US Congress on Human Rights in Sri Lanka

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus conducted a Roundtable Conference on Human Rights Developments in Sri Lanka on December 11, 1998 in Room 2238 of Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C.

Statements of Delegates

Colleen Malone

Richard Reoch

Elizabeth Bowen

Hans Hogrefe, Legislative Assistant to Representative Tom Lantos' office chaired the meeting. Expert speakers invited to the roundtable were Colleen Malone, Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace, Richard Reoch, International Working Group on Sri Lanka (UK), Ms Elizabeth Bowen, (Bowen Group), Steven Rickard, Amnesty International, USA, and Jerry Lueders of the U.S. Department of State.

In the opening speech, Mr. Hogrefe presented a brief history of the current conflict in Sri Lanka. He stated that the Sri Lankan Government did not accept various offers for international mediation and the peace initiative presented by the current Sri Lankan Government has stalled in parliament. He also stated that the Human Rights Commissions formed by the current Sri Lankan government to operate in the northeast Sri Lanka are not functional.

Ms. Malone of the Asia Pacific Center, who recently returned from a fact finding mission to Sri Lanka, shared her experiences in the conflict areas controlled by the Sri Lankan Government.

First she summed up the US’s current involvement with Sri Lanka. Ms. Malone stated that US involvement is in the areas of Military, Political, Economic and Development Funding. She quoted a July Washington Post feature article, which stated that "even though US’s training programs in Sri Lanka has the objective of improving human rights practices, the training given in 1996 and later included the operation of high technology weapons including training by Navy Seals, long range patrolling and air/sea attacks." Approximately 550 Lanka troops and 115 US troops have been involved in these exercise up to now. She stated that in the political front, the US has designated the LTTE as a foreign terrorist group. She added that the Economic and Development Funding interests focus on developing mutual trade opportunities between the US and Sri Lanka as can be seen in the appointment of the new ambassador who has an extensive trade background.

While in Sri Lanka, Ms. Malone interviewed people, including doctors, in the government-controlled areas. She said that in the East, torture is widely practiced by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The main methods of torture included immersing the head in water (wet submarine), covering the head with polythene bags (dry submarine), hanging the detainee by a finger or toe, and beating with iron rods. The effects of torture on the two victims she interviewed, were deafness caused by inserting a pencil into the ear and dislocated knees by beating with an iron rod.

The people told her that tough officers are routinely sent to the East and the torture experienced in the East is the worst in the island. She was also told about cases where the LTTE has taken hostages in the East. During the period she visited Trincomalee, she knew about five civilian deaths as a result of shelling and a man beaten to death by Sri Lankan forces. She was also told that some informers to the Sri Lankan forces were killed by the LTTE. In Colombo, she came to know of the harassment Tamils go through at all the checkpoints.

She visited two Tamil villages where the occupants were asked by the Sri Lankan forces to leave their homes and move out. The 280 Tamil families from one village told her they do not know the reason why they were asked to vacate their village.

During her stay in Sri Lanka, Mankulam was captured by the SLA and 26 LTTE child soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. She said that the Sri Lankan Government further exploited them by giving wide publicity in the local media with their photographs pasted in public areas.

In addition to the LTTE, Tamil groups working for the Government also used children to work for them. Tamil children living near army camps were forced to work for the army. In one case, an 11-year-old and a nine-year old has been working at the army camp for two years against their wishes and that of their parents. The parents said that they feared for the safety of the whole family if they stopped their children from working at the camp.

Ms. Malone said that the Sri Lankan armed forces traveled from Mannar with the public in the public buses with their slow moving armored trucks following. Because of this travelling a distance of 17 kilometers took four hours. On Sundays public transport was quicker because the Sri Lankan army does not work and hence does not use the public transport.

She also said during her stay the army shot dead seven "smugglers" who tried to transport banned items to LTTE controlled areas.

Ms. Malone noted that the human rights commissions were not functioning because the people had no trust in them. The people testify at the commission but no justice has been done to their complaints. She stated that as a result, a culture of impunity prevails within the Sri Lankan forces. The Sri Lankans who talked to Ms. Malone often mentioned about the mass graves in Sri Lanka where those killed are believed to be buried.

They said that when mass graves were discovered in other parts of the world, the international community was outraged. They asked why the international community did not react similarly when mass graves are found in Sri Lanka. Ms. Malone said that she had no answer to give for this question.

Ms. Malone concluded her speech by saying that in Sri Lanka, neither warring party is concerned about the affected civilians and affected civilians have no voice.

Mr. Jerry Leuders of the State Department said that the Sri Lankan Governments are elected in free and fair elections and these governments are fighting a fifteen year long war with the LTTE. He said that both parties have indulged in human rights abuses. The Sri Lankan Government is guilty of extra judicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and press censorship. The LTTE is guilty of killings, arbitrary arrests, discriminatory treatment of other races, killing of elected members of their own race, including two mayors recently, bombing of holy places, in Kandy and in Colombo, and the Central Bank.

He said that the human rights record of the government improved in the last two years. Trials have been conducted to convict human rights abusers in the army. However, Mr. Leuders stated that the Sri Lankan government has not proceeded to investigate the alleged mass gravesite in Jaffna.

