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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United States & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > U.S. Department of State: Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995
United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam
Whatever may be said, who ever may
- to determine the truth of it, is wisdom - Thirukural
U.S. Department of State:
Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995
Released March 1996
Sri Lanka is a longstanding democratic republic with an active multiparty system. Constitutional power is shared between the popularly elected President and the 225-member Parliament. President Chandrika Kumaratunga leads the People's Alliance (PA), a coalition of parties, which holds a single seat majority in Parliament. Both the Parliament and the President were elected in generally free and fair elections in 1994. The Government respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary in practice.
The conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent organization fighting for a separate state for the country's Tamil minority, continued beyond its 12th year. The Government initiated peace discussions with the LTTE and reached a cessation of hostilities with the rebels on January 3, the first since 1990. The cessation of hostilities broke down in April when the LTTE attacked government security forces. By the end of the year, government military offensives on the Jaffna peninsula had succeeded in capturing the unofficial rebel capital of Jaffna City, although at the expense of tens of thousands of displaced persons.
The Government controls all security forces. The 50,000-member police force is responsible for internal security in most areas of the country, and the 80,000 member army conducts the war against the LTTE insurgents. The Home Guards, a paramilitary force drawn from local communities, provides security for Muslim and Sinhalese communities in or near the war zone. At mid-year, it was expanded from 1,000 to 5,000 members in response to the resumption of the war. The Government also equips various Tamil militias opposed to the LTTE. During the cessation of hostilities, the security forces committed very few human rights abuses. However, with the resumption of hostilities in April the number of abuses committed by members of the security forces increased. The Government moved quickly to correct the worst relapses.
The economy is based on the export of tea, textiles, and rubber. Despite a costly social welfare system and a large fiscal deficit, the economy grew by 5.6 percent in 1994, due in part to continued economic reform, the continued privatization of government corporations, and increased foreign trade.
During the first 4 months of the year, the Government maintained the improvements it had achieved in human rights practices in 1994. However, with the resumption of hostilities with the LTTE in April-- initiated by unilateral and unprovoked attacks by the LTTE on government military installations--members of the security forces committed some human rights abuses. These included extrajudicial killings of Tamils and 34 confirmed cases of disappearance. Little progress was made in several longstanding cases of extrajudicial killing and disappearance. Torture remained a serious problem, although the frequency of such abuses appeared to decline by year's end. Prison conditions remained poor. There was an increase in detentions and short-term mass arrests. While the Government used excessive force on occasion in its fight against the LTTE, LTTE forces used excessive force routinely. The Government censored all domestic news reports relating to military or police matters from September to December. Discrimination and violence against women and child prostitution continued to be problems.
Nonetheless, in positive developments, the Government took important steps to stem the abuses. In August 18 security force personnel were arrested for the extrajudicial killing of 21 Tamils in Colombo. Disappearances and extrajudicial killings subsequently ceased. The Government acted decisively to forestall ethnic rioting in the wake of LTTE terrorist attacks. Emergency Regulation (ER) provisions governing the behavior of the security forces were strengthened and broadly applied; there were no attempts, as in the past, to use the ER provisions to cover up security force misdeeds. In general, arrests and detentions took place in accordance with the ER. Government security forces took measures to limit civilian casualties during the military offensives against the LTTE in Jaffna. The Government also provided relief to those displaced by the conflict even though most were still under the control of the LTTE. Three regional commissions established to investigate disappearances continued their investigations, and the legal mandate of the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF) to monitor arrests and detentions was extended. The Government's promulgation of the "workers' charter" provided a basis for legislation to strengthen worker rights.
The LTTE regularly committed extrajudicial killings (including civilian massacres and assassinations) and was also responsible for disappearances, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and torture. For the first time, LTTE members used rape as a weapon of terror. Controlling large sections of the north and east of the country through authoritarian military rule, the LTTE denied the people under its authority the right to change their government, routinely violated their civil liberties, and severely discriminated against ethnic and religious minorities.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
In the months following the April collapse of the cease-fire, 21 corpses, all believed to be young Tamil males, were found floating in lakes in the vicinity of Colombo. The victims had been starved and tortured. In most cases mutilation and decomposition made identification impossible. On August 17, police Special Task Force (STF) officers, one army captain and seven civilians were arrested and charged with the murders, which police said were committed at the STF headquarters in residential Colombo. Further security force suspects were being questioned, and investigations were continuing at year's end.
Police (mostly STF officers) and army personnel committed at least 17 extrajudicial killings in Eastern Province after April. In some cases these murders were reprisals against civilians for LTTE attacks in which members of the security forces were killed or injured. Several occurred during cordon and search operations by the STF. In many cases, the security forces claimed that the victims were members of the LTTE. However, human rights monitors determined that these victims were civilians. In most cases, the perpetrators of these killings had not been arrested by the Government at year's end. There were also a number of suspicious deaths, mostly involving detainees acting as informants for security forces who died during operational missions against the LTTE.
