Human Rights Developments
The civil war in Sri Lanka continued in the Northeast between the Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ltte), and Sri Lankan government troops, with violations of the laws of war by both sides. However, death squad killings and disappearances associated with government counterinsurgency campaigns in the South decreased, leading some government officials to claim that the country was "back to normal." But southern Sri Lanka experienced a marked increase in political intimidation and violence in 1992, with journalists, human rights lawyers and political opposition members the targets. Tens of thousands of disappearance cases from the mid-1980s through 1992 remained unresolved, and new government human rights agencies were still far from effective.
According to a government report, 2,095 people, including 457 civilians, were killed in the war between January and September 1992. Tens of thousands of families were displaced by fighting in northern Sri Lanka in 1992, in addition to the million and a half already displaced since the current phase of the war began in June 1990. The military's attempts to seal off the Jaffna peninsula led to repeated shortages of food and essential supplies for the civilian population.
In January 1992, the Indian government began repatriating the first 30,000 of some 230,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who had fled to India since 1983. Reports of involuntary repatriation continued throughout 1992 and refugee agencies expressed concern that many returnees were ill-informed about security risks in Sri Lanka.
Most returning refugees were destined for temporary camps in the eastern district of Trincomalee, or for the northern districts of Mannar and Vavuniya-all sites of recent violence between the ltte and security forces. In September, the ltte began targeting strategic locations in Trincomalee District as a vital link between North and East and launched major attacks against soldiers in the area. Security forces also arrested large numbers of young Tamils in Trincomalee in September. With security conditions in the Northeast making it impossible for many of the repatriated refugees to return home, the temporary facilities were severely overcrowded. According to reports from refugee agencies in late September, only half of the refugees repatriated since January had been able to return home.
In August, the government of Sri Lanka began prohibiting returnees with homes in ltte-controlled areas from leaving welfare centers in government territory. Previously, some 5,000 refugees who were allowed to return to ltte-controlled areas were required to sign forms relieving the government of responsibility for their safety.
In February, the Sri Lankan army began a series of offensives in the North, each employing thousands of troops, as well as armor and air support. Reports of civilian deaths and injuries associated with indiscriminate firing and shellingcontinued, although at lower levels than at the height of the air war in 1990. On May 20, 1992, for example, artillery shells hit the Vattappalai Temple in Mullaittivu District where some 3,000 Hindu Tamil worshippers had gathered for the annual Pongal festival. Twenty-three worshippers were killed and at least 30 were injured.
Combatants also continued to engage in deliberate, large-scale massacres of civilians. Throughout 1992 the ltte responded to the army's assaults not only with ambushes and counter-assaults against army personnel, but also with bombings of marketplaces, ferries and bus stops, and massacres of Muslim and Sinhalese civilians. Most of these attacks occurred in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where different ethnic groups live in close proximity. Similar massacres were carried out by Muslim and Sinhalese civil defense units called "home guards"-villagers who are armed and given perfunctory training by the Sri Lankan military, often after ltte killings of Muslims.
The heaviest toll in Sri Lanka's bloody cycle of attacks and counterattacks occurred on October 15 in pre-dawn assaults on three villages in Polonnaruwa District, in north-central Sri Lanka. Over 180 people, most of them Muslim civilians, were shot and hacked to death by attackers whom witnesses identified as ltte cadre.
Sri Lankan soldiers have also engaged in massacres of civilians, and while the government made more of an effort to hold its forces accountable for abuses, it had little to show in the way of prosecutions. On January 30, 1992, a presidential commission investigating the massacre of at least 67 civilians in eastern Sri Lanka in June 1991 found that the killings in the village of Kokkadicholai had been the result of "deliberate retaliatory action" by army personnel for the deaths of two soldiers killed in a land mine explosion.
The case was turned over to the military for investigation, and in early August 1992 the government reported that soldiers involved in the Kokkadicholai massacre faced possible court-martial. On October 28, the commander, Lieutenant H.I.S. Kudaligama, was found guilty of "allowing his soldiers to use their weapons" in the massacre and allowing them to dispose of the bodies. The 19 soldiers implicated were acquitted, reportedly for lack of evidence.
Informed sources told Asia Watch that the military command was reluctant to pursue the prosecution of soldiers in this case because Sri Lankan troops were already so demoralized by the deaths in August of General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, head of military operations in the north, and eight other senior officers whose vehicle detonated an ltte land mine in northern Sri Lanka.
