Congressional Human Rights Caucus Staff Roundtable
HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS
IN SRI LANKA
DECEMBER 11, 1998
Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace
110 Maryland Avenue, N.E. Box 70
Washington, D.C. 20002
|I am a Program Associate for the US NGO Forum on Sri Lanka, which is based
at the Asia Pacific Center in Washington DC, and is a non-partisan network of
organizations working for peace and human rights in Sri Lanka. I have previously lived and
worked in Sri Lanka for the Canadian International Development Agency, and I recently
returned from spending three months in Sri Lanka, from July to October.
At the beginning of this discussion I would like to consider how the situation in Sri Lanka is relevant to us in the United States, and how the United States is involved in Sri Lanka. The US is involved in 4 key ways in Sri Lanka: militarily, politically, economically, and through development funding.
In the latest fiscal report to Congress by the State Department, US military training in Sri Lanka is described as an effort to "train key military leaders in human rights principles and procedures." However, according to a Washington Post article in July this year, US Green Berets and Navy SEALS have trained the Sri Lankan security forces in long-range patrolling, tactical reconnaissance, and rapid reaction air and sea attacks and maritime operations. According to this article, at least 500 Sri Lankan and 115 US troops were involved in the 1996 and 1997 exercises, and more have taken place in 1998. The US also approves the sale of US-made military equipment used in foreign-built weaponry, and provides training in the US for Sri Lankan troops in their use.
The US' deeper political involvement in Sri Lanka is evidenced by the State Department's recent classification of the LTTE as a terrorist organization. The US is economically involved in Sri Lanka, and the importance of economics may be shown by the recent appointment of the new US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, who comes from a trade and economics background.
Finally, the US is involved in Sri Lanka through development funding as administered by the USAID. Also falling under this label comes a decreased focus on humanitarian and human rights issues and an increased focus on trade. The USAID has, however, partially funded the Human Rights Commission, an ineffective and virtually non-functioning government-designed organization that I will discuss later.
With these 4 areas of US involvement in mind, I would like to share with you my findings from three months of travel in Sri Lanka and extensive interviews with human rights and peace activists, civilians living in conflict-affected areas, people in the medical profession, and international and local NGO workers. My discussion will be limited to the areas in which I traveled. I traveled only in government-held areas and not LTTE-held areas, so my report by no means covers all the areas or issues which could be discussed. I would like to address the main themes, problems, and concerns that came up during these interviews and while traveling.
The first of those themes is the issue of torture. My discussion of torture will be focused on the East of Sri Lanka, since that is primarily where I did my research. I learned that the usual pattern of detention continues, in that torture is considered a widespread and standard procedure in detention. Laws regarding proper arrest procedures are still not being followed. I learned that the five main methods of torture in the east are a dry submarine, the placing of a bag soaked in petrol over the detainee's head; a wet submarine, the submerging of the detainee under water; the beating of the heels of the detainee; the hanging of the detainee by his thumbs; and the beating of the detainee with a dried bull's penis. In addition to this, I also personally encountered and heard reports of detainees having their knee caps dislocated, their arms or legs cut off, becoming deaf after having a pen rammed in their ears, and blind after being beaten on the back of the head. I learned that "tougher" officers are routinely sent to the East. One positive note on which to end the discussion of this topic is that disappearances perpetrated by government forces are currently minimal in the East. I did learn however of continued LTTE hostage-taking in the East, in one case of an NGO worker.
I encountered other human rights problems in the East. Both in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, sporadic fighting between the GOSL and LTTE poses a threat to civilians. For example, in Trincomalee in September, 5 civilians were reportedly killed by army shelling. In Batticaloa district, a high percentage of civilians reportedly carry shrapnel in their bodies from the shelling of their homes.
I learned of a case in Ampara district where a man had been released from detention and had to sign in at his local STF (Special Task Force) camp every month. On the 6th month when he went to sign in, he and three others were beaten to death by security forces at the camp.
In lieu of the frequent checkpoints that are set up in Batticaloa, in Trincomalee roundups are frequent. In roundups large groups of people are rounded up and taken by bus to face a masked informant who points out LTTE supporters. Often LTTE pistol gangs then come into town and kill these informers. Civilians have on occasion been caught in the middle of this. Shortly before I arrived in Trincomalee, a Muslim civilian was killed by the LTTE in just such an incident. Roundups and detention of Tamil civilians by the security forces is also longstanding problem in Colombo.