However, extrajudicial killings ceased following the arrests of members of the security forces in August. In addition, the security forces generally exercised much greater restraint than they had following a similar renewal of conflict with the LTTE in 1990.
Although the ER remained in force in areas of the north and east directly affected by the insurgency and in Colombo, there was no evidence that the Government was using them, as in previous years, to conceal extrajudicial killings or disappearances. The Government amended the ER in September to require the armed forces to inform the nearest police station when it becomes necessary to detain a person for more than 24 hours, thereby bringing the ER into line with civil law. (Previously, under the ER a person could legally be held without notice being given for 7 days.) Security force personnel can be fined or jailed for failure to comply with the ER. None were known to have been punished during the year.
At least 25 people were killed preceding the parliamentary elections in August 1994. The violence was apparently caused by individuals and did not appear to be an organized attempt by political parties to intimidate voters. The Government prosecuted alleged perpetrators. At year's end, a Deputy Minister in the Government was being tried for murder in connection with one such death.
There were no developments in the October 1994 suicide bombing that killed the United National Party's presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, and 58 other people, although it is credibly believed to be the work of the LTTE.
The PA Government came to power in 1994 promising to bring to justice the perpetrators of extrajudicial killing from previous years. In 1994 it began prosecutions of suspects in several extrajudicial killings and brought charges against members of the security forces and its own political supporters. However, there were no developments in the government investigations into the mass graves at Sooriyakanda, which contain an estimated 300 bodies, or the grave at Ankumbura, which is thought to contain the bodies of 36 people killed by the police in 1989. In addition, the trial of 21 soldiers, accused of massacring 35 Tamil civilians in 1992 in the village of Mailanthani in Batticaloa district, was put off until 1996. Nor were there any developments in the case of four police officers indicted in 1994 for the 1990 murders of 12 civilians in Wavulkelle. Since October 1994, the case has been postponed several times.
The LTTE continued to commit extrajudicial killings. In May, in conjunction with a declared "Black Week," 42 Sinhalese civilians were murdered by the LTTE in Kallarawa, an eastern fishing village. In July an undetermined number of informants were killed; they were blamed for a major battlefield defeat at Weli Oya. In addition, a prominent anti- LTTE Buddhist monk was assassinated near Polonnaruwa. In October over 120 Sinhalese civilians were massacred by LTTE forces in an attempt to inflame communal violence. Many of the victims were hacked to death with swords and axes. A number of women were raped. In the same month an unsuccessful assassination attempt against a prominent anti-LTTE leader in Colombo left four persons dead. A number of local political opponents of the LTTE were assassinated in the east, including the deputy mayor of Batticaloa, who was assassinated on October 27. During the year, 29 suspected government spies were also known to have been summarily executed. LTTE suicide bombing attacks in November in Columbo killed 16 persons and wounded 60. In the past, the LTTE has killed university professors, members of nonviolent Tamil opposition parties, and human rights monitors.
During the year, it was revealed that the poet and women's rights advocate Thiagarajah Selvanithy, who was detained by the LTTE in Jaffna in 1991, had been killed by the LTTE a few months after her arrest. LTTE Supreme Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran confirmed this in interviews with international correspondents. Human rights monitors also report that the LTTE notified Ms. Selvanithy's family of her death.
Prior to May, no disappearances occurred. However, 34 cases of disappearance of Tamils were subsequently confirmed by human rights monitors. These were about equally divided between Colombo and Eastern Province. The disappearances may have included some of the 21 unidentified Tamils allegedly killed by the security forces (see Section l.a.). Following the arrest of security force officials in August no new disappearances were reported.
There were 10 confirmed disappearances in 1994, 98 in 1993, 210 in 1992, and an average 15 a day in 1990. Those who disappeared in 1995 and in previous years are presumed dead. The disappearances involved persons last seen in police custody. The Commander of the Army and the Inspector General of Police both issued directives condemning disappearances and stating that perpetrators would be called to account. However at year's end, the Government had not identified or charged those responsible for the disappearances other than those arrested in connection with the 21 bodies discovered in the lakes. (see Section l.a.).
The Government continued investigations into past disappearances. The three regional commissions set up in November 1994 to inquire into disappearances occurring after January 1, 1988, worked throughout the year. Through August the commissions received 61,300 complaints. Of these they were able to review 7,600 individual cases. The commissions were initially charged with producing final reports for the President by March, including recommendations for legal action. However, the mandates of the commissions were extended into 1996.
The term of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the involuntary removal of persons occurring after January 1991 expired. Its work was superseded by the three regional disappearance commissions appointed in 1994, and its term was not extended.
