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HRW: No Progress on Justice

by Human Rights Watch, January 23, 2012

The issue of land, one of the central problems undergirding the decades-long conflict, remains unresolved. Although the cabinet in April passed a circular intended to address the issue of land ownership and competing claims, particularly for those who fled during the war, little was done to implement its provisions...

“The government has barely made an effort to address the grievances of the Tamil population,” Adams said. “Instead of the government facilitating greater dialogue, Tamil political representatives are subject to threats and harassment.”

RELATED MATERIALS: World Report 2012: Sri Lanka

In 2011, accountability remained a dead issue, the media faced increasing censorship, and the long-standing grievances which led to the conflict were not seriously addressed. Sri Lankans face a lack of justice, weak rule of law, land grabbing, and a censored media from a government that is increasingly authoritarian. Brad Adams, Asia director

(New York) – The Sri Lankan government in the past year failed to advance justice and accountability for the victims of the country’s 26-year-long civil conflict, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. While Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north and east became more open, the government deepened repression of basic freedoms throughout the country.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to stall on accountability for abuses by the security forces, threatened media and civil society groups, and largely ignored complaints of insecurity and land grabbing in the north and east, Human Rights Watch said. The long-awaited report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), published in December, largely absolved the military for its conduct in the bloody final months of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009.

“In 2011, accountability remained a dead issue, the media faced increasing censorship, and the long-standing grievances which led to the conflict were not seriously addressed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lankans face a lack of justice, weak rule of law, land grabbing, and a censored media from a government that is increasingly authoritarian.” 

In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

The government’s failure to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable remained a key issue throughout the year. No one was prosecuted for atrocities committed during the conflict with the LTTE. The government ignored the findings of a Panel of Experts report, commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which found rampant abuses by both government forces and the LTTE, and called for an independent international mechanism to investigate laws-of-war violations. The government insisted instead that its LLRC would be the mechanism to address wartime abuses, though the mandate, composition and procedures of the commission were deeply flawed. The LLRC effectively exonerated government forces for laws-of-war violations, rehashed long-standing recommendations, and took no concrete steps to advance accountability.

The commission’s findings stand in stark contrast to those of the UN Panel of Experts, the UN special envoy on extrajudicial executions, and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Although the LLRC found that government shelling resulted in civilian casualties, an allegation that the government had strenuously denied, it did not even consider the repeated attacks on civilian areas and hospitals as possible indiscriminate attacks prohibited by the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

“The abuses by government forces detailed in the UN Panel of Experts report are strangely missing in the LLRC’s findings,” Adams said. “Even the LLRC’s useful recommendations seem destined to join those of other Sri Lankan commissions that got filed away and ignored.”

Free expression in Sri Lanka was under assault in 2011. The editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper was beaten with iron bars by a group of unidentified youths in late July. Also in July, a team of Radio Netherlands journalists were harassed by police and later robbed and attacked at gunpoint by men in a white van, a notorious symbol of terror in Sri Lanka. The chairman of the Sunday Leader, whose brother Lasantha Wickrematunge had been gunned down in 2009, received a phone call from President Rajapaksa who threatened to attack him personally in response to articles in the Sunday Leader about high-level corruption. In December, two human rights activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan, disappeared, apparently abducted while en route to a planned protest rally in Jaffna. Weeraraj’s father stated that his son had received anonymous phone calls prior to the protest telling him that he would be eliminated if he continued his political involvement.

In November, the government-owned Daily News announced that the government would issue guidelines and a code of conduct for the country’s media. The Media Ministry called on all news websites to register. At least five websites critical of the government were subsequently blocked inside the country.

“A free media is an essential building block of a democratic state,” Adams said. “The Rajapaksa administration is putting this in jeopardy by reacting to criticism with heavy-handed measures.”

The government says that there has been meaningful progress on reconciliation, but there is little evidence to support that contention, Human Rights Watch said. Talks between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on distribution of powers remained stalled through most of 2011. While campaigning ahead of elections in Jaffna in June, members and supporters of the TNA were attacked by army personnel wielding rods, batons and sticks.

There were some improvements for the Tamil population in the north and east in 2011. Freedom of movement to the north has allowed for greater access by humanitarian, local human rights and media groups, as well as by families. However, the government took inadequate steps in 2011 to normalize living conditions. Security in the region remained poor, with alarming incidents reported of gender-based violence and enforced prostitution. The unsettling attacks mid-year by “grease devils” – unidentified male assailants – exposed the vacuum in the security forces’ ability to respond adequately to civilians’ needs for protection. The heavy military presence in the north and east was a continuing source of distrust among the largely Tamil population.

The issue of land, one of the central problems undergirding the decades-long conflict, remains unresolved. Although the cabinet in April passed a circular intended to address the issue of land ownership and competing claims, particularly for those who fled during the war, little was done to implement its provisions.

