Sri Lankan Report Doesn't Fully Address War Crimes

Displaced Sri Lankan Tamil civilians.

I’ve been waiting for months for the final report from Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (often referred to as the “LLRC”).  The commission had been appointed by President Rajapaksa in May 2010 to examine events during the last seven years of the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers (the war ended in May 2009 with the government’s victory over the Tigers).

The Sri Lankan government has used the existence of the commission to say that an international investigation into war crimes and other human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka wasn’t needed.  On Dec. 16, the Sri Lankan government released the LLRC’s final report.  I have to say that I’m disappointed with the report.


Sri Lanka unlocks the camps, but not for long

I wish, I really wish, that I had only good news to report today.  Today was the day the Sri Lankan government promised that the displaced civilians who’d been held in military-run camps for the last 6 months would be free to leave the camps “sans any conditions being imposed.”  But it hasn’t worked out that way.  The civilians were told today they could leave but they also have to return to the camps soon

As the war ended in May this year with the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, about 280,000 civilians displaced by the fighting were placed in overcrowded, military-run camps which they weren’t allowed to leave.  The government said that the civilians first had to be  screened to determine whether there were any Tiger fighters among them.  Amnesty International pointed out that this violated the civilians’ freedom of movement and constituted arbitrary detention.  Amnesty launched its “Unlock the Camps” campaign to get the Sri Lankan government to allow the civilians to leave the camps if they wish to do so.

Since the end of the war, the government has released civilians from the camps, but according to the U.N., around 136,000 were still being held as of Nov. 25.

On Nov. 21, the Sri Lankan government announced that, as of Dec. 1, the civilians would at last be free to come and go from the camps.  Yesterday, a government minister said there would be no restrictions imposed on the duration of the civilians’ absence from the camps.


Sri Lanka: international investigation still needed

Human Rights Watch said something on Sri Lanka yesterday at the UN Human Rights Council that bears repeating:

“Additionally, the Council should establish an independent international investigation into violations of international humanitarian law during the fighting between the government and the LTTE.”

Amnesty International has been calling for such an investigation for some time.  Thousands of civilians were killed in the last stages of the fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Amnesty has received testimonies that both the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE were responsible for severe violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including war crimes, during the fighting.  The Sri Lankan government had promised the UN in a joint statement in late May to investigate those violations, but since then nothing has been done by the Sri Lankan government to fulfill those promises.  Yesterday, a UN official said that the UN was concerned about the lack of progess on this issue, among others in Sri Lanka.  The UN should establish an international investigation now.

Sri Lankan doctors at risk of torture

Amnesty International today issued an urgent action appeal on the five Sri Lankan doctors currently being held by the government under emergency regulations.  We are concerned that they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.  The doctors had provided medical services to civilians trapped in the war zone, during the last stages of the war earlier this year between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Before they were detained by the government on May 15, the doctors had provided eyewitness accounts to the media of the suffering experienced by the trapped civilians.  On July 8, while still under detention, the doctors appeared at a press conference organized by the government and retracted their earlier reports.  AI is concerned about how genuine their later statments were.  The doctors remain in detention without charge.

Amnesty is calling on the Sri Lankan government to release the doctors immediately, unless they are to be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense.  Please join our appeal and write the government on their behalf.  Write to:  President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka; email:

Displaced children at risk in Sri Lankan camps

Yesterday, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (of which Amnesty International is a member) issued a briefing paper on children affected by the recent conflict in Sri Lanka.  The paper details how children in the military-controlled internment camps for displaced civilians are being abducted for ransom, for forced recruitment into pro-government armed groups or due to suspected links with the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In May of this year, the Sri Lankan government completed its offensive against the LTTE, recapturing all the territory formerly held by the group and killing their senior leaders, thus ending the 26-year-old conflict.  The LTTE had been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Both sides committed gross human rights abuses, including war crimes, during the course of the conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were displaced earlier this year by the fighting.  By the end of the hostilities, over 280,000 civilians (included a reported 80,000 children) were being held in overcrowded, military-run camps.  Most of the civilians are not allowed to leave the camps.  The Sri Lankan government has said that they must be screened first to determine the presence of any suspected LTTE combatants.

The Sri Lankan government should tighten security at the camps so that children are no longer at risk of abduction.  But they should also allow all the civilians in the camps freedom of movement, a right they’re entitled to as citizens of Sri Lanka.  Those who wish to leave the camps should be immediately allowed to do so.  Haven’t the displaced children and their relatives suffered enough already?

The course of justice in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court yesterday acquitted five soldiers for the murder of 10 Muslim youths in Udathalawinna on December 5, 2001, during a general election.  The five had been security guards of Anuruddha Ratwatte, the then deputy minister of defence.  Ratwatte and his two sons had earlier been charged for the murders as well but were acquitted in 2006.  Ten young men are dead and no one, to my knowledge, has been convicted for their murder.  Is this how Sri Lanka punishes the guilty?

I couldn’t help thinking of this case when I heard that a verdict is expected on August 31 in the trial of J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan journalist.  Tissainayagam is being tried for allegedly violating the country’s emergency regulations and Prevention of Terrorism Act.  The only evidence against him are two articles he wrote in 2006 in a monthly magazine criticizing the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers and a confession that his lawyer says was obtained under duress.  Amnesty International has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate, unconditional release and for all charges against him to be dropped.  Will we see an acquittal for him on August 31?  Or do acquittals only apply for the powerful and those connected to them?