There was no progress in the Embilipitiya incident in which 11 suspects, including an army brigadier general, were indicted for conspiracy and abduction with intent to commit murder in the disappearance of 32 boys from the southern town of Embilipitiya in 1989 and 1990. The case was brought to court in September but adjourned until January 1996 because one of the accused, a soldier, was fighting the LTTE and could not be released.
There were also no developments in the Vantharamulle case, in which army troops reportedly abducted 158 persons from a refugee camp in Batticaloa District in 1990. Observers maintain that there is credible evidence identifying the alleged perpetrators.
The Government continued to give the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) unhindered access to detention centers, police stations, and army camps. This played a role in reducing disappearances attributable to the security forces, as did the work of the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF), a quasi-independent government body set up to register detainees held under the ER and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and monitor their welfare.
The LTTE was responsible for an undetermined number of civilian disappearances in the northeastern part of the island. In November LTTE members kidnaped the vicechancellor of Eastern University, allegedly for not cooperating with them. Most of the 400 to 600 police officers captured by the LTTE in 1990 are believed to be dead, as are over 200 security force personnel captured at a battle in Pooneryn in 1993.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
In 1994 the Government acceded to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Parliament also enacted legislation making torture a punishable offense. However, the Government has not yet developed effective regulations under the new legislation to prosecute and punish military and police personnel responsible for torture, though it has ceased paying fines incurred by security force personnel guilty of the offense.
Members of the security forces continued to torture and mistreat detainees and other prisoners, both male and female, particularly during interrogation. Although the number of torture reports was somewhat lower than in previous years in the Colombo area, the situation in Eastern Province did not improve. Most victims were Tamils suspected of being LTTE insurgents or supporters. With the legalization of the Sinhalese Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), a party which led an insurgency in the south suppressed by the Government in 1988-89, JVP members were no longer subject to arrest and torture as in the past.
Methods of torture included electric shock, beatings (especially on the soles of the feet), suspension by the wrists or feet in contorted positions, burning, near drownings, placing of insecticide, chili powder, or gasoline-soaked bags over the head, and forced positions. Detainees have reported broken bones and other serious injuries as a result of their mistreatment. There were no reports of rape in detention.
Under the fundamental rights provisions in the Constitution, torture victims may file a suit for compensation in the Supreme Court. The Court granted awards ranging from $200 to $2,000. Most cases, however, take a year or more to move through the courts. Moreover, with the new legislation that imposed a minimum punishment of 7 years' imprisonment for those found guilty of torture, the number of convictions of security force personnel for torture in fundamental human rights cases dramatically fell.
The LTTE reportedly uses torture on a routine basis. However, because of the secretive nature of the LTTE, no first-hand information is available.
Prison conditions are generally poor and do not meet minimum international standards because of overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities. An increase in the number of detentions associated with the resumption of the war with the LTTE has caused a significant deterioration in already poor standards in short-term detention centers. However, the Government permitted ICRC representatives to visit more than 400 places of detention.
Conditions are also believed to be poor in prisons operated by the LTTE.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Under ordinary law, authorities must inform an arrested person of the reason for arrest and bring that person before a magistrate within 24 hours. In practice, persons detained under ordinary law generally appear before a magistrate within a few days of arrest. The magistrate may authorize bail or order continued pretrial detention for up to 3 months or longer. Except in limited areas of the northeast and in Colombo, security forces may no longer use the ER to detain suspects for prolonged periods of time without court approval.
In spite of government announcements that it would close all secret detention centers, the victims of extrajudicial killing by the security forces (see Section 1.a.) were held incommunicado at secret locations prior to their murders. There were also continued reports that security forces held a small number of other people in such a manner. However, human rights monitors believe that most such detentions occurred infrequently and for periods of only a few days before the detainees were put into the normal detention system.
Detention of Tamils rose sharply following the resumption of hostilities in April, although arrests and detentions generally took place in accordance with the ER. At year's end the Government held as many as 940 detainees, up from 380 at the end of 1994. Many of these detainees were arrested during military operations against the LTTE and were held in facilities operated by the army. The Government continued to detain some individuals under the PTA, which permits detention without charge for up to 18 months.
The ER, which remained in force in the northeastern part of the island and in Colombo, allows pretrial detention for a maximum of four consecutive 3-month periods. A magistrate must order further detention. Detainees may challenge their detention and sue the Government for violating their civil rights in the Supreme Court.
Security forces continued to conduct mass arrests of young Tamils, both male and female, especially following the resumption of hostilities with the LTTE in April. There were also major sweeps subsequent to an LTTE bomb blast in Colombo in August, which killed 22 people, and an attack on Colombo oil storage facilities in October. Although exact numbers of detainees were impossible to determine, they certainly numbered in the thousands. Upwards of 1,000 Tamils at a time were picked up in actions by the police. Most were released after identity checks lasting several hours to several days. The Government justified the arrests on security grounds, but many Tamils claimed that the arrests were a form of harassment. In addition, those arrested, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, are detained in prisons together with hardened criminals.
