Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Seeking Justice after Sri Lanka's Elections

by James Ross, The Huffington Post, January 27, 2010

Sri Lanka's long-term future depends on serious-minded recognition of basic rights for all the country's ethnic communities. Addressing past crimes is a crucial component of that process.

James Ross

The decisive re-election of Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday presents the president with a momentous choice. He can continue the Sinhalese nationalist policies that defined his first term, or he can address the serious grievances of the minority Tamil population that lay behind the country's 26-year-long civil war. That turnout in the predominantly Tamil north-east was only 30 percent, compared to 70 percent of eligible voters generally, reflects those grievances.

The first choice would be politically easy - and very damaging to Sri Lanka's future. The conflict with the separatist Tamil Tigers, which ended in May, left much of the north and east in ruins and displaced hundreds of thousands of people of all ethnicities. Continuing social and economic policies that are designed largely to benefit the Sinhalese majority will engender further resentment and continue ethnic tensions.

Sri Lanka's future would be better served by a strategy that seeks support from the entire population - that means tackling the tough political issues that remained after the fighting. These include local governance in the north and east, the return of the displaced population, and broad-based economic development. But for the many victims, and families of victims, of wartime atrocities, the general relief that the war is over is not enough. They would like to see justice done.

According to United Nations' estimates, at least 7,000 civilians, virtually all ethnic Tamils, died in what one UN official called a "bloodbath" in the final months of the conflict. Evidence that emerged during the fighting of indiscriminate government airstrikes and shelling of civilians and of the Tamil Tigers' repeated use of civilians as human shields has strengthened over time.

An impartial Sri Lankan organization has published compelling personal accounts of horrific civilian suffering. A UN special envoy this month presented strong forensic evidence that a video allegedly showing Sri Lankan soldiers executing prisoners is authentic. And the US State Department in October submitted to the Sri Lankan government a report that was a virtual catalogue of abuses by both sides.

Last May, President Rajapaksa promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the Sri Lankan government would investigate alleged laws-of-war violations. Since then, the government's only actions have been to convene a team of lawyers tasked with answering the various allegations and to denounce the UN's top human rights official and others who have pressed for investigations. Unfortunately, Secretary-General Ban has yet to endorse calls by senior UN officials for independent investigations, feeding impressions that Rajapaksa had taken him for a ride by making a promise he did not intend to keep.

The Rajapaksa government's foot-dragging has been no surprise. Throughout the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers, serious rights violations have been ignored rather than prosecuted. Various governmental commissions have led to nothing. It's long been clear that only an international investigation is going to make any progress.

The United States has been an important voice promoting human rights in Sri Lanka. During the fighting the US urged the Sri Lankan government to abide by the laws of war. President Barack Obama called for the government to free a wrongfully imprisoned Tamil journalist, and he has since been released on parole. The administration also strongly criticized detention camps holding several hundred thousand Tamil civilians who had fled the fighting.

However, the Obama administration has been silent on the need for an independent international investigation of wartime atrocities. While Chinese and Russian opposition make the creation of an investigatory body by the UN Security Council unlikely, there is nothing to stop the US and other concerned governments from publicly urging Secretary-General Ban to establish an inquiry for Sri Lanka on his own, as he did in Guinea with strong US backing. It is time for Ban to call the Sri Lankan government's bluff.

International pressure could make Rajapaksa's electoral victory a victory for justice as well. Sri Lanka's long-term future depends on serious-minded recognition of basic rights for all the country's ethnic communities. Addressing past crimes is a crucial component of that process.

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Sri Lanka: President's New Term Time for Accountability

UN Secretary-General Should Work for Independent International Investigation

by Human Rights Watch, January 27, 2010

(New York) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and key international actors should take steps to bring accountability for Sri Lanka's grave human rights violations so that the thousands of victims will not continue to be denied justice during President Mahinda Rajapaksa's second term, Human Rights Watch said today.

The human rights situation in Sri Lanka deteriorated markedly during Rajapaksa's first term, and he failed to hold perpetrators accountable. During the final months of the 26-year-long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, both government and LTTE forces committed numerous serious violations of international humanitarian law, in which more than 7,000 civilians died in what the UN called a "bloodbath."

"The human rights situation in Sri Lanka plummeted to new depths on Rajapaksa's watch," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The president deftly played a false conflict between rights and the fight against terrorism in his first term. But with the war over, the UN and other international actors should loudly insist on justice for victims."

Rajapaksa was elected to a second term on January 26, 2010, in a hotly contested election in which his former army chief, retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was the runner-up. Although election day was relatively peaceful, according to election monitors, the campaign was marked by hundreds of incidents of violence in which at least four people were killed.

During and after the war, Rajapaksa's government confined nearly 300,000 internally displaced persons to large detention camps, where they were deprived of their liberty and freedom of movement in violation of international law. The government has separated more than 11,000 LTTE suspects from their families at checkpoints and in the camps, denying them due process, such as right to legal counsel and the right to have a court review their detention.

Threats and attacks against outspoken and critical civil society figures increased, and the government used anti-terror laws and emergency regulations against peaceful critics, further diminishing the space for public debate. The hostile, sometimes deadly, media environment drove dozens of journalists into exile.

Enforced disappearances and abductions, a longstanding and widespread problem in Sri Lanka, sharply increased in 2006, when military operations between the government and the LTTE intensified following the collapse of the 2002 ceasefire. In 2006 and 2007, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances recorded more new "disappearance" cases from Sri Lanka than from any other country in the world.

Politically motivated killings during Rajapaksa's first term also remain unresolved, including the extrajudicial executions of five students in Trincomalee in January 2006 and of 17 aid workers with Action Contre la Faim in Mutur in August 2006.

Rajapaksa took no effective steps to bring accountability for human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. In July 2009, Rajapaksa disbanded, before it could complete its work, a presidential commission of inquiry created in 2006 to investigate 16 cases of grave human rights violations. In April 2008, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) had withdrawn from monitoring the commission because it had "not been able to conclude ... that the proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards."

The vast majority of the hundreds of new "disappearances" and politically motivated killings from the past few years have never been seriously investigated, and none of the perpetrators have been punished.

In May 2009 Rajapaksa promised Ban that the Sri Lankan government would investigate allegations of human rights and laws-of-war violations during the war's final months. No such investigation has taken place. Instead, the government has set up a team of lawyers to respond to allegations about rights violations in reports by the US State Department and the UN special envoy on extrajudicial executions.

Because of the government's failure to investigate serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch has long called for an independent international investigation into abuses by all parties to the conflict. Thus far, the secretary-general's office has stated that Ban was "considering" establishing a committee of experts to "assist the government" of Sri Lanka to look at evidence that its soldiers committed war crimes last year. "The various investigatory bodies set up by President Rajapaksa have spent more energy trying to deflect serious inquiries into abuses than actually conducting them," Adams said. "Ban and key governments should not fall for the same trick again and instead should call for an independent international investigation. The ball is now in Ban's court."