Sri Lanka: Red Cross asked to scale down operations

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced today that it had been asked by the Sri Lankan government to scale down its operations in the country.  The ICRC has worked in Sri Lanka for the past 20 years; their activities have included visiting political detainees as well as former fighters with the opposition Tamil Tigers in order to monitor their conditions of detention.  The Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said today that the order was not only directed at the ICRC but at all international agencies; given that the fighting with the Tigers was over, all of the agencies were to now scale down their work.

In its statement today, the ICRC reaffirmed its commitment to address the humanitarian needs of the people affected by the recent conflict in Sri Lanka, which presumably includes the former fighters as well as the thousands of displaced civilians who are still held in government-run internment camps which they’re not permitted to leave.  But as the ICRC cuts back on its operations, will it still be permitted to fulfill its commitment?  Will there still be an independent third party to monitor the conditions in which both the displaced civilians as well as the former combatants are kept?

Sri Lankan doctors "recant" prior testimony

A group of Sri Lankan doctors currently in detention were produced by the Sri Lankan government before the media today in order to recant their prior reports of civilian deaths during the last stages of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  I’d written about three of these doctors in an earlier entry on this blog, expressing concern that their arrest by the government shortly after leaving the war zone was in reprisal for their earlier reports.  The doctors had provided eyewitness accounts from the war zone detailing the extent of civilian suffering earlier this year.

Since January, an intense military offensive by the government gradually reconquered all the territory once held by the Tigers.  In mid-May, the government announced that it had defeated the Tigers and recaptured all their territory.  Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers had been thousands of civilians who were prevented by the Tigers from leaving; some civilians who did flee were shot by the Tigers as they did so.  The government forces repeatedly shelled the war zone, despite the heavy concentration of civilians in an increasingly shrinking area.  The government denied that it had caused any civilian casualties.  Since the government barred independent observers and the media from the war zone, the doctors’ reports were one of the few eyewitness accounts available as to what was actually happening in the war zone.

Despite U.N figures of more than 7,000 civilian deaths this year, the doctors today said only 650-750 civilians were killed this year.  Their estimate also happens to be far below the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate – a Sri Lankan government official last month estimated 3,000 – 5,000 civilians had been killed.

The Sri Lankan government had said, and the doctors today asserted, that their earlier reports from the war zone had been given under pressure from the Tigers who then controlled the area they were in.  Consider this:  the doctors have been in detention by the government since mid-May and have yet to be charged.  At today’s press conference, they expressed hope that they might now be released.

Also consider that last week, Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa had said in an interview with the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, when asked why the doctors couldn’t be released now, “I told them to organize a press conference.  Let the doctors come and say what they have to say.”  You might think that that would mean that the doctors have now done what the President wanted, so they’d now be released.  But note that in the same interview, Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President Rajapaksa, had said about the doctors, “If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent.”

If the doctors had been under pressure earlier from the Tigers while the fighting was going on, have they since been under pressure from the government to “recant” their earlier reports?  AI said today that the doctors’ statements were “expected and predicted,” since we feared that their detention by the government was intended to produce exactly the result we saw today.

I’ll repeat the request I made in my earlier entry about the doctors:  please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email: and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  Please ask that the doctors be released immediately from detention unless they’re promptly charged with a recognizable crime.  They should be given all the medical care they may need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice.  Thanks for your help.

Sri Lanka: judicial independence threatened

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister reportedly told Parliament yesterday that the government would address within the Sri Lankan legal system any alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the recent fighting between the military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Thus, there would be no need for an international investigation.  The Foreign Minister pointed to a long, well-established tradition within Sri Lanka of an independent judiciary.

Before anyone gets too sanguine about the prospects of an effective investigation being carried out by the Sri Lankan government of the human rights abuses and war crimes committed by both sides during the recent fighting, I’d suggest that you first look at the report on Sri Lanka recently issued by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.   The report has very disturbing findings about the vulnerability of the Sri Lankan judiciary and legal profession to political interference.  It underlines the need for an international investigation if we’re ever to get the truth about what happened during the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka: what price "stability"?

In an interview published today in The Nation, a Sri Lankan newspaper, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, claimed that an international investigation into abuses committed by both sides during the recent fighting could destabilize Sri Lankan society.  In mid-May, the Sri Lankan government had announced that it had defeated the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reconquering all the territory held by them and killing their leaders.  The LTTE had been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island for over 26 years.  Both sides committed gross human rights abuses during the course of the conflict.  Amnesty International has called for an international investigation into the abuses committed by both sides in recent months.

The Minister said in the interview:

The armed forces had to do what they had to do to eradicate the ruthless terrorist outfit and give a new lease of life within a democratic framework to the citizens.  In the process of doing that many thousands of lives had to be sacrificed.

In response to another question about the number of civilian casualties killed during the last stages of the war, the Minister said: 

No one knows really how many civilians were killed because of the complex nature of the conflict.  How do you distinguish between the appearance of a LTTE cadre and a civilian?  We know that LTTE cadres were not always wearing uniforms. . .  So to talk about numbers in respect of civilian casualty [sic], it is like walking on thin ice, no one can authoritatively support numbers and therefore it is best not to speculate.

It seems to me that the Minister is saying, in effect, that thousands of civilians may have been killed but it was necessary in order to defeat the LTTE, so let’s just forget the past and move on.  And without an investigation, we’ll never know how many of the dead were civilians or LTTE cadre but let’s not try to find out for fear of “destabilizing” the country.  How would the truth be “destabilizing”?  It could be if an investigation determined that the military committed war crimes but the government held no one to account for them.  Is this what the Minister has in mind – there will never be any accountability, so best not to expose what the military did toward the end of the war?  If this is indeed what the Sri Lankan government has in mind, the international community shouldn’t stand for it.  We need an international investigation now.