Human Rights Developments
In December 1995, the Sri Lankan army captured the city of Jaffna, stronghold of the guerrilla group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers). But by late 1996, it was clear that the war was far from over, and the human rights situation throughout the country remained grave. The LTTE continued to launch attacks on security personnel and civilian "collaborators" on the Jaffna peninsula, and after an initial period of restraint, soldiers retaliated in kind. In the northeast and in other parts of the country, both sides committed serious violations of human rights including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and Adisappearances,@ aided by emergency legislation applied nationwide as of April. Civilians were also killed by indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment. Nationwide, stringent government curbs on basic freedoms in the name of security narrowed significantly the space for civil society, and despite continued government efforts to account for past abuses by state forces, impunity remained a serious concern.
The year also saw a rise in political violence in southern Sri Lanka between supporters of the ruling People=s Alliance (PA) party led by Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunge and its chief opposition, the United National Party (UNP). That violence had killed fifteen people by the end of September. Unprecedented labor unrest in crucial industries and services, including rubber, tea and coconut plantations, and the Ceylon Electrical Board, led to paralyzing strikes in the middle of the year. On May 31, the government resorted to emergency legislation to end the electrical strike, ordering arrests and threatening dismissals and confiscation of property. Human rights organizations protested the application of emergency regulations in non-security-related areas and noted that these laws were used by previous governments to dismantle trade unions.
Throughout 1996, the government maintained that a political settlement of the war was its goal but that LTTE violence made war necessary. A plan to devolve power to provinces defined partially along ethnic lines was central to peace proposals, but by November, no political consensus on this proposal had been reached in Colombo. The plan met with strongest resistance from extreme Sinhalese and Buddhist groups, but other parties also disagreed on key points.
Deliberate arbitrary killings of civilians escalated sharply in 1996. Bomb attacks attributed to the LTTE on Colombo=s Central Bank building on January 31, and on a crowded commuter train in July, claimed a combined total of at least 160 civilian lives and injured some 1,550 people. The LTTE continued to conduct public executions of suspected informers and engaged in massacres and retaliatory killings of Sinhalese and Muslim villagers, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced conscription of children, and kidnapping, all in violation of the second protocol to the Geneva Conventions. Although Sri Lanka has not ratified Protocol II, many of its provisions are binding as a matter of customary international law.
Members of the security forces were also implicated in extrajudicial killings, as were Sinhalese and Muslim home guards armed by the Sri Lankan government and members of Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE who aided government forces in security and counterinsurgency operations. The largest deliberate attack on civilians by Sri Lankan soldiers during the year occurred in Trincomalee district on February 11, 1996, when army personnel from nearby camps went on a rampage in the village of Kumarapuram, killing twenty-four civilians, including thirteen women C one of whom was also raped C and seven children under the age of twelve. The massacre was apparently in retaliation for the deaths of two soldiers in an LTTE ambush. On February 26, a military court of inquiry found fourteen soldiers guilty of the killings, and the case was turned over to civil authorities. Eight army personnel were identified by witnesses as having taken part in the massacre. A magisterial inquiry was concluded, and the case was turned over to the Attorney General for a decision on indictment.
In Jaffna, army respect for civilians, initially high, deteriorated as LTTE violence increased. When troops occupied the city in December 1995, fewer than a few thousand civilians remained; some 350,000 people had been compelled by military operations and LTTE pressure to leave Jaffna and its suburbs for an area of the mainland called the Vanni, where the LTTE attempted to establish a headquarters in the town of Kilinochchi. By May 1996, Jaffna residents began to return home, and the government started to restore elements of civilian life, including schools and transportation. But after a suicide bomb blast killed more than twenty people in the city in July, residents complained of harassment at army checkpoints, and after the LTTE overran a military base in the northeastern Mullaitivu district in July, killing or capturing most of the garrison=s 1,500 soldiers, army morale and respect for civilians in Jaffna deteriorated, evidenced by extrajudicial killings, Adisappearances,@ and torture.
The LTTE lost Kilinochchi on September 29, after a two-month assault that displaced some 200,000 civilians. The majority fled to other parts of LTTE-held territory; more than 2,000 reached camps in southern India. On September 14, a UNHCR representative in Colombo warned the Sri Lankan government of a potential mass exodus from the Vanni to India, unless the government quickly restored food and other essential supplies.
Police and army personnel throughout the country, and particularly in Colombo and the northeast, continued to engage in sweeping Acordon and search operations,@ which resulted in the arbitrary arrests and detention of Tamil civilians and the mistreatment and torture of detainees. These sweeps intensified following major incidents in which the LTTE was implicated. After the bank bombing in late January, the government initiated joint army-police security operations in Colombo. The Human Rights Task Force (HRTF), a government body that monitors the rights of detainees, reported over 400 officially acknowledged detentions in Colombo the following
month; others almost certainly went unreported. Tamils detained in February reported beatings, torture and extortion by soldiers and police officers. In July, after the commuter train was bombed, 2,000 Tamils were detained for questioning in the northern town of Vavuniya, and some 500 others were arrested in sweeps in Colombo and Kandy.