The HRTF continued to investigate the legality of detention in cases referred to it by the Supreme Court and private citizens. In July President Kumaratunga issued an ER reconstituting the HRTF, which had lost its legal status with the lapse of the ER in September 1994. The HRTF thereby regained its powers to exercise oversight over arrests and detentions by the security forces and to undertake visits to prisons. Included in the ER were directives to the heads of the armed forces and the police to assist the HRTF in carrying out its duties. Nonetheless, members of the security forces occasionally breached the regulations and failed to cooperate with the HRTF.
There were unconfirmed reports that the LTTE was detaining more than 2,000 civilians in the northern part of the island. The LTTE did not permit the ICRC or any other humanitarian organization to visit its detainees--aside from 22 security force personnel and 21 fishermen incarcerated in Jaffna. During the cessation of hostilities early in the year, the LTTE released the few remaining police officers in their custody. However, in August LTTE insurgents hijacked a civilian ferry, and continued to detain two passengers and the Sinhalese crew of eight at the end of the year.
The Government does not practice exile. There are no legal provisions allowing or prohibiting its use.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects these provisions in practice.
The President appoints judges to the Supreme Court, the courts of appeal, and the high courts. A Judicial Service Commission, comprised of the Chief Justice and two Supreme Court judges, appoints, transfers, and dismisses lower court judges. Judges serve until mandatory retirement age, which is 65 for the Supreme Court and 62 for other judges.
In criminal cases, defendants are tried in public by juries. They are informed of the charges and evidence against them, may be represented by the counsel of their choice, and have the right to appeal. The Government provides counsel for indigent persons tried on criminal charges in the high courts and the Court of Appeal, but not in other cases; private legal aid organizations assist some defendants.
There are no jury trials in cases brought under the seldom-invoked PTA. Confessions, which are otherwise inadmissible, are allowed in PTA cases. Most convictions under the PTA rely heavily on them. In such cases, defendants bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that their confessions were obtained by coercion. Nevertheless, defendants in PTA cases have the right to appeal.
The Government claims that all persons held under the ER and the PTA are suspected members of the LTTE and therefore legitimate security threats. There is insufficient information to determine whether these detainees, or members of the JVP similarly detained in past years, were political prisoners. Between 200 and 300 of those previously detained--mostly JVP members--have been convicted under criminal law and remain incarcerated. In many cases, human rights monitors question the legitimacy of the criminal charges brought against these people.
The LTTE has its own court system, composed of young judges with little or no legal training. The courts reportedly impose severe punishments. However, the courts have no basis in law and essentially operate as extrajudicial agents of the LTTE, rather than as an independent judiciary.
The LTTE also holds a number of political prisoners.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The Government generally respects the constitutional protections of individual privacy and the sanctity of the family and home. The police obtain proper warrants for arrests and searches conducted under ordinary law. However, the security forces are not required to obtain warrants for searches conducted under the PTA (see Section 1.e.). The Secretary of Defense is responsible for providing oversight for such searches. There is no judicial review or other means of redress for alleged illegal searches under the PTA.
The Government is believed to monitor telephone conversations and correspondence on a selective basis. The security forces routinely open mail destined for the LTTE-controlled areas and seize contraband.
The LTTE routinely invades the privacy of citizens. It maintains an effective network of informants. In 1990 the LTTE evicted thousands of Muslim residents from their homes in the north. They currently live in refugee camps.
g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts
Hostilities between the Government and the LTTE resumed violently in April, following the collapse of a 3-month cease-fire.
There were no reports of army massacres of Tamil civilians, such as the ones at Kokkadichcholai in 1991 and Mailanthani in 1992, although there were some extrajudicial killings (see Section 1.a.). Early in the renewed conflict, there were isolated incidents in which security force personnel used civilians, some of whom suffered injury, as human shields to clear mine fields and to protect the perimeters of security force camps. The Government quickly put an end to these practices. However, in an incident in December, members of the STF in the east commandeered a civilian bus to move quickly to an STF camp at Pudukudiirippu in Batticaloa district which was under attack by the LTTE. They forced the civilians to remain on board, resulting in several civilian deaths when the bus came under LTTE fire.
During a military offensive in Jaffna in July, between 250 and 300 civilians were killed, 125 in a single incident in which bombs were dropped adjacent to a crowded church compound at Navali. Periodic shelling and bombing of the LTTE-controlled Jaffna Peninsula caused additional civilian casualties.