In the South, there was an alarming rise in violent attacks against public figures and journalists. Some of the attackers were identified as police officers or ruling party members acting with police complicity. The Civil Rights Movement (crm), one of the foremost Sri Lankan human rights organizations, counted at least ten such incidents between January and August 1992. In a statement released on August 28, crm denounced what it called "officially sanctioned or condoned lawlessness." It called on thegovernment to end impunity for security forces by investigating and prosecuting the attacks and by actively promoting peaceful freedom of expression as a "crucial safety valve." Similar attacks were also attributed to opposition supporters and even hired thugs.
A number of legal actions designed to limit freedom of expression were taken against journalists in 1992. Most recently, editors of The Island, an independent English-language newspaper, were told by Criminal Investigations Department (cid) investigators that criminal charges for defamation of the President might be filed against the paper for printing an article on August 20 entitled "Gang threatened death if I drew cartoons of President." The article quoted a letter from Jiffry Younous, a well known cartoonist of the opposition paper Aththa, to the Inspector General of Police with details of an attack he suffered on August 18 when armed thugs assaulted him and warned him to stop drawing political cartoons.
In April, Aththa itself faced charges for printing accusations made by a former Deputy Inspector General of Police, Premadasa Udugampola, about government complicity in death-squad activity. Aththa's editor and publisher were indicted under Article 26 of the Emergency Regulations for "causing hostility, ill-will and contempt of the government." Both were acquitted on November 10, but Senior State Counsel A.R.C. Perera indicated that the Attorney-General would appeal the decision. Three other papers, Ravaaya, Yukthiya and Rajaliya, were accused of similar offenses.
It was possible to evaluate the work of several government human rights agencies during the year. In 1990, Sri Lanka had responded to international condemnation of its human rights practices by setting up various bodies to investigate past abuses. These included the Human Rights Task Force (hrtf), designed to safeguard the rights of detainees, and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal of Persons, charged with investigating disappearances.
The results are mixed. While the government's recognition of the need to address past abuses and prevent future ones was a significant step forward, the progress of the commissions was extremely slow, and their mandates were in some cases so narrow as to limit their usefulness. For example, the commission looking into disappearances can investigate only those that occurred after January 11, 1991, even though an estimated 40,000 people disappeared between 1983 and 1990 after arrest by government forces or abduction by government-linked death squads. By the end of June 1992, according to a progress report Asia Watch received in September, the Commission had received only 453 complaints that fell within its mandate, and of these, only 49 people had been traced.
The Human Rights Task Force has been somewhat more successful. In April it began conducting surprise visits to police stations and army camps-where many of the most serious violations take place-and registered over 780 detainees in these facilities. It also opened several regional offices, although the staff of these offices do not appear to enjoy adequatecooperation from police and army personnel. The hrtf's annual report made useful recommendations for improving the lot of detainees. In particular, it concluded that emergency regulations allowing for indefinite preventive detention were "counterproductive" and called for a re-examination of the regulations. The report openly admitted to shortcomings, remarking that although through August 10 the Task Force had received reports of 3589 missing persons, it had managed to locate only 93. "The gap between `missing' and `found' is disconcertingly large," it added. It also acknowledged instances of torture and ill-treatment in police lock-ups, and complained that the army was not informing the hrtf of all detentions. This rare candor on the part of a governmental body in Sri Lanka is most welcome.
Sri Lanka's efforts to address past abuses are noteworthy. While pressure from donor countries played a major role, these efforts were unusual in that they were undertaken by a government that itself was responsible for gross abuses, rather than by a new, reformist government coming to power after a repressive predecessor was ousted.
The Right to Monitor
Although human rights activists in Colombo enjoyed more freedom to monitor in 1992 than in the recent past, threats and violence against individuals and groups continued. In July 1992, unidentified armed men, searching for Kalyananda Thiranagama and Mohan Seneviratne, lawyers with the Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (lhrd), threatened staff members at the lhrd offices in Colombo. The lawyers had taken up many legal cases against the police and other state authorities for violations of fundamental rights. The printer who prints the lhrd newsletter, People's Rights, also received threats in July warning him to stop printing lhrd's material. The government responded by providing police protection for the lawyers, but the harassment continued when the police guard went off duty. The government reportedly has made no effort to investigate.
Despite ongoing severe abuses in Sri Lanka, U.S. officials acknowledged privately in 1992 that the country once again was not a high priority for the Bush administration, except in the area of commercial relations. At her Senate confirmation hearing in May, Teresita Schaffer, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, indicated that she planned "to take advantage of every opportunity to expand U.S. exports and investment." But she also declared, "We stand for vigorous protection of human rights, and will press all concerned to adhere to international standards in this area." She gave no indication that the zeal to strengthen commercial relations would be tempered by persistent Sri Lankan government abuses.