Throughout the year, official and nongovernmental human rights workers complained of security force noncompliance with directives designed to protect the rights of detainees. Sri Lankan officials expressed private frustration over persistent physical mistreatment of detainees by police during interrogations, the army=s use of illegal detention facilities, and severe torture in unofficial places of detention, but disciplinary or criminal action against perpetrators of abuse remained rare.
Tight control of war-related reporting made it difficult to gauge the level of police and army abuse. Censorship rules, in place from April 1996 until October 8, 1996, restricted references to actual or potential operations by the armed forces or the police; procurement of arms or supplies; deployment of troops, personnel or equipment; or official conduct or performance of state forces, including in international television broadcasts. Access to Jaffna and other war zones was strictly controlled.
In July, press reports indicated that 150 telephones belonging to some thirty-five journalists, including those from Agence France Presse, Reuters, and six Indian reporters, were being tapped by Sri Lanka=s National Intelligence Bureau. In August, President Chandrika Kumaratunge said that she could not allow the media Ato hinder the war effort of the Government with their malicious, false and damaging reports,@ and warned that two local newspapers, The Island and Divaina, must either be closed down or the government should Apublish alternative newspapers to counter them.@
The government continued to make administrative changes in 1996 designed to curb abuses and account for the tens of thousands who Adisappeared@ in the 1980s, but investigations into past abuses proceeded slowly and prosecutions were not forthcoming. Two of the three commissions appointed in 1995 to look into Adisappearances@ since 1988 were directed to terminate their work by the end of September, although they had not yet heard evidence in more than half of some 20,000 cases presented to them. On September 30 their mandate was extended for an additional three months.
In July, the Sri Lankan parliament approved the establishment of a permanent Human Rights Commission to handle public complaints on human rights abuse. In September, bowing to sustained pressure from Sri Lankan and international human rights groups, the cabinet approved ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The protocol allows individual complaints on violations to be taken to the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee. The Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka welcomed the decision, and urged the government to Atake equivalent action under the Torture Convention by making the necessary declaration to enable individual petitions under that treaty as well.@
In 1995 the government had created a committee to look into detentions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the emergency regulations. The purpose was to ascertain the number and identity of detainees under this legislation, to expedite cases, recommend releases, and improve conditions of detention. At the beginning of June 1996, officials confirmed that 658 persons were being held under detention orders, 150 of them in Colombo. Of these detainees, more than 600 were Tamils, many of whom had been held without trial for prolonged periods, ostensibly due to non-availability of Tamil translations of key documents.
The Right to Monitor
Despite a narrowing of the space for dissent that began in 1995, human rights organizations continued to operate openly and without legal restriction. Intervention by the Organisation of Parents and Families of the Disappeared (OPFMD) and the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka (CRM) in particular succeeded in extending the mandate of two commissions of inquiry into Adisappearances@ that were scheduled for termination.
Concerns remained over incidents of police harassment of persons associated with international organizations concerned with human rights, including the International NGO Forum on Sri Lanka, and Peace Brigades International, as well as possible threats to Sri Lankan human rights activists from other political forces, particularly the LTTE, which threatened harsh measures against clergy or nongovernmental organizations who cooperated with government rehabilitation efforts in Jaffna.
The Role of the International Community
Western nations were virtually unanimous during the year in their condemnation of LTTE attacks on civilians and in their calls for a renewed dialogue between the LTTE and the government. Abuses by government forces received less attention by the international community, which perhaps feared that criticism could discourage ongoing human rights reforms. There were moves on the part of some countries with significant Tamil refugee populations to increase scrutiny of Tamil immigrants and consider laws restricting LTTE activity. Donors also vowed to provide aid for refugees relief and rehabilitation.
On January 12 the E.U. strongly condemned massacres of villagers in Sri Lanka by the LTTE and reiterated earlier appeals to both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to protect the civilian population. The fifteen-nation alliance stated that it believed that the Sri Lankan government's devolution proposals formed a basis for discussion on a settlement acceptable to all Sri Lankans. On February 6, the Italian presidency of the E.U. Astrongly condemned" the bomb attack on Colombo=s Central Bank.
In a July 25, 1996 the U.S. State Department condemned the bombing of the Dehiwela railway station in Colombo and called on the LTTE to renounce the use of terrorism. The E.U. also condemned the July bombing. It appealed to the LTTE to enter into political negotiations with the Sri Lankan authorities as soon as possible. Also in July, the Indian government extended its ban of the LTTE as an Aunlawful association@ under section 3 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
A U.S. delegation headed by Amb. Philip Wilcox, the U.S. State Department=s coordinator for counterterrorism, visited Sri Lanka from August 18 to 23 to meet with senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and security and intelligence authorities and voiced U.S. support for the Sri Lankan government=s efforts to seek a peaceful negotiated settlement of the conflict.
In a September 16 meeting with Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced that the Canadian government was considering legislation to restrict fundraising by the LTTE in Canada.
On October 1, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali promised to support Sri Lanka's billion-dollar reconstruction program for the north once the war was over.