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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 Miriam A. Young
United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam
Congressional Human Rights Caucus
Briefing - CHRC Archive: Briefings
2 March 1999
HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS IN SRI LANKA
Mr. Chairman, thank you for inviting us to this hearing on human rights developments in Sri Lanka. The US NGO Forum on Sri Lanka is a non-partisan network of organizations and individuals working for peace and human rights in Sri Lanka. The Forum seeks to raise awareness in the United States about the conflict in Sri Lanka. Its goals are to promote efforts that would lead to a clear and specific commitment by the warring parties to pursue a negotiated political settlement, and to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by all in Sri Lankan society, regardless of ethnic identity. Participation in the Forum comes from faith-based, human rights, international development, and peace organizations, and is based at the Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace here in Washington, DC.
The US Forum is also part of a larger network known as the International Working Group on Sri Lanka. I would like to ask the chairman, at this point, for unanimous consent to attach the statement of the International Working Group to this statement and for both to be part of your record.
[Chairman: So ordered without objection.]
Sri Lanka has the misfortune to live off the stage of world events. It is a country that has been caught up in fifteen years of war, involving horrific abuses on both sides. The whole country has been affected by the conflict, as have people from all the island's ethnic groups.
The United States has well-developed political, economic and military ties with Sri Lanka. This web of relations allows a range of possibilities for constructive initiatives both in the field of human rights protection and conflict resolution. Many observers argue that a stable Sri Lanka is politically desirable in the face of instability elsewhere in South Asia. In line with this view, the US has recently offered to facilitate an end to the country's prolonged conflict.
The Department of State has declared the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a terrorist organization. This recognizes the failure of that organization to respect its own commitment to observe the Rules of War under the Geneva Conventions - which would be an essential step by all parties in the search for peace.
Economically, Sri Lanka has great potential if the war were to come to an end. Protecting human rights and resolving the conflict are the preconditions for achieving this.
US military cooperation with Sri Lanka, we are told, includes the training of Sri Lankan security forces by the US Green Berets and Navy SEALS in long-range patrolling, tactical reconnaissance, and rapid reaction air and sea attacks and maritime operations. The US also approves the sale of US-made military equipment used in foreign-built weaponry, and provides training in the US for their use. While the State Department assures us that US troops are not active in Sri Lanka's war zones, to many Sri Lankans, this US involvement is perceived as being more intense and significant than, perhaps, it is. But that perception itself means that the US could play a significant, and careful, role in encouraging peace efforts in Sri Lanka.
In its 1998 report released on February 26 this year, the State Department pointed to "serious human rights abuses by the security forces" as well as torture, extra-judicial killings and "disappearances" perpetrated by the LTTE. It noted that observers believed the government operated a 'take no prisoners' policy on the battlefield and that the LTTE had admitted that it "kills security force personnel rather than take them prisoner." These practices directly violate the Rules of War under the Geneva Conventions.
Fifteen years of war and the nature of the conflict have inevitably created a culture of violence. The most recent example was in January's provincial elections in the Northwest of the country, where independent monitoring groups cited widespread fraud and violence. Hundreds of people were injured and 2 people killed in pre-election-related violence. On election day itself, fraud was rampant, leading many observers, including religious leaders, to call for the election's invalidation. Several independent election monitors were threatened with legal action by ministers in the government for their forthright reports.
Significantly, President Kumaratunga has now established a commission to study the allegations of fraud, and has acknowledged serious problems in the election's conduct. She has invited the opposition party to join in forming an all-party monitoring committee for the five further provincial elections due to take place in April. Within the next year national and presidential elections are also due. Local election monitors must be allowed to perform their tasks at these elections safely and without threat. The international community must also keep a watchful eye on these elections, as their conduct reflects the health of democracy in Sri Lanka.