In October the Government opened a second coordinated military attack on LTTE-held territory in the Jaffna Peninsula, resulting in the capture of Jaffna City in December. Fierce fighting resulted in high casualties on both sides and upwards of 400,000 displaced persons. The Government, however, took measures to limit the number of civilian casualties in the war. During the July offensive, notices were dropped warning civilians to congregate in schools, churches, and temples to minimize risk. In addition, shelling in advance of troops attacking through populated areas was kept to a minimum in order to spare civilians. Civilian casualties were also reduced due to the relatively slow and methodical manner in which government security forces pushed forward, which enabled civilians to flee well in advance of troop movements. In the second phase of the Jaffna offensive during October to December, during which Jaffna City was taken, about 100 civilians were killed. The Government averted a major humanitarian crisis by allowing relief organizations to channel emergency food and medical supplies to the civilians displaced in the Jaffna fighting. The security forces also continued to carry out human rights instruction as part of their training courses.
The Government detains very few captured LTTE prisoners since many of them kill themselves with cyanide before capture. The LTTE claims that it kills security force personnel rather than take them prisoner. It admits to holding only 21 security force prisoners. The LTTE is believed to have killed many of the 600 to 800 police officers and security force personnel it captured in recent years.
The LTTE used excessive force in the renewed conflict, killing an undetermined number of civilians. It was accused of using church and temple compounds (where civilians are instructed to congregate in the event of hostilities) as shields for the storage of munitions. In July the LTTE forced civilians to return to places abandoned by government troops before the areas were adequately secured and cleared of land mines. In August it seized a civilian ferry carrying over 140 passengers, including children and pregnant women, using it as a decoy to lure navy patrol boats, two of which it subsequently sank. During the October to December government offensive on the Jaffna peninsula, LTTE cadre forced some civilians to abandon their homes and retreat with them, allegedly as human sheilds, in the face of advancing government troops. The LTTE was also reported to be recruiting children into its military forces. Dead LTTE insurgents recovered by the Government following a major battle at Weli Oya in July were found to be as young as 14. Reports that the LTTE was conscripting children were impossible to verify.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, restrictions are permitted on national security grounds.
The Government controls the country's largest newspaper chain, a major television station, and the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation. However, there are also a variety of independent newspapers, journals, and radio and television stations.
Independent journalists reported that from the death of UNP President Premadasa in 1993 until September, their freedom to report openly and critically about the Government had improved markedly. They had been able to provide an unimpeded range of views and openly criticize the Government and political parties. However, in September the Government abridged press freedom. It issued an ER subjecting news relating to the armed forces and the police to government censorship. The Government stated that censorship of military news was necessary because certain sections of the media had been reporting in an irresponsible manner, jeopardizing the war effort and inciting communal violence. After government security forces captured Jaffna City in December, the Government stopped censoring the news.
A number of other government actions during the year were also of concern to the media. The Government failed to reform the press law and privatize government-owned media as promised during the election campaign. The President filed a defamation of character suit against a leading editor which journalists claimed was frivolous and intended only to harass and intimidate the media. In August and September, upon receiving complaints from cabinet ministers, the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) raided the offices of several leading editors, questioning them about the accuracy of their stories and attempting to coerce journalists into revealing their sources. In another incident in February, a leading editor, noted for holding antigovernment views, and his wife were assaulted by unknown persons.
Journalists and civil libertarians also complain that the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act stipulates an unlimited fine or up to 2 years' imprisonment for anyone who criticizes a Member of Parliament (M.P.). Although the Government has not invoked the law since 1992, journalists and civil libertarians complain that the act is an unjustified infringement on freedom of the press.
The Government generally respects academic freedom. Legal restrictions on campus political activity were removed in most parts of the country in 1994 with the lifting of the ER. During 1995 the ER were not used to control students.
The LTTE does not tolerate freedom of expression. It tightly restricts the print and broadcast media in areas under its control and has often killed those who oppose it. The LTTE also does not respect academic freedom and has repressed and killed intellectuals who criticize it, such as Thiagarajah Selvanithy (see Section 1.a.). In November it kidnaped a university vicechancellor (see Section 1.b.) It has severely repressed the University Teachers for Human Rights, which was formerly based on the Jaffna Peninsula.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. Although the PTA may restrict such freedoms, the Government did not use the act for that purpose in 1995. The Government routinely granted permits for demonstrations.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution establishes Buddhism as the official national religion, but also provides for the right of members of other faiths to practice their religions freely. The Government respects this right in practice. Foreign clergy may work in Sri Lanka, but for more than 30 years the Government has prohibited the entry of new foreign Jesuit clergy. It permits those already in the country to remain.