Further, the government failed to appoint a National Land Commission, as required under the 13thamendment to the constitution. Reports of land-grabbing by the military in the north and elsewhere in the country increased through 2011. In some cases, the military provided some compensation, but sporadically and only when initiated by the owners, not the occupiers.

“The government has barely made an effort to address the grievances of the Tamil population,” Adams said. “Instead of the government facilitating greater dialogue, Tamil political representatives are subject to threats and harassment.”

Most of the nearly 300,000 displaced persons illegally confined in military-controlled detention centers after the war were able to leave by early 2010, but many have still not been able to return to their previous homes or communities. About 57,000 people live with host families, and another roughly 53,000 remain in the camps, in part because de-mining activities have not yet been completed in their original home areas.

By December, the government had released all but about 1,000 of the nearly 12,000 LTTE “surrenderees,” alleged combatants and supporters that it was detaining without charge or trial, and claimed that those remaining would be released by mid-2012. The government says these former combatants have been rehabilitated and trained to enter civilian life. The government said another 1,000 “hardcore” LTTE members are being held at Camp Boosa. The conditions for all of these detainees are not known.

Allegations of mistreatment and torture in custody have not been investigated.

The Emergency Regulations were allowed to expire on August 31, but the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and other laws and regulations permitting detention without charge for up to 18 months leave an abusive detention regime in place.

Local government elections held between March and October further consolidated the hold of Rajapaksa’s United Freedom People’s Alliance party. It won control over 270 of the 322 local authorites contested. As in previous years, the president relied on close family members to strengthen his hold on government. Various Rajapaksa brothers remain as cabinet ministers with important portfolios. Opposition parties were effectively sidelined.

Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander who challenged Rajapaksa during the 2010 presidential election, was sentenced to an additional three years in prison after his current sentence expires in January 2012.

“As the Rajapaksa government has strengthened its grip politically, basic rights protections in the country have deteriorated,” Adams said.

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World Report 2012: 2012

Events of 2011

The aftermath of Sri Lanka’s quarter century-long civil war, which ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), continued to dominate events in 2011. In April United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report by a panel of experts that concluded that both government forces and the LTTE conducted military operations “with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights, welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law.” The panel recommended the establishment of an international investigative mechanism. Sri Lankan officials responded by vilifying the report and the panel members.

The government has failed to conduct credible investigations into alleged war crimes by security forces, dismissing the overwhelming body of evidence as LTTE propaganda. The government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), characterized as a national accountability mechanism, is deeply flawed, does not meet international standards for such commissions, and has failed to systematically inquire into alleged abuses.

In August the government allowed emergency regulations in place for nearly three decades to lapse, but overbroad detention powers remained in place under other laws and new regulations. Several thousand detainees continue to be held without trial, in violation of international law.

Accountability

Sri Lanka has made no progress toward justice for the extensive laws of war violations committed by both sides during the long civil war, including the government’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians and the LTTE’s use of thousands of civilians as “human shields” in the final months of the conflict. Since the war ended the government has not launched a single credible investigation into alleged abuses. The lack of investigation was especially conspicuous with regard to several incidents featured in a June 2011 program on the British television station Channel 4, showing gruesome images of what appear to be summary executions of captured and bound combatants. Incredibly, the government repeatedly has dismissed the footage as fabricated despite several independent expert reports finding it authentic.

In May the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry held an international conference in Colombo, the capital, on defeating terrorism that gave scant attention to government abuses. In August the Defense Ministry issued its own report, conceding for the first time that government forces caused civilian deaths in the final months of the conflict, but taking no responsibility for laws of war violations and concluding peremptorily without further investigation that the deaths were the unfortunate collateral damage of war.

Impunity for serious violations also continues for older cases. Despite strong evidence of involvement by government forces in the execution-style slayings of 17 aid workers and five students in separate incidents in 2006, government inquiries continue to languish and no one has been arrested for the crimes.

The government has repeatedly extended the deadline for the LLRC. The LLRC’s mandate focuses on the breakdown of the 2002 ceasefire between the government and the LTTE, and does not explicitly require it to investigate alleged war crimes during the conflict. The LLRC heard testimony but undertook no investigations into such allegations. The LLRC was due to submit its report to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on November 15. The government has stated that the report will be made public but has not indicated when it will do so. The government has not acted on the LLRC’s preliminary recommendations.

Torture, Enforced Disappearances, and Arbitrary Detention

While the government allowed longstanding emergency regulations to lapse in August, it failed to rescind other legislation granting police and other security forces overbroad detention powers and it adopted new regulations that in effect continue several of the emergency provisions. The president continues to issue monthly decrees granting the armed forces search and detention powers.

