Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Report 135 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis

The resumption of war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses by both sides.

Executive Summary

The resumption of war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses by both sides. While the LTTE has continued its deliberately provocative attacks on the military and Sinhalese civilians as well as its violent repression of Tamil dissenters and forced recruitment of both adults and children, the government is using extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances as part of a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. The likely results will be the further embitterment of the Tamil population and a further cycle of war, terrorism and repression. Without ignoring or minimising the serious violations of the LTTE, the international community needs to bring more pressure to bear on the government, through UN mechanisms, a reappraisal of aid policies and intensified political engagement. The alternative is a further decline into authoritarianism, violence, terrorism and repression.

Civilians are repeatedly caught up in the fighting. More than 1,500 have been killed and more than 250,000 displaced since early 2006. There have been hundreds of extrajudicial killings, and more than 1,000 people are still unaccounted for, presumed to be the victims of enforced disappearances. Hundreds more have been detained under newly strengthened Emergency Regulations that give the government broad powers of arrest and detention without charge. The security forces have also expelled hundreds of Tamils from Colombo. Forces commanded by the ex-LTTE commander Karuna, leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) now aligned with the government, engage in child recruitment, extortion, abductions for ransom and political assassinations.

While many deaths result from military clashes, the army – assisted by pro-government Tamil paramilitaries – is also engaged in a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killings and abductions of Tamils considered part of LTTE’s civilian support network. Targeted assassinations have been particularly frequent in Jaffna and parts of the east, often victimising civilians with no connection to the LTTE. Political killings, abductions and disappearances have also spread to Colombo, where abductions for ransom have targeted both Tamils and Muslims.

Tamils are increasingly fearful and alienated from a government that claims to be liberating them from the LTTE but has failed to promote any viable political solution to the conflict. The violence and abuse suffered by many Tamils has ensured increased support and funding for the insurgents.

The counter-insurgency campaign is leading to more authoritarianism in the country as a whole. Officials now routinely brand their political critics and human rights advocates as LTTE sympathisers, while political opponents and journalists have been arrested under the Emergency Regulations. What began as an effort to target LTTE supporters shows disturbing signs of becoming generalised repression of dissent. While routinely attacking moderate, democratic forces, the government has given free rein to Sinhalese nationalist groups.

For the most part the government has responded to criticism with denial, obfuscation and virulent, verbal attacks on its critics. In an attempt to deflect international criticism, it has also established new institutions to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI), backed by a panel of international observers, is investigating a series of atrocities. However, the history of such institutions in Sri Lanka is grounds for scepticism: previous commissions have been ineffective in stopping abuses or prosecuting perpetrators.

In any case, the CoI is no substitute for proper action by the law enforcement agencies and judiciary to investigate and prosecute abuses. The national Human Rights Commission is deeply flawed and has lost all credibility after being stocked by political appointees. Other domestic institutions are increasingly politicised or dysfunctional, leading to calls for an international human rights monitoring mission, which may be the only way to end the present wave of abuses. The international community has responded to the renewed conflict and human rights abuses, however, in a disjointed and lacklustre way. While there has been some public criticism, there is little sign of a coordinated approach that would put real pressure on the government to change course.

If the government does not begin to reassert the rule of law, it may find itself unable to bring under control the violent forces that have been unleashed – including the TMVP, other Tamil paramilitaries and criminal elements. The nature of the campaign against the LTTE has spawned a rise in general lawlessness. Democratic state institutions are increasingly threatened by the development of a regime that is becoming more authoritarian.

Colombo/Brussels, 14 June 2007

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