Related to the pervasive culture of violence in Sri Lanka is the issue of freedom of expression. During 1998, the Government of Sri Lanka imposed a media ban in the conflict areas where there are most likely to be human rights violations or humanitarian needs. Representatives of relief organizations, who are the only ones permitted near the conflict areas other than the military, find it difficult to act as witnesses to human rights abuses or to provide accurate detailed analysis of the humanitarian situation under this ban. NGOs are concerned that any attempt to make public information that they have may damage their operational work. This has proved a particular hindrance over the past year resulting in disputes over the reality of food needs in the Wanni. It is even more difficult and dangerous for individual civilians to provide testimony of human rights abuses of which they are a victim or a witness.
The media face considerable harassment and constraints in law and in practice. The Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations have been invoked to restrict reporting and are used to circumvent the normal legislative process. There is a constant threat of defamation laws being brought against journalists and civil society groups, if they perform their twin roles of informing the public and acting as a watchdog.
Official bodies such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka or the Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances, while important steps in the right direction, do not always provide easy and open access to their findings. Greater access would encourage the bringing of cases of human rights abuse to law and would begin to address the culture of violence. Encouraging this process would lessen the perception that human rights abuses may be committed with impunity.
It is important to stress that responsibility for freedom of expression does not rest solely with the Sri Lankan government. There is no evidence that in areas under the de facto control of the LTTE, freedom of expression is encouraged, tolerated, or protected. Elections do not take place in those areas, and it is a matter of historical record that political opponents of the LTTE within the Tamil community have been subjected to intimidation, torture, "disappearance," and extra-judicial execution. Numerous civil liberties organizations in Sri Lanka, comprising all sectors of society, have stressed the importance of the "creation of democratic space" for the Tamil population as a whole. It is essential, therefore, that every effort be made to open a dialogue with the LTTE on freedom of expression and its protection in areas under their de facto control.
Fortunately, there is an international mechanism available which could facilitate such a dialogue both with the government and the LTTE. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has indicated a willingness to undertake a visit to Sri Lanka. Members of the US Congress could play a constructive role by encouraging the government of Sri Lanka to issue an invitation to the Special Rapporteur. The Members should stress the importance of including areas under LTTE control within such a visit. In this manner the government and the LTTE could clearly be addressed on the importance of commitment to freedom of expression. It could also lead to an improvement in the flow of information in order to fully monitor the human rights and humanitarian needs in the country.
The United States should also support peace-building initiatives originating in the NGO sector and civil society. Whereas the main parties to the conflict seem to be entrenched on the battlefield or engaged in narrow political struggles, the people of Sri Lanka are war-weary and anxious to find a solution that would lead toward peace. For example, in the middle of last month, prominent Sri Lankan religious figures offered to foster peace talks between the government and the LTTE. This group of religious leaders, representing all of Sri Lanka's major religions, had talks with representatives of the LTTE in LTTE-held territory in the Wanni.
Following this visit, a peace march took place in the capital Colombo, with representatives from all of the island's ethnic groups and from all sections of civil society including religious figures, women's organizations, bereaved family members of service personnel and civil rights groups. They called on all of the political forces in the country to "accord the highest priority to the achievement of a lasting peace in Sri Lanka."
These are positive developments that need to be supported and encouraged. Many Sri Lankans, particularly those working in conflict-affected areas, have expressed a feeling of isolation, and their belief that the international community does not know or care about their plight. The Sri Lankan people need to know that their suffering does not go unnoticed, and that peace-building initiatives such as the one just described are supported abroad.
Finally, I made an earlier reference to the importance of the Geneva Conventions. The government of Sri Lanka is a party to the Conventions and the LTTE has explicitly given a commitment to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to respect the Conventions. Atrocities such as attacks on civilians, the torture of captives and detainees and the killing of wounded combatants or those who have surrendered continue to be perpetrated. It is the view of the US NGO Forum on Sri Lanka that every effort should be made by the United States and the international community to persuade all parties to the conflict to respect the Geneva Conventions. If just this step could be achieved, it would thereby call a halt to some of the worst excesses of this prolonged conflict. It might also be the first step on the long road toward peace.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.
[Extension of Remarks]
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.