Also in Trincomalee, I encountered the problem of people displaced by the army. The first example of this was a small village of 44 Tamil families and 12 Muslim families that the army felt supported the LTTE. The villagers were given 24 hours to move out, and after 24 hours the army said it would open fire. The villagers are now in an Internally Displaced Persons' camp. The villagers have asked the government to let them go back to their village, but the government says the issue is in the army's hands.
There was a similar situation in another village close to Trincomalee town. 280 Tamil families were ordered out of the village by the army, which wanted to use the village as an army camp. 132 families refused to move. In response the army set up a blockade to stop all construction materials entering the town, including cadjan, which is necessary for the repair of homes. When I visited, the case was in civil court in Trincomalee. The villagers did not understand why the army needed another camp when Trincomalee is surrounded by security forces' camps.
Another problem is the use of children in the conflict. After September's major battle in Kilincochchi and Mankulam, 26 LTTE child cadre were captured by the government forces. The children were then further exploited, this time by the government, when their pictures were splashed across the papers, and their names and experiences published.
After the major battle, there have been reports of the LTTE stepping up recruitment in the East and forcibly recruiting children. I heard complaints by teachers of their students being taken by the LTTE. Other use of children includes their forcible recruitment by Tamil parties associated with the government, and by the government security forces themselves. I learned of one case in the East of two children, aged 11 years and 9 years, who had worked in a security forces camp for two years. They did not want to continue to work there, but were forced to continue by their parents, who feared retribution on the entire family if the children stopped working there.
I would like to share my experience of my travel to Mannar. I found deteriorating relations between the civilian population and the army. During the short time I was there, approximately 8 to 15 smugglers were killed by the army. These were small-time smugglers who were smuggling what they could carry, such as cans of kerosene and bars of soap, from the government-held areas to the LTTE-held areas. The night before I arrived in Mannar, several smugglers were hacked to death by the army, and on subsequent nights they were shot.
To return to Colombo I took a civilian bus from Mannar to the capital. The army had been putting civilians on army buses up to one month before I visited. By the time I traveled, however, civilians and soldiers were mixed together on civilian buses in a long, vulnerable convoy with tanks, personnel carriers, and heavy weaponry. The convoy took approximately 3 hours to travel 30 kilometres, or 18 miles. Civilian buses can apparently travel without the military on Sunday, since the army takes the day off on that day. The mixing of civilians and troops has also become a problem on ships travelling from Jaffna to Trincomalee.
I spoke to many Sri Lankans around the island about the Human Rights Commission (HRC) that I mentioned earlier. Despite its broader mandate and powers than its predecessor, the Human Rights Task Force, the HRC is viewed as being largely ineffective and in cases almost non-functioning. The HRC has not established the trust of the people, and is consequently often not even used by them. The HRC is a serious disappointment for the human rights community.
There is also disappointment with the government disappearance commissions, particularly by families of the disappeared who have participated in the commissions. These families have little faith in the commissions, since they have testified and then heard nothing more from the commissions. Few receive compensation and even fewer receive justice.
This speaks to the culture of impunity in the Sri Lankan security forces, also evidenced by the allegations of a mass grave in the Jaffna peninsula, which is alleged to hold up to 400 bodies. The grave remains uninvestigated by the government, despite the fact that the allegations were made over 5 months ago. I am sure my colleague from Amnesty International will elaborate further on this issue. The lack of government action in investigating the graves threatens to undermine the progress made by the government in reducing disappearances, and prosecuting members of the security forces accused of rape and murder. Sri Lankans frequently pointed out that if a similar grave were found in Bosnia, for example, the international community's response would be swift and strong. They asked me why this is not the case in Sri Lanka. I could never answer that question.
One of the things I was most saddened by during my time in Sri Lanka is the lack of a voice for the civilians affected by the conflict, particularly those living in the conflict areas. These people are trapped between 2 warring parties, neither of which from their behaviour seem to have the interests of the people of Sri Lanka at heart. We need to ask ourselves how the US is affecting this tragic situation. Is it helping or hindering a process towards peace, or is it merely standing by while Sri Lanka slides further into a cycle of bloodshed and destruction?