue to function in Sri Lanka.
Access to northern Sri Lanka is severely restricted, both because many roads are mined and because the government and the LTTE have set up numerous checkpoints along routes to and from the Jaffna peninsula. Nevertheless, a number of well-documented reports by local human rights groups were published in 1991, most focusing on conditions in the north and east, and individuals still manage to send this information out of the country.
Two human rights monitors who disappeared in 1990 remain missing. Kumaraguru Kugamoorthy, a member of the National Committee of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality, who was abducted by a group of unidentified men, one of whom was wearing a khaki uniform, in Colombo on September 6, 1990. On August 15, 1990, Father Eugene Hebert, an American Jesuit missionary who was active on the Batticaloa Peace Committee and regularly acted on behalf of the disappeared in his region, himself disappeared while traveling between Valaichchenai and Batticaloa. He and a young Tamil passenger were last seen early that morning in an area controlled by the Sri Lankan army.
Sri Lankan human rights organizations expressed deep concern over a new threat to their ability to operate in 1991. In December 1990, President Premadasa announced the appointment of a seven-person commission of inquiry into the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The commission's mandate was extremely broad, empowering it to:
inquire into and obtain information in respect of _
(a) the activities of the Non Governmental Organizations...which are functioning in Sri Lanka today...;
(b) the provisions of law if any which have been promulgated for monitoring and regulating the activities and the funding of such organizations;
(c) the institutional arrangements if any which are currently in existence for monitoring and regulating the activities and the funding of such organizations;
(d) whether any funds received from foreign sources as well as generated locally have been misappropriated and/or are being used for activities prejudicial to national security, public order and/or economic interests and for activities detrimental to the maintenance of ethnic, religious and cultural harmony among the people of Sri Lanka; [and]
(e) the adequacy or otherwise of the existing provisions of law and the institutional arrangements for monitoring and regulating the activities and the funding of such organizations....
To carry out its investigation, the commission circulated a preliminary questionnaire to NGOs requesting information on the nature and structure of the organization; names, salaries, addresses and visa status of staff members; past agreements with the Sri Lankan government, including liaison with or membership on government committees; resources and financial information, including accounting procedures; affiliations with other groups, grass roots organizations and citizens' committees; copies of surveys and research papers on social problems, whether published locally or abroad; and suggestions for further links between the government and NGOs. A supplementary questionnaire was sent to certain NGOs requesting detailed information on their financial status, including information on the private bank accounts of staff members as well as the names, addresses and bank balances of their spouses and children.
The initial investigation focused on rural development organizations and, in particular, the activities of Sri Lanka's largest development organization, Sarvodaya. The investigation followed a series of very public and personal attacks in the state-sponsored press on Sarvodaya's charismatic leader, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. He and his family also received a number of death threats by unidentified callers.
To date, human rights organizations have not been singled out for investigation by the NGO commission, but the human rights community is worried that it might become a target. Particularly ominous was the request in the preliminary questionnaire for information about the NGO's relationship with citizens committees. Such committees have been instrumental in collecting and disseminating information on human rights conditions in their communities.
In February and March, at hearings before the House Subcommittees on Asian and Pacific Affairs and on Human Rights and International Organizations, State Department officials expressed concern over Sri Lanka's human rights performance. But the Bush Administration missed a key opportunity to back up this spoken concern with concrete action when it vetoed a move to attach minimal human rights conditions to the foreign aid bill for fiscal years 1992 and 1993.
According to State Department sources, the Bush Administration gave Sri Lanka a total of $51.1 million in aid in fiscal year 1991. In March 7 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs, State Department officials announced that the Administration, for fiscal year 1992, had requested $19.3 million in development assistance, $21.6 million in food aid, and $200,000 for military training. At the same hearing, the State Department acknowledged serious human rights abuses "by all parties to the conflict, including government forces," stressed the obligation of the military and police to uphold the law, and urged the Sri Lankan government to "vigorously investigate all extrajudicial killings and disappearances credibly linked to security forces and bring those responsible to justice." It also asserted that "there must be a greater effort to investigate officials linked to serious abuses [, and] [d]iscipline in the security forces must be strengthened." Despite these accurate and appropriate criticisms, the Administration has once again thwarted efforts to condition aid on an end to abuses. Given the seriousness of continuing abuses in Sri Lanka, U.S. law requires an end to such aid unless it directly benefits the needy.114
Between April and June 1991, the United States supported loans to Sri Lanka totaling over $221 million from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, including $57 million for telecommunications. Section 701 of the International Financial Institutions Act of 1977 mandates U.S. opposition to such bank loans to governments that consistently engage in gross violations of human rights, except when a loan expressly meets basic human needs. The U.S. should oppose all loans to Sri Lanka that do not fall within the statutory exception.
In August, acting on complaints by trade unions and human rights organizations, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills announced that she would begin an investigation into abuses of worker rights in Sri Lanka. The investigation could result in the loss of duty-free treatment for some exports. Public hearings began in October and a decision is expected in April 1992.
The Work of Asia Watch
In 1991, Asia Watch continued its efforts to document and respond to the ongoing human rights crisis in Sri Lanka, focusing particular attention on the serious violations that have occurred in the war between the LTTE and the government in the northeast.
On March 11, Asia Watch released "Human Rights in Sri Lanka: An Update," a comprehensive newsletter on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka from June 1990 to March 1991.
On April 8, Asia Watch met with Sri Lankan Ambassador Susanta De Alwis and the head of the Embassy's political section, Bernard Goonetilleke, at their request, to discuss human rights initiatives by the Sri Lankan government. We also discussed Asia Watch's human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, particularly the need to discipline government security forces and to conduct inquiries into disappearances, including those that occurred before January 1991.
In April, Asia Watch provided information on human rights in Sri Lanka to congressional staff drafting a foreign aid bill that contained human rights stipulations for continued U.S. aid to Sri Lanka. The bill would have required that the Sri Lankan government establish a public register of detainees and ensure that detainees have access to lawyers and family members; enhance efforts to investigate disappearances and prosecute those responsible; minimize civilian casualties in combat operations; and make serious and substantial efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the murder of Richard De Zoysa.
On April 17, Human Rights Watch testified on human rights and foreign assistance before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee. We called, on human rights grounds, for a limit on U.S. bilateral aid to Sri Lanka and U.S. opposition to loans, except basic human needs projects, to the country by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank
On May 3, Asia Watch staff met with Ambassador De Alwis and a special representative of the Sri Lankan president's office, Moragoda, again at their request, to discuss our continuing concerns in Sri Lanka.
Also in May, Asia Watch sent a letter to Ambassador De Alwis expressing concern over military proposals to extend the Indemnity Act of 1988, which immunizes security forces from prosecution for acts committed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act between July 24, 1979 and December 31, 1987. The proposed extension, which was not enacted, would have covered actions committed after 1987.
In October, Asia Watch contributed a chapter on Sri Lanka in a Human Rights Watch report on human rights in Commonwealth countries, issued at the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Zimbabwe.
Most Sri Lankan Muslims speak Tamil but are regarded as a separate ethnic group in Sri Lanka.
See Section 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act and Section 112 of the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act.