Evangelical Christians, who constitute less than 1 percent of the population, have expressed concern that their efforts at proselytization are often met with hostility and harassment by the local Buddhist clergy and others opposed to their work (see Section 5). They sometimes complain that the Government tacitly condones such harassment. However, there is no evidence to support this.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution grants every citizen "freedom of movement and of choosing his residence" and "freedom to return to Sri Lanka." The Government generally respects the right to domestic and foreign travel. However, the resumption of the war with the LTTE prompted the Government to impose more stringent checks on travelers from the north and the east, and on those moving in Colombo, particularly after dark. These security measures had the effect of restricting the movement of Tamils, especially young males.
The LTTE restricts the movement of Tamils in areas under its control. It levies a large "exit tax" on persons wishing to travel to areas under government control, requiring the travelers to leave all their property in escrow. In order to ensure that the travelers return, the LTTE often grants permission to only one family member to travel at a time. The LTTE does not allow displaced persons living in areas under its control to return to their homes in government-controlled areas.
Prior to the October to December government offensive on the Jaffna peninsula, an estimated 600,000 citizens had been displaced by the insurgency. Most live in camps financed by the Government and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). The offensive displaced an additional 300,000 to 400,000 people on the peninsula, who live with friends or relatives, or in makeshift "welfare centers" in schools, religious institutions, and other public buildings. These people remained under the control of the LTTE insurgents who forbade them to leave LTTE-controlled territory. Nonetheless, the Government continued to supply them with food, medicine, and other essential supplies. An estimated 69,000 Tamil refugees live in camps in southern India. Another 100,000 refugees are believed to have been integrated into the Tamil society of southern India. The Government allows the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate freely. Prior to the resumption of hostilities, the UNHCR assisted in the repatriation of over 10,000 refugees from India during the year.
The Government does not permit the entry of refugees into the country, nor does it aid those who manage to enter to seek permanent residence elsewhere. There were no instances of forcible repatriation.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Citizens have the constitutional right to change their government through periodic multiparty elections based on universal adult suffrage. This right was last exercised during parliamentary elections in August 1994, when the People's Alliance Party ended the 17-year rule of the United National Party (UNP), and during the presidential election in November 1994, when PA presidential candidate Chandrika Kumaratunga won 62 percent of the vote. International election monitors judged the elections to be free and fair. No elections were scheduled in 1995.
During the parliamentary election in August 1994, 9 of the 10 Jaffna seats were won by candidates from a Tamil group which supported the then ruling UNP. The group's armed militias intimidated voters. Although the overall election was marred by 25 murders, the harassment of voters appeared equally divided among the parties and did not appear to be an official government or party policy.
The Commissioner of Elections recognizes 26 parties; 9 hold seats in the 225-member Parliament. The two most influential parties, the PA and the UNP, generally draw their support from the majority Sinhalese community. Historically, these two parties have alternated in power. There are 27 Tamil and 21 Muslim M.P.'s.
Although there are no legal impediments to the participation of women in politics or government, the social mores in some communities limit women's activities outside the home. In August 1994, voters elected a female prime minister for the second time in Sri Lanka's history. In November for the first time, a woman was elected president. Eleven women hold seats in the Parliament. In addition to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Transport, Environment, and Women's Affairs, four deputy ministers are women.
The LTTE refuses to allow elections in areas under its control.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
There are several local human rights groups, including the Movement for Interracial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), the University Teachers for Human Rights, the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), and the Law and Society Trust (LST), which monitor civil and political liberties. There are no adverse government regulations governing the activities of local and foreign NGOs. However, following the resumption of hostilities in April, death threats were received by a few human rights monitors.
The Government continued to allow the ICRC unrestricted access to detention facilities. At the Government's request, the ICRC supervised the delivery of food and medical supplies in the northern war zone and provided human rights training materials to the security forces.
Several international groups, including the ICRC, provided humanitarian relief to those affected by the conflict in the north and east. At the Government's request, the ICRC protected convoys of mainly governmental food and medical supplies from Colombo into the northern war zone and provided human rights training material for the security forces. In the first half of the year, the Government did not hinder their activities. However, following the resumption of the war with the LTTE in April, the Government seriously restricted the movement of supplies of these NGO's and international organizations to LTTE-controlled areas. In addition, both the Government and the press were publicly critical of the operations of these groups in the north, calling into question their loyalty to the State. However, in December NGO-Government relations improved.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution guarantees equal rights under the law for all people in Sri Lanka. The Government generally respects these rights.
Sexual assault, rape, and spousal abuse (often associated with alcohol) represent serious and pervasive forms of societal violence against women. However, new amendments to the Penal Code were introduced which specifically address sexual abuse and exploitation. Rape laws were modified to create a more equitable burden of proof and to make punishments more stringent. Marital rape is now considered an offense in cases of spouses living under judicial separation, and new laws govern sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual molestation. While the new Penal Code may ease some of the problems faced by victims of sexual assault, many women's organizations believe that greater sensitization of police and judicial officials will also be required. Laws against procuring and trafficking were strengthened, facilitating the prosecution of brothel owners.
