Lessons Learnt (or not) in Sri Lanka

This post is part of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

This post was contributed by M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

I have served two Presidential Commissions appointed by the Sri Lankan government to look into very serious human rights violations – including tens of thousands of enforced disappearances and massacres of civilians by state forces.  And I can attest to the fact that none of their findings or recommendations were taken seriously by the Sri Lankan authorities.  Their detailed conclusions and recommendations aimed at securing justice and redress for victims and their families have never been implemented and their inquiries had no deterrent effect on future violations.

The Sri Lankan government has just appointed the latest in a long line of these Presidential Commissions.  This one is on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ to look into the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended last year. This cynical gesture – vague in its particulars and bound to failure — in no way substitutes for an independent international investigation by the United Nations into allegations of war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Abductions, illegal arrests and detentions, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (many politically motivated or committed in the context of supposed anti-terror operations) continue in Sri Lanka. Police blame ‘unknown persons’ for these incidents and rarely investigate. Torture in custody is almost the norm. When deaths in custody occur police often claim the victim was shot while trying to escape.

Domestic Commissions of Inquiry have failed to prosecute more than a handful of perpetrators in the security forces despite the fact hundreds of officers have been named in reports. This failure to challenge a culture of impunity gives the security forces carte blanche to continue to carry out violations.

Periodically the world wakes up and takes notice of Sri Lanka’s terrible human rights record, as it did briefly last May when the Sri Lankan government sacrificed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and maimed thousands of others in its efforts to wipe out the LTTE. The government is accused of ignoring several international conventions relating to the conduct of war. Only an independent body can confirm the facts.

Sri Lanka appoints Presidential Commissions of Inquiry only when the government is under extreme diplomatic pressure for violating the rights of its citizens.  These may serve to temporarily derail international criticism, but nobody in Sri Lanka is really fooled by such dubious tactics.  We all know these Commissions are only window dressing.


UN must investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka!

It’s been a year since the war ended in Sri Lanka, with the government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.  In the final months of the war, Amnesty International received credible reports of violations of human rights and war crimes being committed by both sides.  The Tigers kept civilians trapped in the war zone and shot those trying to flee.  The government shelled areas heavily populated by the trapped civilians.  Thousands of civilians were killed or injured.  A State Department report issued last year recounted these crimes in detail.

The Sri Lankan government promised the UN in May 2009 that it would address these violations.  But so far what has it done?  President Rajapaksa appointed a committee of experts to advise him on how to respond to the State Department report.  And within the past week he has appointed a reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.

Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its forces accountable.  Just read the Amnesty report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” and you’ll see what I mean.

We can’t count on getting justice from the Sri Lankan government.  So we’re starting a global action today calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to undertake an independent international investigation into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes, committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka.  Such an investigation is a necessary first step to achieving justice for the victims and their families.  Please add your signature to our online petition today – every voice counts!  Thanks.

We'll believe it when we see it!

I finally have good news to report:  the Sri Lankan government announced this past Saturday that the displaced civilians unlawfully trapped in internment camps will be free to come and go as of December 1Amnesty International has been calling for this for the past several months in our “Unlock the Camps!” campaign.

However, while the government announcement and a Sri Lankan newspaper article said that the civilians were being given total freedom of movement as of Dec. 1, other accounts of the government’s announcement have been less positive.  Another Sri Lankan government report referred to the civilians being allowed freedom of movement only within the region of the camps, while the BBC and Oxfam spoke of civilians just being granted day passes to leave the camps temporarily (and a day-pass system had been announced last September by the Sri Lankan government).   U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes said yesterday that the civilians could leave the camps for days at a time, but it was still being discussed whether they could leave the camps permanently.   Human Rights Watch today said that some of the displaced civilians have been told by the government that they won’t be released on Dec. 1 but instead moved to other detention camps.

So, while I want to be optimistic and hope that the Sri Lankan government will actually let all the displaced civilians leave the camps if they wish as of Dec. 1, here it’s a case of “seeing is believing.”


The Graveyards of Sri Lanka's War Zone

Expansion of a gravesite in Sri Lankan “Civilian Safe Zone”: On April 19 (left) roads are present, but the area is mostly deserted. By May 24 (right), a large graveyard with an estimated 342 graves has emerged. Analysis provided by AAAS.

Expansion of a gravesite in Sri Lankan “Civilian Safe Zone”: On April 19 (left) roads are present, but the area is mostly deserted. By May 24 (right), a large graveyard with an estimated 342 graves has emerged. Analysis provided by AAAS.