Mr. Leuders stated that human rights are the top priority of the State Department. As a result of the State Department’s advice, the Sri Lankan government has initiated human rights programs.

Mr. Steven Rickard of Amnesty International, USA, stated that Sri Lanka has one of the most troubled human rights histories in the world.

For several years the number of people who disappeared in Sri Lanka is only second to that in Iraq. He noted that in the last two years there are relative improvements, on a minute scale, on the human rights interactions in Sri Lanka.

He stated that in the last year, thousands were arrested, the Sri Lankan forces practiced torture, existence of mass graves was alleged, many combatants died in fighting, there was media censorship and the elections were postponed. In a positive development, last year, UN officials met with the LTTE and obtained assurances that children will not be recruited and used in combat.

Amnesty International is continuing to encourage the government to investigate the mass graves. Mr. Rickard said that the LTTE should provide assurances of safety to proceed with the investigations and Amnesty International will stand by this investigation of the mass graves.

In conclusion, Mr. Rickard said that Congress should concentrate on the following:

  1. Is the SL government following up and doing what it is proposing to do in the area of human rights?
  2. Is the Sri Lankan military doing what it is told to do by the government?

He stated that the Sri Lankan Government follows closely the statements and actions of the US. He urged the US Congress to speak out on the human rights record of Sri Lanka. Mr. Rickard stated that since 1996, the Sri Lankan government is open to visits by International Agencies and mentioned that this is a positive development compared to previous years. Mr. Rickard concluded his speech by saying that, presently, human rights are a serious problem in Sri Lanka.

Ms. Elizabeth Bowen of Bowen Group stated that the situation in Sri Lanka is comparable to that which prevails in Bosnia and Rwanda. She said that the difference was that it went unreported for the past fifteen years.

Ms. Bowen said that the armed conflict is affecting the civilians. She stated that the Tamil youth were reacting to Sri Lankan State terrorism practiced on them. She stated that there are 600,000 internally displaced people of Sri Lanka living in refugee camps and that these refugees are not militants, but civilians. She pointed out that food and medicine sent to the rebel controlled Wanni area is not sufficient to support the people living there.

She mentioned of a paper published by Professor Paust where it is argued that food and medicine are neutral commodities in a war and it is a war crime to prevent these reaching the civilian population. Ms. Bowen pointed out that the Anti Terrorism Act effective in Sri Lanka and a law exempting prosecution of killings by the Sri Lankan Army are two legal measures that sustain human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

She observed that the few thousands of Sinhalese and Muslim displaced enjoyed better living conditions than the hundreds of thousands of Tamil displaced living in the Wanni.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Bowen said that:

  1. Congress should review the US’s policy on Sri Lanka
  2. Congress do all in its power to assure that sufficient food is sent to the Wanni area controlled by the rebels.
  3. Congress should impress on the Sri Lankan Government to give free access to rebel controlled areas.

Ms. Bowen concluded her speech by saying that the US and the NGOs should be more active in resolving the human rights problems of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Richard Reoch of the International Working Group of Sri Lanka said that he came back from Sri Lanka in November 1998. He pointed out that the legal experts have classified the conflict in Sri Lanka as an armed conflict of internal character. He stated that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Armed Conflicts and the LTTE after realizing the benefits of the Geneva Convention, has agreed to abide by it. His talk focussed on finding a mechanism to urge Sri Lanka and the LTTE to adhere to the Geneva Conventions on Armed Conflict.

He said that the US Congress should strongly advise both warring parties to adhere to these conventions. Mr. Reoch said that the human rights violations and resulting carnage will lessen if both warring parties didn’t mutilate, murder, torture, or humiliate people who are not taking part in combat, including wounded soldiers.

Mr. Reoch said that in a normal combat for every ten soldiers participating, three may be killed and seven may be injured. However, in battles fought in Sri Lanka, for every ten combatants nine die and one manages to escape. He pointed out that in the latest battle in Mankulam and Kilinochchi, except for the twenty-six child soldiers captured by the Sri Lankan army, there were no prisoners of war.

He concluded his speech by mentioning the casualty figures in the Kilinochchi battle, where in two days of fighting about 2000 Sri Lankan soldiers died. The Sri Lankan Government classified the 1400 dead soldiers as missing in action.

Those who attended the meeting asked questions from the panel.

The State Department was asked whether there was a linkage between the assistance received by the Sri Lankan Government and its adherence to human rights practices and what evidence they have that human rights violations are reduced by their current Sri Lankan policy.

Mr. Leuders and Mr. Rickard answered that the US has a law that army personnel with a record of human rights violations are not eligible to receive US training. Mr. Leuders said that the State Department extends this law to all their training exercises with other Governments. The State Department said that they had a total of nine operations in Sri Lanka, where US soldiers train with the Sri Lankan soldiers and the exercises are small-scale operations.

Mr. Rickard of Amnesty International reinforced his earlier statement that the US must be very careful in their actions, since the Sri Lankan Government may take it as a message of approval of its overall performance including the human rights record.

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