The Constitution provides for equal employment opportunities in public sector, but women have no legal protection against discrimination in the private sector, where they are sometimes paid less than men for equal work and often face difficulty in rising to supervisory positions. Women constitute approximately one-half of the formal work force.
Women have equal rights under national civil and criminal law. However, issues related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated by the customary law of each ethnic or religious group. In 1995 the Government raised the minimum age of marriage for women from 12 to 18, except in the case of Muslims, who continue to follow their customary marriage practices. The application of different legal practices based on membership in a religious or ethnic group often results in discrimination against women.
The Ministry of Women's Affairs coordinates government efforts to address women's issues. Several NGO's are also actively involved in promoting women's rights.
During the massacres of civilians in the east in October (see Section 1.a.), the LTTE raped a number of the victims. This marked the first time in the ethnic conflict that the LTTE deliberately used rape as a weapon of terror.
The Government is committed to protecting the welfare and rights of children, but is constrained by lack of resources.
The Government demonstrates a strong commitment to children's rights and welfare through its widespread systems of public education and medical care. Education is compulsory to the age of 12 and free through university. Health care, including immunization programs, is also free.
There is a significant problem of child prostitution in certain coastal resort areas. The Government estimates that there are 2,000 active child prostitutes in the country, but private groups claim the number is much higher. Many of these prostitutes are boys who sell themselves to foreign tourists. The Penal Code was amended to strengthen punishments for trafficking of persons. In 1995 the Ministry of Media, Tourism, and Aviation created a task force specifically to study the problem of sex tourism and related offenses, but no new legislation resulted.
In the first quarter of 1995, the Government reported that 1,576 cases of crimes against children had been recorded, an increase from previous years. NGO's attribute the problem of exploitation of children to the lack of law enforcement rather than inadequate legislation.
There have been reports that rural children working as domestic servants in urban households have been abused by their employers. Some of these children have reportedly been starved, beaten, sexually abused, and forced into prostitution. The Government does not have sufficient resources to protect these children from such exploitation (see Section 6.c.).
People with Disabilities
The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for people with disabilities. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 percent of the population is disabled. Most disabled people who are unable to work are cared for by their families. The Department of Social Services runs eight vocational training schools for the physically and mentally disabled and sponsors a program of job training and job placement for graduates. The Government provides some financial support to NGO's assisting the disabled, subsidizes prosthetic devices and other medical aids for the disabled, makes some purchases from disabled suppliers, and has registered 74 schools and training institutions for the disabled run by NGO's.
The indigenous people of Sri Lanka, known as Veddas, number less than a thousand. They prefer to maintain their isolated traditional way of life, but are protected by the Constitution. There are no legal restrictions on their participation in the political or economic life of the nation.
Discrimination based on religious differences is much less common than discrimination based on ethnic group or caste. In general, the members of the various faiths tend to be tolerant of each other's religious beliefs. However, evangelical Christians have, on occasion, been harassed by Buddhist monks for their attempts to convert Buddhists to Christianity (see Section 2.c.).
In the northern part of the island, LTTE insurgents expelled some 46,000 Muslim inhabitants from their homes in 1990--virtually the entire Muslim population. The LTTE has expropriated Muslim homes, lands, and businesses and threatened Muslim families with death if they attempt to return.
There are approximately 1 million Tamils of comparatively recent Indian origin living in Sri Lanka. About 85,000 of these people do not qualify for either Indian or Sri Lankan citizenship and face discrimination, especially in the allocation of government funds for education. However, the Government has stated that none of these people will be forced to depart the country.
Tamils maintain that they have long been the victims of systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, and in other matters controlled by the Government. However, in recent years there has been little evidence of overt discrimination in university enrollment or government employment.
In August the Government released a "devolution" package designed to devolve wide-ranging powers to local governments, thereby providing ethnic minorities greater autonomy in governing their local affairs. The proposal was still being debated at year's end.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Government respects the constitutional right of workers to establish labor unions. Any seven workers may form a union, adopt a charter, elect leaders, and publicize their views. About 75 percent of the plantation workforce is unionized. Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the nonagricultural work force, which is about 25 to 30 percent of the total work force, is also unionized. Most workers in large private firms are represented by unions, but those in small-scale agriculture and small businesses usually do not belong to unions.
Most large unions are affiliated with political parties and together play a prominent role in the political process. More than 30 labor unions have political affiliations, but there are also a small number of unaffiliated unions.
The Department of Labor registered 233 new unions and cancelled the registration of 93 others. The Department of Labor is authorized by law to cancel the registration of any union that does not submit an annual report. That requirement is the only legal grounds for cancellation of registration.
