Human Rights Developments
The PA inherited a legacy of severe abuse, including tens of thousands of "disappearances," extrajudicial killings and torture of political opponents and suspected insurgents. The vast majority of these abuses were never investigated, prosecuted or punished. Indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas affected by the war was also a hallmark of the former government's campaign against Tamil insurgents. In 1995, many of the perpetrators of these abuses remained free and in positions of authority, and the abuses that occurred during the year, though only a fraction of those committed in previous years, were strikingly similar to crimes committed under earlier governments.
In January 1995, a cease-fire was declared between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, and the two sides entered into negotiations, raising hopes that the parties might finally reach a political settlement. Those hopes were short-lived. The LTTE broke the cease-fire on April 19, sinking two patrol boats and then shooting down two troop transport planes, killing all ninety-seven persons on board. An LTTE massacre of forty-two Sinhalese villagers in a coastal town north of Trincomalee and the assassination of a Buddhist priest, both on May 26, along with new reports of "disappearances," extrajudicial executions and torture by Sri Lankan security personnel, were indications of how far the country was from the peace envisioned only months before. By the time the government unveiled its proposal for a political settlement in August, featuring a plan to devolve central control to regional councils determined in part along ethnic lines, the war was again in full swing. Renewed fighting led to hundreds of civilian deaths in government air raids and LTTE mortar fire on the Jaffna peninsula between July and November and to large-scale displacement. Among those killed in the fighting were families caught in a compound of church buildings sheltering displaced persons that was damaged during an air force raid in July; about seventy civilians, including about twenty-five school children, who medical workers reported were killed in government bombings in September; and nine elderly men whom the army claimed had been killed by an LTTE mortar that hit a rest home in October. By early November, the Sri Lankan military was poised to occupy the city of Jaffna, headquarters of the LTTE. Most of the city's residents, including LTTE members, had fled; total estimates of those displaced by the fighting reached 400,000.
More than one hundred villagers, most of them Sinhalese, were killed in a series of attacks by LTTE members in villages in the east and northeast beginning on October 21, the day after the LTTE blew up the island's two main oil depots near Colombo. In May, human rights organizations received more than fifteen reports of killings or "disappearances" of civilians by members of the security forces in eastern Sri Lanka. In Batticaloa, politicians, human rights activists and journalists reported that civilians had been used by soldiers as shields against LTTE attacks or for mine clearance.
The LTTE has also engaged in hostage taking and the use of civilians as shields. On August 29, members of the LTTE hijacked a government-chartered ferry it alleged was run by members of a rival Tamil group. The ferry, which was used by the LTTE to attract and sink two naval boats near the eastern port of Trincomalee, killing some twenty sailors, had sailed from Trincomalee on August 28 with more than 130 passengers, including fifteen children and several expectant mothers. It was boarded by the LTTE the next morning. The passengers and crew were held hostage until September 6, when 121 passengers, including three newborn babies, were released. As of early November, the ferry's crew members, accused by the LTTE of links to a rival Tamil group, remained in LTTE custody, and some fifteen other people reportedly aboard the hijacked ferry were unaccounted for.
The practice of using child soldiers has been a trademark of the LTTE for many years. Of the estimated 50,000 persons killed since the war began in 1983, many have been children recruited as fighters by the LTTE, some of them as young as thirteen. The recruitment of young children continued in 1995. When the LTTE led an abortive attack on four army bases in late July and several hundred LTTE fighters were killed, the army reported finding many young girls and boys among the dead. In September, the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR), a group that has monitored human rights conditions in the north and east, reported that the LTTE had stepped up recruitment drives and that families unwilling to give up their children were forced to pay large ransoms. It was also reported that the LTTE had stepped up arrests and executions of suspected informants.
Nineteen ninety-five saw the re-emergence of death-squad-style killings by members of the Sri Lankan security forces. In the vicinity of Colombo, between May 31 and August 14, twenty-one bodies were found in and around Bolgoda Lake. Some showed signs of starvation and torture, some had been strangled. Thirteen of the bodies were identified as young Tamil men abducted by armed men in civilian clothes from city lodges and security checkpoints. According to an official of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), some of the youths had been detained for three or four days and strangled with plastic handcuffs in an unused toilet in the headquarters of the Special Task Force (STF), an elite counterinsurgency unit of the police. In August, CID announced the arrest of at least eighteen Special Task Force members and military personnel in connection with these killings. More arrests followed in September, bringing the total to around thirty. The Tamil press reported that among those arrested was a man known as Captain "Munaz" who had been implicated in the "disappearances" of more than 150 persons from a refugee camp in Batticaloa in 1990. The government announced in September that it would suspend all operations of the Intelligence Wing of the STF and disband its network of informants. Despite the arrests, bodies continued to appear in Colombo through September.
