US Pressure Mounts For Sri Lanka War Crimes Accountability

I remember vividly my recent encounter with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, who angrily dismissed any concerns regarding alleged war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Unfortunately for the minister, and luckily for the human rights movement, I am not the only one who is concerned about serious human rights violations that were committed by both the government and the Tamil Tigers during the final stage of the conflict. International concerns regarding alleged war crimes are not fading. To the contrary, this week new pressure is building up to ensure true accountability. This week, fifty-seven eight members of Congress sent a letter (pdf) to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to press for an independent international inquiry into the alleged war crimes. The congressional action is gaining considerable media attention, with stories run by AFP, AP, BBC and Al Jazeera.

We are still awaiting Secretary Clinton’s response to the serious concerns raised by the US lawmakers. The congressional letter highlights the limitations of Sri Lanka’s sham commission on Lesson’s Learnt and Reconciliation, which started its work today, and which is not expected to produce any more credible results than its predecessors. Unfortunately, Secretary Clinton so far seems to support the domestic commission, despite the doubts raised about its credibility.

We also just learned that the US Department of State will submit its follow up report on war crimes and accountability in Sri Lanka to Congress this afternoon. This new document will reportedly inform Congress what steps – if any – the Sri Lankan government has taken to ensure accountability for any crimes committed.

To stay updated and to follow new developments on the release of the State Department report, please follow us on Twitter.

Update: State Department report can be found here.

Urge Your Representative TODAY to Demand Accountability for Sri Lanka Crimes

For new developments on Sri Lanka and updates on this action, follow me on Twitter.

UPDATE (July 30): Our action is working! We almost got one new co-signer per hour within the first 24 hours of the start of our action, collecting 22 additional signatures. Even more important, due to the traction we got on this topic over the last days, the deadline to sign on was extended to next Friday, August 6Thursday, August 5! Please keep urging your representative to sign and spread the word. Thanks to everyone who has already done so.

After a US State Department official called for reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka last week, US lawmakers are now taking concrete action to hold the State Department to its own word (unfortunately the State Department seems to support the insufficient domestic investigation into the war crimes). Currently, a congressional sign on letter is circulating at Capitol Hill, gaining support to identify those responsible for the crimes committed in the final stage of

Civilians, in between Kilinochchi and Mulathiv, Sri Lanka, May 2009, during the last few months of the war. (c) Private

Sri Lanka’s civil war. The letter, sponsored by Representatives Jan Schakowsky and James McGovern, urges Secretary Clinton to publicly call for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka. We urgently need your help in asking your representative to sign on. To achieve the highest impact with this congressional letter and keep up the pressure for true accountability, we must collect enough signatures now.

Last year, activists like you spearheaded the global Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka campaign, leading to the release of tens of thousands of civilians who were detained after the end of the war. Now we need your help again. Please take action today by asking your representative in the House to sign the congressional letter, demanding an international investigation. The letter will be closed this Friday, July 30, so please urge your representative now!

Here‘s how you can take action:

  1. Take action online, urging your House representative to sign on to the letter.
  2. Call the Congressional switchboard at 202 224-3121 and ask for your representative. Tell him about the letter and encourage him to support it.
  3. If your representative has a Facebook page or twitter account, encourage him through these platforms to sign on (for an example how to do this on twitter, follow our lead).


UN: bloodbath now in Sri Lanka

Yesterday, a doctor working in Sri Lanka’s war zone reported that at least 378 people were killed by shelling over the weekend.  The doctor said that 1,122 others had been injured and that the firing appeared to have come from the government side.  Gordon Weiss, the U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, said:

“We’ve been consistently warning against a bloodbath, and the large-scale killing of civilians including more than 100 children this weekend appears to show that the bloodbath has become a reality.”

Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a civil war for about 26 years between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers, who seek an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Both sides have been responsible for massive human rights abuses during the conflict.  Since a 2002 ceasefire broke down in mid-2006, the government’s offensive has reconquered most of the territory once controlled by the Tigers.  The Tigers are now confined to a small coastal strip in northeastern Sri Lanka, surrounded by the Sri Lankan army.  With the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians who are being held by the Tigers as human shields and prevented from fleeing the area.

The Sri Lankan government today said that the Tigers were responsible for the shelling that killed the civilians.  The government also claimed that the doctor reporting from the war zone was in no position to give an independent account “as he is virtually another captive of the Tigers.”  Since independent observers, including journalists, are barred from the war zone, it is difficult to verify reports from the war zone.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to have an informal session about Sri Lanka today.  The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary claimed that the Tigers were using the latest charge of civilian casualties in an attempt to influence the discussions at the Security Council.

Ahead of today’s meeting on Sri Lanka at the Security Council, Amnesty International and three other international organizations (Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect) issued a joint letter to the Japanese Prime Minister, urging Japan, as a member of the Security Council, to support formal action on Sri Lanka at the Council.  The Security Council has only considered Sri Lanka in informal settings so far; it would reportedly need to elevate discussion on Sri Lanka to a formal level before the Council could take action.

We can’t wait for the discussions at the Security Council, formal or informal.  Thousands more civilians may be dead long before the discussions ever result in any action.  Please write to the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government now; we need maximum international pressure on both sides to stop the bloodbath immediately.

As Zimbabwe turns 29, statements are not enough

As originally posted on the Daily Kos

In advance of talks with Zimbabwe’s finance minister Tendai Biti next weekend in Washington DC, the World Banks Robert Zoellick shared his assessment of the situation:

Zimbabwe is at a very sensitive point and we want it succeed. But that is going to require steps by all of the members of the Zimbabwe’s institutions to restore democracy, restore human rights.

Reading these statements I remembered a recent chat with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Executive Director Frank Donaghue who was in Zimbabwe a few months ago. His explanations and PHR’s report leave no doubt over the gravity of the situation and who is responsible for ruining the country’s economy – and with it its health system:

The health and healthcare crisis in Zimbabwe is a direct outcome of the malfeasance of the Mugabe regime and the systematic violation of a wide range of human rights, including the right to participate in government and free elections and egregious failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health. The findings contained in this report show, at a minimum, violations of the rights to life, health, food, water, and work. When examined in the context of 28 years of massive and egregious human rights violations against the people of Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe, they constitute added proof of the commission by the Mugabe regime of crimes against humanity.

At the same conference where I met with PHR, the leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) spoke about their human rights activism. WOZA represents some of the country’s most courageous human rights defenders. Compared to them, I feel like a wannabe activist. Harassed several times for their activism, they remain at risk of arbitrary arrest and intimidation. Their commitment and leadership is probably the biggest sign of hope for Zimbabwe, and the least we can do is to show them our support and sympathy, and share their story.

The country’s destroyed health system and the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders are painful reminders how far the country still has to go. The International Crisis Group (ICG) released a new report just moments ago, stating that:

If the international community stands back with a wait-and-see attitude, the unity government is likely to fail, and Mugabe and the military establishment will entrench themselves again. There should be no alternative to engagement to address pressing socio-economic needs, reinforce new hope and prevent a return to violence and repression.

Obviously, the ICG focuses on the major players in international politics and ignores that the international community includes all of us. So if you don’t want to wait for national governments or international institutions to make a move, here’s your opportunity.

By Christoph Koettl, Crisis Prevention and Response Campaigner at Amnesty International USA

DISCLAIMER: the opinions written above are the author’s alone and should not be considered official Amnesty International policy.