Congressional Human Rights Caucus Staff Roundtable:
HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS
IN SRI LANKA
DECEMBER 11, 1998
Chair of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka,
Flat 4, 53 Tollington Park, London N4 3QP, UK
Telephone/Fax: (44)(171) 272 4271
|Ladies and gentlemen,
The International Working Group on Sri Lanka is an independent, non-partisan network of organizations and individuals concerned with the promotion of human rights, development and peace in Sri Lanka.
It has a management board in London and an international network that currently comprises humanitarian and advocacy groups in Asia, Australasia, Canada, Europe and the USA as well as Sri Lankan organizations working in the fields of development, peace and human rights.
At the beginning of November I returned to London from a two week mission to Sri Lanka conducted by the Department for International Development of the UK Government. Its purpose was to evaluate the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the war zones. I was invited to participate as an independent expert on human rights.
The situation in Sri Lanka has been described as "one of the most violent, intractable and complex conflicts of the post Cold-War period." Indeed it is difficult to address almost any aspect of this conflict without being accused of bias or of being partisan. I would, however, like to address one aspect which has profound implications, which is often overlooked, and which could be constructively addressed by the international community. The situation in Sri Lanka is described by experts in international law as being an "armed conflict not of an international character". The international humanitarian law that applies to conflicts of this character includes Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. This establishes the minimum standards of humanitarian norms or principles of humanitarian law that the parties to the conflict are bound to apply. It applies to ALL parties, whether state or non-state. Its application in such a conflict specifically does NOT affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict.
The Government of Sri Lanka is a party to the Geneva Conventions and is therefore bound by this article. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has made an express commitment to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that it will abide by the Conventions.
Common Article 3 prohibits the murder, torture, cruel treatment and mutilation of anyone not taking part in hostilities. This includes wounded combatants and those who have laid down their arms. It prohibits taking any non-combatants hostage. It also stipulates that they must not be subjected to outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.
Were these international humanitarian standards to have been respected by all parties to this conflict, the litany of atrocities inflicted both on the civilian population and on numerous combatants would never have occurred. If these humanitarian standards were to be respected by all parties, starting now, it would relegate those atrocities to the past. It would restore respect for fundamental standards of humanity and provide a major instrument of peace-building in Sri Lanka -- as has been the case in other seemingly intractable conflicts.
Ironically, perhaps the first place to begin is not on the edges, but at the very heart of the conflict. If High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions were to work together, using the platform of the Conventions, to address all parties to the conflict, it might be possible, as a first step, to reduce the scale of the carnage and to instill respect for humanitarian principles among ALL the combatants. Such an initiative would send a vital first signal to all those seeking a resolution of this conflict.
When I speak of the heart of the conflict, I would like to conclude by reading a brief extract from a diary I kept during my recent tour of the war zones :-
"The No Mercy War is the leitmotif of the battlefield," says the
International Committee of the Red Cross. In the chilling statistics of military
strategy, it is normal to work on the assumption that for every 10 combatants who become
casualties, three will be killed and seven will be wounded.
No journalists are given access to the fighting and no pictures broadcast on the world airwaves. So it is left to our imaginations to contemplate the atrocities of those 72 hours. One of the survivors describes troops being hit by successive mortar barrages raining down on those who went to the rescue of their wounded comrades. "Those hit by the mortars were writhing in pain," he recounts. "What would have happened to those wounded?" I ask the experts. The only credible explanation is that apart from those able to escape or be evacuated, men and women who had been brought down with gunfire or maimed by explosions were shot in cold blood where they lay. In the humid heat of this tropical island, decomposition sets in fast. Delays in recovering bodies renders them unidentifiable. Their remains are cremated; their identities disappear into the growing log of the "missing in action".
This time the guerrillas ask the Red Cross to collect an initial 600 bodies for hand-over to the army. It takes 10 hours to unload 20 truckloads of corpses and put them into white body bags. "When we do the transport," says the young Red Cross worker, "everyone in the villages knows what is happening. They see our flag and the convoy of trucks. They know what that means and the smell is unmistakable..." End of extract from diary
End of Statement.