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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of  Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United States & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing, March 1999 - Statement by Richard Reoch

United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam

Congressional Human Rights Caucus
Briefing - CHRC Archive: Briefings

2 March 1999
Statement by
Richard Reoch,
Chair of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka  


The "No Mercy War" in Sri Lanka

The conflict in Sri Lanka has been marked by numerous outrages against the civilian population, by widespread torture  and "disappearances" and by the slaughter of  combatants who have been wounded and captured on the battlefield.

These horrors are in clear violations of the Geneva Conventions, better known as the Rules of War. If those rules had been respected by all parties to the conflict, none of these atrocities would have occurred. If those same rules were to be respected, it would significantly reduce the suffering of civilians and combatants throughout Sri Lanka and provide an entry point for peace - as has been the case in intractable conflicts elsewhere.

The relevance of these principles of international humanitarian law was brought home with particular force at the end of last year. In a three-day battle between government forces and the guerillas, up to 2,000 combatants are estimated to have died. A tiny cluster of teenage guerrillas was rounded up. Apart from that, there were no prisoners at all.

The only credible explanation is that apart from those able to escape or be evacuated, men and women who had been brought down with gunfire or maimed by explosions were shot in cold blood where they lay. The horrifying result is an example of what the International Committee of the Red Cross terms the "No Mercy War" on the battlefield.

I was in Sri Lanka at that time, attached to a UK government mission visiting the war zones. I had been invited as an independent expert on human rights to evaluate the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

We visited the camps that hold thousands of internally displaced victims of the war. We talked directly to dozens of these people -- they were only a fraction out of hundreds of thousands. We met people whose family members have "disappeared" - the men, women and children who number in the tens of thousands and who have never been seen again. We met the victims of torture. We met the victims of death threats.

 We met the senior administrators in these areas, known as Government Agents. We met the generals in command in the North and East. We met officials of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. We also crossed into areas under the de facto control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The pervasive theme was human suffering. It is precisely the worst forms of suffering in war that the Geneva Conventions seek to prevent. The litany of atrocities inflicted both on the civilian population and on numerous combatants throughout this conflict should never have occurred.  They must no longer be permitted to continue.

The Government of Sri Lanka is already a party to the Geneva Conventions. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has made an express commitment to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that it will abide by the Conventions.

Common Article 3 of the Conventions applies to exactly this type of conflict -  an "armed conflict not of an international character". It establishes the minimum standards of humanitarian law that the parties to the conflict are bound to apply.  It applies to ALL parties, whether state or non-state. Its application in such a conflict specifically does NOT affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict.

It prohibits the murder, torture, cruel treatment and mutilation of anyone not taking part in hostilities. This protection also extends to wounded combatants and those who have laid down their arms. It bans outrages upon their personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment. It prohibits taking any non-combatants hostage.

The International Working Group on Sri Lanka has now embarked on an initiative to secure support for compliance with the Geneva Conventions. We have presented it in writing to President Chandrika Kumaratunge Bandaranaike and to LTTE leader Villabhai Prabakharan.  We have talked with senior Sri Lankan diplomats in London and Washington and we have discussed it with the representative of the LTTE at its international secretariat in London.

We have raised the possibility of international support with a range of governments. Our argument is that if High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions were to work together, using the platform of the Conventions to address all parties to the conflict, it might be possible, as a first step, to reduce the scale of the carnage and to ensure respect for humanitarian principles among ALL the combatants. Such an initiative would send a vital first signal to all those seeking a resolution of this conflict.

In this context I would like to make what I hope is a constructive proposal. It would be extremely helpful if those Members of the House of Representatives who are concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka would engage in serious reflection on the possibilities for conveying this message to all parties to this conflict.

This is a message that needs to go right across the board. It needs to be heard by the combatants. It needs to be heard by the civilians and their representatives, by all the communities in Sri Lanka and by members of those communities living abroad. It needs to go to the many governments engaged in providing assistance to the people of Sri Lanka -- especially those who are themselves High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions and therefore committed to the international application of humanitarian principles.

This is not a message of confrontation. Or a message to be backed up by threats. It is not a message that condemns or favours one party at the expense of another.

What we are proposing is that Fundamental Standards of Humanity be respected by all parties and be used as a peace-building measure in Sri Lanka. This does not involve the pitfalls of a cease fire. It does not require any party to lay down arms. It does not require any party to cede territory. It does not require any party to enter political negotiations. There are no preconditions.

Yet if these fundamental commitments could be respected by all parties in an orderly way, the results would be immediately apparent to all. They could be monitored. Violations could be pinpointed and redressed. Civilians and combatants alike would be spared the horrors of the past. If successful, we would have a significant contribution to establishing a measure of trust between the parties and hence an essential building block in the long process of bringing a just and lasting peace to Sri Lanka.  


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