All workers, other than civil servants and workers in "essential" services, have the right to strike. By law, workers may also lodge complaints with the Commissioner of Labor, a labor tribunal, or the Supreme Court to protect their rights. Before September 1994, the Government controlled strikes by declaring some industries to be "essential" under the ER. This practice ceased when the Government terminated the ER. However, the President retains the power to designate any industry as an essential service. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has pointed out to the Government that essential services should be limited to services where an interruption would endanger the life, personal safety, or health of the population.
Civil servants may collectively submit labor grievances to the Public Service Commission but have no legal grounds to strike. Nonetheless, government workers in the transportation, telecommunication and ports sectors have staged brief strikes and other work actions. There were 183 strikes in 1995, 94 in the agricultural sector and 89 in the industrial and other sectors.
The law prohibits retribution against strikers in nonessential sectors. Employers may dismiss workers only for indiscipline. Incompetence or low productivity are not grounds for dismissal. Unions are free to affiliate with international bodies, and many of them have done so.
In September the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training released a "workers' charter" designed to provide a basis for legislation to strengthen worker rights. The proposed charter consolidates existing labor legislation and reaffirms the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. It also proposes new amendments to the Labor Law which would guarantee the right of workers to join unions, ensure that employers recognize and bargain with unions, establish a National Wages Commission to review minimum wages in all industries, ensure that all workers are covered under relevant labor laws, and establish a social security scheme. It is opposed by business leaders largely because of the provisions that compel management to recognize all unions, collect union dues, and pay above-market wages. The charter had not yet become law by year's end.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law provides for the right to collective bargaining, and it is widely practiced. Large firms may have employees in as many as 60 different unions. In enterprises that do not have unions, work councils--composed of employees, employers, and often a public sector representative--are often the forums for collective bargaining, although the councils are not mandatory outside the export processing zones (EPZ's) and do not have the power to negotiate binding contracts.
The law currently does not require management to recognize or bargain with unions, and in some cases employers have declined to recognize the unions in their factories. However, the law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Employers found guilty of such discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities but have the right to transfer them to different locations.
Workers in the EPZ's have the same rights to join unions as other workers. However, employers in the EPZ's offer higher wages and better working conditions, thus discouraging union activity. In the place of unions, workers in the EPZ's are represented by organizations known as Joint Consultative Councils (JCCs), which are chaired by the Government's Board of Investments (BOI) and consist of equal delegations from labor and management. The number of strikes after mid-year declined from the unsettled period of late 1994 and early 1995.
In most instances, wage boards establish minimum wages and conditions of employment, except in the EPZ's, where wages and work conditions are set by the BOI.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law. According to some reports, rural children are sometimes employed in debt bondage as domestic servants in urban households. The Government does not have sufficient resources to protect these children from such exploitation (see Section 5).
The LTTE continues to conscript high-school age children for work as cooks, messengers, and clerks, and in some cases, building fortifications.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The minimum age for employment is 15. However, the law permits the employment of younger children by their parents or guardians in limited agricultural work. It also permits employment in any school or institution for training purposes.
Persons under age 16 may not be employed in any public enterprise in which life or limb is endangered. Children are not employed in the EPZ's, the plantations, the garment industry, or any other export industry. About 85 percent of children below the age of 16 attend school. The law provides that the employment of such persons is permitted for not more than 1 hour on any day before school.
Despite legislation, some child labor still exists. Some children work in the informal sectors, including the manufacture of coconut fiber products, fishing, wrapping tobacco, street trading, domestic service, and farming. Government inspections have been unable to eliminate these forms of child labor.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Department of Labor effectively enforces the minimum wage law. While there is no universal national minimum wage, some 38 wage boards set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry. According to the Statistics Department of the Labor Ministry, current minimum wage rates average $40 (2,000 rupees) a month in industry, commerce, and the service sector and $1.50 (75 rupees) a day in agriculture. The minimum wage in the garment industry is $40 (2,000 rupees) a month. These minimum wages are insufficient to support a worker and the standard family of 5, but the vast majority of families have more than one breadwinner.
Most permanent full-time workers are covered by laws that prohibit them from working regularly more than 45 hours per week (a 5 1/2 day work week). Such workers also receive 14 days of annual leave, 14 to 21 days of medical leave, and some 20 local holidays each year. Maternity leave is available for permanent and casual female workers. Employers must contribute 12 to 15 percent of a worker's wage to an employee's provident fund and 3 percent to an employee's trust fund. Employers who fail to comply may be fined.
Several laws protect the safety and health of industrial workers. However, the Department of Labor's small staff of inspectors is inadequate to enforce compliance with the laws. Workers have the statutory right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health, but many workers are unaware of, or indifferent to, health risks and fear that they will lose their jobs if they remove themselves.