A final analysis of satellite images – requested by Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights project – was released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science today. It provides rare evidence of a conflict zone still inaccessible to independent observers. In addition to evidence of impact craters in close proximity to Internally-Displaced Person (IDP) shelters, the final analysis reveals two new alarming features: The new analysis shows large gravesites and evidence of mortars used in and around the so-called civilian save zone, which raises further questions about the military tactics deployed by the Sri Lankan Army and the use of human shields by the Tamil Tigers. The fact that we are forced to rely on satellite technology to collect information about the conduct of hostilities is a pressing reminder of the urgent need for an independent investigation with unimpeded access to the area. The Sri Lankan government has severely restricted access to areas where grave human rights violation may have occurred.

The analysis identified three different graveyards, counting a total of 1,346 likely graves. The satellite images can neither reveal if these graves contain civilians or Tamil Tiger fighters, nor reveal in themselves much about the scope of civilian suffering as a result of targeted or indiscriminate attacks. This uncertainty, together with the highly disputed civilian casualty figures, requires an independent investigation with full and unfettered access to the former war zone and IDP camps. Additionally, the UN must immediately disclose its reports about civilian casualty figures, which – according to media reports – are as high as 20,000.

Probable mortar positions
The identification of potential Sri Lankan Army mortar positions in the proximity of the so-called Civilian Safe Zone (CSZ) are an alarming piece of evidence. Mortars are indirect fire weapons. When used against the Tamil Tigers who set up its defensive positions among tens of thousands IDPS – as confirmed by aerial photographs obtained and analyzed by AIUSA’s Science for Human Rights project – the use of such weapons in that context may constitute a serious breach of international humanitarian law. The satellite images reveal several possible mortar craters in close proximity to IDP shelters.

Numerous possible mortar emplacements are located throughout the area of the CSZ. One such emplacement (left), is arrayed similarly to the ‘Lazy W’ formation detailed in a US Army Field Manual (right; FM 7-90 Tactical Employment of Mortars). Analysis provided by AAAS

Numerous possible mortar emplacements are located throughout the area of the CSZ. One such emplacement (left), is arrayed similarly to the ‘Lazy W’ formation detailed in a US Army Field Manual (right; FM 7-90 Tactical Employment of Mortars). Analysis provided by AAAS

An estimated 17 possible mortar positions were identified on May 10 in the area surrounding the CSZ. One location is arranged in a “Six Star” formation while the other can be categorized as a “Lazy W” by a US Army Field Manual. Most of the sites are simply in a parallel or single line formation, and are oriented both towards the CSZ and surrounding roads. Conclusive evidence is still lacking, as no mortar tubes are visible in the image. There is no indication of heavy artillery pieces, which are generally discernable in imagery unless camouflaged. It has to be noted that the Sri Lankan Army uses various artillery pieces that range beyond the area of analysis (approximately nine kilometers around the CSZ). Although the imagery cannot be fully conclusive, the mortar positions are persuasive enough to require further investigations with full access to the former conflict and civilian zones.

Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka!

Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North Eastern Sri Lanka live now in camps and are being denied basic human rights. In response to this crisis we just launched the Unlock the Camps campaign, in which we urge the Sri Lankan government to allow freedom of movement and the installment of a civilian administration of the military run internment camps. We further call on the Government of India to monitor the aid pledged to the Sri Lankan government. As part of the Unlock the Camps campaign we have developed a Facebook Crisis Application, and produced a new Briefing Paper.

Two months after the end of the fighting, the Sri Lankan authorities are still not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced. The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. In addition, these are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government’s claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period.

Displaced people have even been prevented from talking to aid workers. With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence.

According to government figures, the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displaced over 409,000 people. At least 280,000 are displaced from areas previously under LTTE control. A dramatic influx of people fleeing the fighting and crossing to government controlled areas took place from March 2009. The displaced people, including at least 50,000 children, are being accommodated in 41 camps spread over four districts. The majority of the displaced are in Vavuniya District where Menik Farm is the biggest camp.

When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited some of the camps in May, he said:

I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.

While some progress had been made on providing basic needs, much still needs to be done on the right to health, food, water, family reunion and access to relatives. We continue to urge the government of Sri Lanka:

  • to end restrictions on liberty and freedom of movement
  • to ensure that camps are of a truly civilian nature and administered by civilian authorities, rather than under military supervisions
  • give immediate and full access to national and international organizations and observers, including aid agencies, in order to monitor the situation and provide a safeguard against human rights violations.

Trapped in de-facto detention camps

The Sri Lankan government said on 21 May that the displaced will be resettled in 180 days. But very few have so far been allowed to return to their homes or to join friends or family elsewhere, and people remaining in the camps are not at liberty to leave camp premises. The Sri Lankan government must end its policy of forcibly confining people to camps, which amounts to arbitrary detention.  The Sri Lankan government must allow persons who require temporary shelter in these facilities to come and go freely.

With assistance and support from the international community and the involvement of displaced people themselves, the Sri Lankan government must set up clear benchmarks and timelines to ensure that displaced people can safely return home or find other durable solutions (such as relocation) as soon as possible.