Reports of arbitrary arrests of Tamils by the police in Colombo and in other parts of the country continued throughout the year. Large-scale sweeps intensified following the resumption of hostilities in April, with reports of as many as 500-1,000 arrests on some days. In Colombo, most arrests were carried out by the police, and the majority of detainees were released within forty-eight hours. In the east, arrests were carried out by military personnel, police and members of auxiliary forces, such as former militant groups. Human rights organizations reported "disappearances" and deaths of persons detained during these search operations. Though young men were typically the target of round-up operations, in September Tamil women in Colombo also complained of harassment after rumors that a female LTTE suicide squad was on its way to the city.
Nineteen ninety-five saw several new efforts to restrict freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. In July, the Colombo office of the National Christian Council (NCC) was raided by some forty armed police, allegedly searching for subversive literature. Police confiscated a computer-drawn graphic of a bleeding lotus (the white lotus is a PA symbol of peace and support for the government's war effort). The letter-sized poster, which contained text calling for a halt to the killing of civilians in the July military offensive, was seized, and its author, an American intern named Kenneth Mulder, was detained. Mulder, who was in Vavuniya with a church delegation traveling to Jaffna at the time of his arrest, was transported back to Colombo for questioning and deported five days later. The homes of ten young Tamil women who worked in the NCC office were also searched.
Also in July, journalist Pearl Thevana-yagam of the Sunday Leader was arrested and detained for nineteen hours on suspicion of carrying information to the LTTE, following a visit she made to LTTE-held territory. Thevanayagam had traveled to the north posing as a teacher but was arrested when she could not provide an address to a soldier who stopped her at the border on the way south. A spokesperson for the Free Media Movement, a Sri Lankan organization that monitors freedom of the press, charged that although there was no official ban on journalists traveling to the north, the army only permitted access to the state-run media. On September 22, as the army launched a major offensive on the Jaffna peninsula, the government imposed censorship curbs on war-related reporting, citing national security concerns and fear that reporting would inflame communal tensions. Those restrictions were lifted for foreign media four days later, but curbs on the domestic media remained in force. Among the first stories to be subjected to these censorship requirements were reports that on September 21 and 22, heavy shelling and aerial attacks by government forces on the northern Jaffna region had killed some seventy civilians, including many school children. A Reuter news story from September 23, which noted that the army had denied the incident, also indicated that the story had been "subjected to military censors, who deleted quotes from civilians on the reported deaths of twenty children."
Throughout 1995, the Free Media Movement and other human rights organizations continued to report incidents of harassment and threats made against journalists by security personnel assigned to guard government officials and their families, and authorities seeking to learn the sources of leaked stories. Several defamation suits were lodged against journalists reporting on government officials, including the editor of the Sunday Times who was summoned to the Colombo High Court on June 13 to face charges of criminal defamation of the character of President Kumaratunga. After attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement failed, hearings in the case were set for January 31, 1996. The editor and publisher of the Sunday Leader were also charged with criminal defamation of the president.
In 1995, The PA government made a number of administrative changes designed to curb abuses and account for the "disappeared." In addition to the creation of an advisory committee composed of local human rights experts and a proposal before parliament for the establishment of a national human rights commission, the government created three regional presidential commissions of inquiry into "involuntary removals and disappearances," mandated to investigate killings and disappearances that occurred as far back as 1988. Human rights organizations in Sri Lanka and abroad have urged the government to extend the scope of these inquiries even further back, noting that the systematic pattern of disappearances in Sri Lanka began before 1984. These commissions, which began hearing evidence in January, had received 35,500 complaints by mid-1995 and had heard evidence in several hundred cases. Two interim reports for each commission had been forwarded to the president by September, but none have been made public. Witnesses who testified before the commission investigating disappearances in Central, North Central, North Western and Uva provinces complained in April that they were the target of death threats and intimidation by security personnel. The commission noted that some of the accused still remained on active duty in the areas from which they had operated during the period under investigation. However, based on the report of one commission, in October three senior police officers responsible for past abuses were sent on "compulsory leave," and the Minuwangoda magistrate ordered the detention of eight others: six police officers charged with raping two girls between 1988 and 1990, and two subinspectors accused of the 1989 murder of two young men.
The government also created a commission to look into detentions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the emergency regulations, in order to ascertain the number and identity of detainees under these laws, expedite cases, recommend releases and improve conditions of detention.