The Bush administration delivered about $67 million in development assistance and food aid to Sri Lanka in fiscal year 1992. For fiscal year 1993, the administration requested $16.5 million in development assistance, and $55.9 million in food aid.
The administration also spent $229,000 for International Military Education and Training (imet) for fiscal year 1992. The administration has requested $250,000 for imet for fiscal year 1993. The imet program is described as "professional military, management and technical training." According to U.S. officials, an imet human rights program "is still being refined" and details are not yet available.
On March 23, a senior Bush administration official denied reports in The Washington Post that the U.S. had proposed $10 million in credits for the purchase of military equipment to Sri Lanka. U.S. officials have consistently maintained that there was no military aid of any kind to Sri Lanka other than imet and that human rights concerns are taken into account when any request for military transfers, credits or sales is considered. According to State Department sources, there have been no transactions of this type in the last three years.
At the March 23 briefing, the Bush administration welcomed the Sri Lankan government's acceptance of 30 of 32 recommendations made by Amnesty International to improve human rights conditions, adding that the U.S. government would like to see them all implemented. While acknowledging human rights improvements, the administration expressed concern over continuing disappearances and allegations of misconduct by government forces that far exceeded the number of investigations. The U.S. urged the Sri Lankan government to institute tighter discipline and better procedures for handling detainees.
In a February meeting, a consortium of major bilateral and multilateral donors known as the Sri Lanka Aid Group, of which the U.S. is a member, pledged a total of $825 million in financial support for economic development and medium-term structural adjustment reforms. Participants in the meeting, including the U.S., acknowledged the Sri Lankan government's efforts to address human rights issues, but urged the government to "bring a larger number of human rights cases to closure." The participants did not explicitly link future aid to progress in fulfilling this recommendation.
The U.S. supported World Bank loans totalling $132.4 million to Sri Lanka for fiscal year 1992 (ending June 30, 1992), a reduction from the $163 million disbursed in fiscal year 1991. Asia Watch believes that the U.S. should use the pendency of these loans to encourage the Sri Lankan government to prosecute its forces for past violations and to end ongoing abuses.
The Work of Asia Watch
Asia Watch continued to monitor the implementation of the Sri Lankan government's human rights initiatives and the repatriation of Tamil refugees.
On January 18, 1992, Asia Watch released a statement calling on the Indian government to halt its proposed repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees housed in camps in Tamil Nadu until their safety in Sri Lanka could be guaranteed. Citing continued security risks in Sri Lanka and possible coercion on the part of camp officials, Asia Watch called the plan dangerous and irresponsible. On January 23, letters to Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao andSri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa reiterated Asia Watch's concern for the welfare of returning refugees and urged India to allow international bodies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) access to the camps.
On February 3, Asia Watch released the preliminary findings of its December investigative mission to Sri Lanka. Timed to coincide with the Sri Lankan aid consortium meeting in Paris, the report urged donors to insist on accountability for past patterns of human rights violations.
On February 13, Asia Watch staff met with Sri Lankan Government Special Representative Milinda Moragoda, and Minister Bernard Goonetilleke of the Sri Lankan Embassy, to discuss the findings of the Asia Watch mission, the recommendations of the U.N. Working Group on Disappearances, and Asia Watch's own recommendations to minimize civilian casualties in situations of armed conflict.
In April, Asia Watch released an appeal to both the Sri Lankan government and the ltte leadership. Aimed at the protection of noncombatants during an anticipated army offensive, the appeal outlined minimum standards of humanitarian law applicable to all parties in the Sri Lankan civil war.
On May 31, Asia Watch released Human Rights Accountability in Sri Lanka, which provided a more detailed analysis of human rights reforms undertaken by the Sri Lankan government since the meeting of Sri Lanka's donor countries in October 1990. The report also made recommendations to the Sri Lankan government on how to improve the effectiveness of these reforms. On July 10, at the request of government officials, Asia Watch released an open memorandum to the Sri Lankan government summarizing the recommendations of this report.
On October 15, responding to one of the largest massacres of Sri Lanka's civil war, Asia Watch condemned the ltte's attack on over 160 Muslim civilians as "a blatant violation of humanitarian law." Asia Watch also urged the Sri Lankan security forces and Muslim groups not to respond in kind.
On November 10, Asia Watch released a letter to Mme. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, expressing
continued concern over reports of human rights violations associated with the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from India. Asia Watch urged, given the volatile security situation in Sri Lanka and reports of coercion by camp authorities, that the repatriation process be halted until the unhcr has full access to refugee camps in India and adequate screening and monitoring procedures are in place.