Congressional Human Rights Caucus Staff Roundtable:
HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS
IN SRI LANKA
DECEMBER 11, 1998
The Bowen Group
|It is fitting that the Human Rights Roundtable Briefing on the human
rights situation in Sri Lanka is being held one day after the celebration of the 50th
anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.
The Republic of Sri Lanka is in the grip of a brutal civil war, which has been going on for 15 years since it began in July of 1983. The parties to the dispute are successive Sri Lankan governments and the largest minority entity or ethnic group of Sri Lankan Tamil.
Since independence in 1948 from British Colonial Governance successive governments of this island have taken administrative measures to marginalize the Tamil population in the government and politics of the country, the administrative services and armed services, and to even restrict educational facilities to Tamils.
The most severe attack on the Tamil community was launched on July 23, 1983, with military action in the northern province of the country which is the historical homeland of the Tamil and with police and thug gangs in the capital city of Colombo, and any other place that Tamil were living.
This ethnic confrontation in Sri Lanka is not unique. There are parallels, as in the cases in Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, Kosovo, etc.. What is unique about the situation in Sri Lanka, which has been going on for the last 15 years, is that it goes unreported because it is happening in a small country thousands of miles away. It is important to note that it is the civilian Tamil population in the main that has had to take and continues to take the brunt of the fighting between the Sri Lanka Government Armed Forces and the Tamil Youth Groups (or guerrilla forces).
It is generally accepted that the Tamil youth have resorted to terrorist activities and have been designated terrorist groups by some countries, including the United States. However, in an objective assessment it has to be conceded or acknowledged that these groups are reacting to state terrorism perpetrated on the Tamil population by successive Sri Lanka Singhalese governments for decades; and, more particularly, over the past 15 years when the State has declared a state of war with the Tamil in their homeland, the northern and eastern provinces.
Many international human rights organizations have been observing and documenting the civil strife that began in 1983. The situation today is grave. There are over 600,000 Tamil in camps for Internal Displaced persons, in the land of their birth. They are occupants of these IDP camps not because they are militant, nor adversarial, but because they are Tamil and their homes have been destroyed by military action which caused them to be removed from their native locations to facilitate the Government of Sri Lankas military strategy.
The youth groups, for their part, are defying a policy in the belief that they are defending their ancient homeland and their right to full participation and status in the country of their birth.
Many international human rights organizations have been observing and documenting the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, beginning from the late 1970s; special mention should be made of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, United Nations Rappoteurs on Extrajudicial Killings, and most importantly the Human Rights Bureau of the State Department.
Among all of the problems cited I am going to address the ones that concern me the most:
The denial of adequate food, medicine, and other basic needs;
The denial of movement for those wanting to move to areas free of fighting; and
The denial of freedom from arbitrary and inhumane detention and controls.
An eminent international law scholar, Professor Paust, in the May 1998 Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law has found that, based on information in reports by the Department of State and the U.S. Committee for Refugees, there are serious human rights violations which contravene the Geneva Convention. He concluded that under customary international law and international agreements, the governments denial of these basic necessities constitute war crimes and that food, medicine and medical supplies should always be treated as neutral property during an armed conflict. There have also been plausible charges of genocide by others.
It should be noted that another crucial element has been the Emergency Regulations and Anti-Terrorism Act, which invests in the security forces draconian powers of arrest, detention, and impunity. These laws, which have been in force continuously in the northeast since May 1983, have been the vehicle for the extensive human rights abuses of the Tamil. In 1984 an International Commission of Jurists Mission to Sri Lanka called the Prevention of Terrorism Act an ugly blot on the statute book of any civilized country, comparable only to legislation then in force in South Africa. In 1998 another Jurist Mission again identified several provisions which violate international norms. One particularly pernicious item exempts killings by security forces from inquest when claimed to be in the course of official action.
A further element in the collective victimization of the Tamil is the fact that in practice even the limited protections for the civilian population available under the Emergency Regulations and the Anti-Terrorism Act are, as the State Department Human Rights Report states, routinely ignored by the security forces.
Despite the governments determined efforts to conceal it assisted by the well known and anti-Tamil bias of the mainstream media in Colombo information on the catastrophic effects of government policies on the Tamil population in the northeast (the majority of whom are displaced) is gradually coming to light. The elderly, the women, and the children are now the most vulnerable; the children are deprived of schooling and are found to suffer from severe malnutrition in those areas.
The government has offered two reasons: first, that the food and medicines are taken over by the LTTE; and second, that Sri Lanka is a poor country which limited resources with which to meet the basic need of all its citizens, and then it must finance the war. As Professor Paust notes, neither one is acceptable as an excuse in international law. The government has steadfastly refused permission for direct distribution of food and medicines by foreign governments and international relief agencies. It is widely believed that the real objective of the government may be to force Tamil civilians from LTTE-controlled areas into either government-controlled areas in the northeast or into detention camps. It is also generally believed that the governments policies are part of a pattern of discriminatory policies that previous governments have followed, and which are now accentuated by the war.
It needs to be noted that in this context, the denial of basic necessities to the most needy displaced Tamil is in sharp contrast with the treatment of the few thousands of displaced Singhalese who are regularly provided with government assistance and compensation.
There is new evidence to suggest that the humanitarian situation is fragile in the areas that are not under government control, and hundreds of people are suffering from malaria, cholera, and other diseases, in addition to the mental trauma caused by war. This could be prevented if proper medical supplies and facilities were in place. Malnutrition in the uncleared areas has also become critical as goods and services entering these areas are determined on the basis of the population figures estimated by the Government, with little regard to what is being submitted by the local people in charge.
Clause 18 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement demands four basic necessities for the displaced by authorities:
Professor Paust also mentions in his article that the continued denial of these necessities in Sri Lanka constitutes war crimes.
It should be noted that 6,000 metric tons of food feeds 120,000 people. There are almost 600,000 internally displaced persons in the camps the food must get to a GSL Army checkpoint; then to a LTTE checkpoint; and then, what is left is distributed. It is also alleged that every time the GSL decides to mount a new military objective the delivery of food and medicine is withheld. This cannot be fully documented because no one is allowed in or out of the areas.
I would like to see a full review of US policy on Sri Lanka a policy review that would include the basic U.S. commitment to human rights; and I would like to see the United States offer to help promote a peaceful and negotiated solution to this 15-year ethnic conflict.
In the short term, I would like to have the Legislative and Executive Branches of the U.S. Government use their good offices to ensure that adequate food and medicine is delivered to the civilian population of the Tamil in the north and in the east. I would also like to see direct delivery to the Vanni of food and medicine by the relief organizations. I would like both sides of the conflict to allow the free flow of food and medicine for the women and the children and the elderly.
I would like to have the international community be given free access into the area so that true, untainted, and unbiased reports of the REAL situation could be given. I am aware of the difficulty that these requests can cause the Government of Sri Lanka, and for that matter the guerrillas, as well.
We cannot sit back and hope this problem will go away. 15 years is a long time to put a civilian population through this drama. The children now are traumatized and all they know is hate and war and fear and lack of basic food and necessities.
It is my hope that the international community will come together to support the Tamil civilian population and hear their cry for help and assistance. It is time that children can have hope and this wonderful island that used to boast of its being one of the examples of a multiracial, multiethnic island that got along together find a way before the millennium to solve this horrendous, painful ethnic crisis in a fair and equitable way.