On June 7, in response to criticism over the continued abuse of detainees, the government announced the establishment of the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF) charged with monitoring arrests and detentions. A similar body was already in existence, but its powers had been limited because the emergency regulation that created it had been allowed to lapse. On June 16, the government issued a directive to the police and armed forces ordering them to cooperate with the HRTF and to respect the rights of those arrested. The directive mandated special treatment for women and children and ordered that detainees be told why they were being held, that the person making the arrest be identified, and that an arrest receipt containing the name and rank of the arresting officer be provided to the detainee. It also provided that the detainee be allowed to communicate with a relative or friend, and make statements in a language of his or her choice. Human rights groups criticized the stipulation that the detainee must request a receipt, thus putting the onus on the person arrested rather than on the arresting officer.
Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency almost continuously since May 1983. The emergency regulations grant extraordinary powers to Sri Lankan security personnel to arrest and detain suspects, and have contributed to abuse. When the PA assumed control of the parliament in August 1994, the emergency was temporarily lifted in most parts of the country. It remained in place in the north and east where the war continued. The emergency was reimposed in Colombo after the October 24, 1994 bombing that killed UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake. In 1995, the emergency remained in effect in the north and east, in Colombo and its suburbs, and was extended to include certain portions of central and western Sri Lanka. Several of the most troubling regulations were allowed to lapse when the PA came to power. Among them was a requirement that householders in Colombo and other areas under the state of emergency must register all residents and guests with the local police, a regulation that led to harassment and arrest of Tamils in the city. But although police officials announced in August that this regulation was no longer on the books, there were complaints that the police in some areas were requiring that Tamils carry proof of registration. The regulation itself was reimposed in September.
Torture has been an almost routine part of police work in Sri Lanka throughout the conflict. In January 1994 the government acceded to the U.N. Convention on Torture. However, the government has not signed the declaration under Article 22 of the Torture Convention, which allows individuals to make complaints to a committee set up under the Convention. A parliamentary bill passed in November 1994 made torture punishable by seven to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 50,000 (up to about US $1,000 ). To our knowledge, no members of the security forces had been punished under this law by the end of 1995.
On June 20, the minister of justice announced that the government was considering resuming executions under the death penalty, which had not been invoked in Sri Lanka since 1976. In the face of international and domestic protest, the government announced that it would not carry out any death sentence until there had been a full debate on the issue.
On September 11, the Sri Lankan government unveiled a draft law to deter sexual abuse of children which mandated a minimum sentence of five years in prison for both pimp and client with a maximum sentence of twenty years. The draft bill targets the procurers, clients and others who benefit from or contribute to the sexual exploitation of children and is designed particularly to address sex tourism, a serious problem in Sri Lanka.
The Right to Monitor
Sri Lanka's vibrant human rights community played a crucial role in monitoring the implementation of the government's human rights policies in 1995, by publicizing abuses and educating the public. In early 1995, human rights organizations took advantage of the new government's apparent openness to human rights concerns to make a number of recommendations aimed at bringing Sri Lanka in line with international standards and improving human rights protections. Among their recommendations were calls for the government to ratify the Optional Protocols to the ICCPR, declarations under articles 21 and 22 of the Torture Convention, and Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions.
When fighting resumed in April, human rights organizations called for an end to attacks on civilians and urged both parties to resume the peace process. In late May, the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), among others, publicly denounced both the army and Tamil separatists for the violence and called on the government to announce its long-awaited peace plan. In September, groups repeated these criticisms of combatant violence against civilians. In November a MIRJE appeal expressed concern over the increasing number of displaced persons in the Jaffna Peninsula, shortages of food and other supplies, and fears that neither party to the conflict appeared to be observing basic humanitarian norms with regard to noncombatants. The Sri Lankan government denounced the appeal in a public statement.
The Role of the International Community
In March, the E.U., the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia began exerting heavy pressure on the LTTE to begin serious negotiations to end the conflict. The United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva echoed these concerns.
On April 21, the E.U. called on the LTTE to refrain from initiating an escalation of hostilities, condemned the April 20 attacks and urged the LTTE to enter into negotiations with the Sri Lankan government on the elements of a political solution.
At the end of April, the Sri Lanka Aid Group of donor nations pledged $850 million for the forthcoming year and said that additional funds could be provided for reconstruction of the north and east, if peace was achieved. The vice-chairman of the World Bank said that the donors' pledge "reflects the strong support of the international community to the Sri Lankan government."
On May 18, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka condemning the LTTE's withdrawal from negotiations and "deliberate acts of violence." The resolution called on both parties to "adopt a conciliatory attitude regarding the resumption of the peace talks" and urged the Sri Lankan government to avoid indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. It invited the commission to boost its cooperation with the government of Sri Lanka, to offer it all necessary support to achieve peace and reconciliation, and called on the E.U. and its member states to introduce restrictions on arms sales to the LTTE. On May 29, the E.U. released a statement condemning the LTTE's massacre of Sinhalese villagers and the killing of the Buddhist priest and urged the LTTE to resume negotiations.