Despite the end of the formal state of emergency, the government also continues to hold several thousand people initially detained under the emergency regulations. Many have been held for years without trial, in violation of international law. The government has so far refused to even publish lists of those detained.

The government has gradually released many, but not all, of the more than 11,000 suspected LTTE members detained at the end of the war and sent to so-called rehabilitation centers. The government denied detainees important due process guarantees, such as access to legal counsel, and thousands spent two years or more in detention. There are reports that some people released from the rehabilitation centers were harassed by security forces after they returned home.  

In 2011, new reports of “disappearances” and abductions in the north and the east emerged, some linked to political parties and others to criminal gangs. The government has lifted its restriction on travel to parts of the north, although it maintains a very high security presence. Violence, including sexual assault, by so-called grease devils, some of whom could allegedly be traced to military camps, highlighted insecurity in the north and east.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act gives police broad powers over suspects in custody. Sri Lanka has a long history of torture by the police forces, at times resulting in death.

Civil Society and Opposition Members

Free expression remained under assault in 2011. Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan, editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper, was beaten with iron bars by a group of unidentified youths in late July. He was severely injured and required hospitalization. In July a team of Radio Netherlands journalists were harassed by police and later robbed and attacked at gunpoint by a gang in a white van, a notorious symbol of terror in Sri Lanka. Lal Wickrematunge, chairman of theSunday Leader and brother of Lasantha Wickrematunge (who was gunned down in 2009), received a phone call from President Rajapaksa in response to an article on high-level corruption in which the president said to Wickrematunge, “You are writing lies, outrageous lies! You can attack me politically, but if you attack me personally, I will know how to attack you personally too.”

There have been no further developments regarding the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge or the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, a contributor to Lanka e-news, who has been missing since January 24, 2010.

Members and supporters of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), campaigning ahead of local elections in Jaffna in June, were attacked by army personnel wielding rods, batons, and sticks. Among the injured were TNA members and police officers assigned to provide security to the parliamentarians. The results of an investigation into the incident ordered by the secretary of defense are not known.

In November the government blocked at least six news websites claiming that they had maligned the character of the president and other top government officials.

Reconciliation Efforts

Reconciliation efforts, meant to address longstanding grievances of the ethnic Tamil population, have been slow at best. Local elections in March, July, and October further consolidated the hold of Rajapaksa’s ruling alliance, although the TNA garnered significant victories in the north. The TNA and the government have been in negotiations to deal with, among other matters, devolution of powers to the provinces, a key issue underpinning the civil war. The talks have been rife with tension, with the TNA accusing the government of deceitful and facetious behavior, and the government accusing the TNA of issuing LTTE-type ultimatums as a result of its electoral victory in the north. The TNA left talks with the government in August but has since returned.

In September the TNA reacted angrily to government statements at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, saying government claims that reconciliation efforts have been predicated on “building trust and amity” between the communities is not supported by the experience of the Tamil people.

Internally Displaced Persons

The vast majority of the nearly 300,000 civilians illegally confined in military-controlled detention centers after the war have moved out of the centers back into communities, although not necessarily into their original homes. About 110,000 persons still live with host families or in camps and several thousand are not able to return because their home areas have not been demined. The government has still not granted international demining agencies access to several areas.

Key International Actors

Pressure on accountability from key international actors mounted following the April release of a damning panel report commissioned by the UN secretary-general. Several countries—including Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States—called on Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations contained in the report. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in May urging Sri Lanka to immediately investigate the allegations and the European Union to “support further efforts to strengthen the accountability process in Sri Lanka and to support the UN report.” Even India, which had largely stayed silent on alleged abuses in Sri Lanka, added to the pressure in May when it called for investigations. Also in May the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions called on the government to investigate “textbook examples of extrajudicial executions” in Sri Lanka following a review of evidence related to government execution of prisoners.

In September UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted the panel report on the war to the president of the HRC and, acting on one of the report’s recommendations, announced that the UN would undertake a separate inquiry into the its own actions in Sri Lanka during the final months of the war.

While several countries called for accountability for laws of war violations during the September HRC session, the Council failed to act following Ban’s transmission of the panel report and has not yet taken steps towards establishing an international accountability mechanism, the main recommendation in the report.

Several governments indicated that they will support an international accountability mechanism if the LLRC report fails to properly address accountability issues. US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake said during a trip to Sri Lanka in September that unless there is a full, credible, and independent accounting, “there will be pressure for some sort of alternative mechanism.” The UK has likewise said that it will “support the international community in revisiting all options” unless the Sri Lankan government demonstrates progress by the end of 2011.

US legislation restricts military aid to Sri Lanka, subject to strict conditions regarding progress on accountability and human rights.

At a Commonwealth summit in October, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called for a boycott of a planned Commonwealth heads of government summit in Sri Lanka in 2013, should Sri Lanka fail to improve its human rights record by that time.