On May 31, in Canada's first ministerial visit to Sri Lanka since 1983, Raymond Chan, a junior foreign minister and secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, met with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar during "an information gathering visit" to see whether Canada could help promote the resumption of peace talks. Chan also expressed Canada's concern over the resumption of hostilities by the LTTE. Before talks broke down, a Canadian had been chairman of one of four committees that were set up to monitor the peace process.
Amid the international outcry that followed the violence in April, Sri Lanka sought and secured new sources of military aid. In June, Britain announced that it would lift its embargo on the sale of arms to Sri Lanka. But as reports of serious violations by Sri Lankan security forces escalated, some nations held back. On July 14, Australia's acting foreign minister Bob McMullan appealed to the Sri Lankan armed forces and Tamil rebels to avoid killing civilians during fighting on the Jaffna peninsula, saying that "the resumption of full-scale fighting in Sri Lanka underlines the urgent need for a negotiated political settlement to the long-standing ethnic conflict, which will require restraint and compromise on both sides." Nevertheless, he said the Australian government accepted that "it is unreasonable to expect the Sri Lankan government to acquiesce in the face of the use of force" by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
On September 1 at a press briefing in Colombo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael announced that the United States would not sell lethal weapons to Sri Lanka, in part because it remained concerned about the government's human rights record, although she noted improvements. According to Raphael, the U.S. had "a limited military program with the government of Sri Lanka," which included training and the sale of some non-lethal equipment. However, she also suggested: "That cooperation could be upgraded." The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program to which Raphael referred amounted to $100,000 in 1994. It was projected at the same amount for 1995. The amount requested for fiscal year 1996 was $175,000. Human rights training was described as an important component of the IMET program and the IMET program summary noted,
In the past, official efforts to contain the war have led to serious violations of human rights by the government and security forces. The incidence of such violations poses a grave threat to the stability of Sri Lanka's longstanding democratic tradition... IMET training for key members of the security forces will emphasize human rights training, respect for human rights and civilian control of the military.
There were $204,000 in foreign military sales to Sri Lanka in fiscal year 1994. According to the U.S. Department of State's congressional presentation of foreign operations for fiscal year 1996, no estimated sales were envisioned for 1995 or 1996. The U.S. reported delivery of only $7,000 worth of commercial military exports licensed or approved under the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) in 1994; estimated deliveries in fiscal year 1995 were $3,997,000 and for fiscal year 1996, $1,998,000.
Raphael said President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's government had taken important measures to check abuse. "Overall, one can say, they have clearly improved, and this government has committed itself to very high standards of observance of human rights...but...we maintain a keen eye on [Sri Lanka's human rights] and it is an issue for us."
In September, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations adopted a resolution congratulating the Sri Lankan government for its human rights improvements, denouncing the resumption of hostilities and political violence, and urging both parties to resume negotiations toward a political settlement and to respect human rights.
On June 16, a three-member German parliamentary delegation headed by Willy Wimmer of the foreign affairs committee of the German parliament condemned the LTTE for breaking the cease-fire, but told journalists in Colombo that the country's human rights record had improved so significantly under People's Alliance government that there was no longer a need for Germany to provide asylum to Sri Lankans.
At the twelfth European Commission/Sri Lanka joint meeting in Brussels on June 27-28, the two parties stressed that the economic development of Sri Lanka required a peace process based on respect for human rights and democratic principles. The Commission also expressed its willingness to aid in rehabilitation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka's north and east, if a lasting peace were achieved. Trade relationships grew in importance, as new prospects for trade began appearing and Sri Lanka opened up to foreign investment. Between 1993 and 1994, European exports to Sri Lanka rose 41 percent, and Sri Lankan exports to the E.U. rose 20 percent. The two parties also discussed opportunities for increased trade offered by the E.U.'s new generalized system of preferences and announced the intention to establish a permanent European Commission presence in Colombo by September 1995.
Article 1 of a cooperation agreement between the European Community and the Sri Lankan government, which came into force in April 1995 and provided for "substantial development and diversification of trade," stated that the basis for cooperation and for the agreement itself was "respect for democratic principles and human rights," which "constitute an essential element of the Agreement."
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia
In February, Human Rights Watch/Asia staff met with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar to discuss implementation of various governmental human rights initiatives and urged that the country ratify key international instruments, including the Optional Protocols to the ICCPR, Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions and that it make declarations under articles 21 and 22 of the Torture Convention.
In July, in response to reports of serious violations of humanitarian law by both military personnel and the LTTE, Human Rights Watch/Asia released a short report Stop Killings of Civilians, calling on both parties to uphold their obligation to protect noncombatants.
In September, Human Rights Watch/Asia staff attended a meeting with President Chandrika Kumaratunga to discuss human rights concerns and government initiatives to address abuses.