Human Rights Situations in Sri Lanka: Open letter to Foreign Minister

Katsuya Okada
Foreign Minister
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Kasumigaseki 2-2-1
Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8919

Re: Sri Lanka

Dear Foreign Minister,

We write to you on the occasion of your inauguration as foreign
minister of Japan to encourage you to make the promotion and protection
of human rights a central priority in Japan’s relations with Sri Lanka.
In particular, there is an urgent need to address the plight of
approximately 250,000 displaced civilians detained in camps by the Sri
Lankan government, and establish an independent international
investigation into serious violations of international humanitarian law
during the recent conflict.

Japan has long been a good friend of Sri Lanka. It has demonstrated its
concern about the economic advancement and well-being of Sri Lanka’s
citizens by acting as co-chair of the peace process and by being the
largest donor to Sri Lanka.

The end of the quarter-century long armed conflict with the separatist
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) creates new opportunities for
Sri Lanka to ensure a rights-respecting society. But since the defeat
of the LTTE in May, the Sri Lankan government has made little effort to
improve the human rights situation or to reach out to the minority
Tamil population, undermining efforts by Japan and the international
community to facilitate development and reconciliation, which are
necessary for a future peaceful Sri Lanka.

The government has illegally confined approximately a quarter of a
million vulnerable Tamil civilians in overcrowded, sewage-infested
camps, with the government denying them their right to freedom of
movement and allowing no independent protection mechanisms. With the
monsoon season fast approaching, the health and welfare of these
civilians is increasingly at risk. In addition, five months after what
the head of the United Nation’s humanitarian agency described as a
“bloodbath” in northern Sri Lanka, there has been no government
investigation or accountability for the widespread violations of
international humanitarian law committed by government forces and the
LTTE.

Japan’s generous aid to Sri Lanka not only improves the lives of its
beneficiaries, it also provides Japan with unique opportunities to draw
the Sri Lankan government’s attention to mistaken and counterproductive
policies. Sri Lanka listens to Japan. To date, however, while other
major donors and friends of Sri Lanka have expressed their concerns in
public, Japan has not spoken out against the illegal detention of a
quarter of a million civilians, nor has Japan called for accountability
for serious violations of international humanitarian law by the
government and the LTTE.

It is the time for Japan’s new administration to break the silence and
to make use of its unique relationship with Sri Lanka to uphold the
basic rights of all Sri Lankans.

We urge Japan to take strong action so that the Sri Lankan government
will end the illegal detention of civilians. We also call upon Japan to
insist on justice and accountability for serious violations of
international humanitarian law by both sides and to press for the
speedy establishment of an independent international investigation.

Situation in the Detention Camps

Several hundred thousand civilians were displaced by the armed conflict
in northern Sri Lanka. Since March 2008, the government confined
virtually all newly displaced persons who fled the LTTE in
government-run camps. While the government euphemistically refers to
these camps as “welfare villages,” they are effectively
military-controlled detention centers for civilians.

In violation of international law, the government has denied those
detained in these camps their rights to liberty and freedom of
movement. Camp residents are allowed to leave the camps only for
emergency medical care, and then frequently only with military escort.
Although the majority of detainees have relatives who are able to
provide them with care and housing, to date, only several thousand camp
residents have been allowed to leave.

Because of lack of adequate access for humanitarian agencies and
overcrowding caused by the government’s refusal to release people from
the camps, conditions in the camps currently fall short of UN
standards. Conditions will continue to deteriorate with the onset of
the monsoon season, causing additional hardship and suffering for the
camp residents. Heavy rains in mid-August caused serious flooding and
indicated the problems to come, as water destroyed tents and other
shelter, made cooking impossible, and caused roads to collapse,
preventing delivery of crucial aid such as drinking water. Water also
flooded latrine pits, causing raw sewage to flow among the tents. Aid
agencies are particularly concerned about the threat of disease due to
flooding.

Camp residents are increasingly frustrated with their lack of freedom
of movement, leading to confrontations between the military
administration and the residents. On September 26, 2009, Sri Lankan
security forces opened fire on a group of camp residents who reportedly
attempted to move between two zones of the Menik Farm camp. Several
civilians, including a child, were wounded.

In May, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, joined by UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, assured the international community that
these camps would be dismantled at the earliest possible time. Nearly
five months later, none of this has happened.

Instead, the Sri Lankan government has deliberately prevented outside
scrutiny of the camps, leaving camp residents vulnerable to abuse. It
has denied access to aid organizations to independently assess medical
needs. Reports that camp residents still do not know the whereabouts of
relatives detained at checkpoints during their flight from the fighting
or from the camps weeks and months after they were separated give great
cause for concern. The government has prohibited staff members of
humanitarian organizations working in the camps from talking with camp
residents, preventing effective monitoring and protection. We have
received reports of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and
ill-treatment, but these reports cannot be corroborated because the
camps are closed to human rights organizations, journalists, and other
independent observers.

We urge the new Japanese administration to:

Call upon the Sri Lankan government to end the arbitrary detention of
civilians and permit those who wish to leave the detention camps to do
so immediately. Charge suspected LTTE combatants in accordance with
international standards and ensure that family members and humanitarian
agencies have access to them;

Publicly refer to the camps as “detention camps” to make clear their
true character, and use every opportunity to express Japan’s profound
dismay at the deprivation of the fundamental right to liberty and
absence of freedom of movement of the civilians there;

Draw attention to the fact that poor camp conditions are in part a
result of the government’s policy to detain the displaced rather than
allow them freedom of movement;

Insist that the Sri Lankan government facilitate safe, unimpeded and
timely access to humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations
to camp residents and undertake protection and monitoring activities;
and,

Call upon the Sri Lankan government to implement a system for tracing
missing relatives or allow an international humanitarian organization
to undertake such work.

Concerning return and resettlement, urge the Sri Lankan government to:

Respect and follow the UN Guiding Principles on Internal
Displacement and abide by these principles in the return and
resettlement process, including by ensuring the full inclusion and
input of displaced persons in the planning and management of their
return, resettlement and reintegration;
Properly inform displaced persons of their right to voluntarily return
to their homes, places of origin, or to relocate to another area of the
country if they so choose, in safety and with dignity; and,
Guarantee the right of displaced persons to make informed and voluntary decisions regarding their return home or resettlement.

Justice and Accountability

The armed conflict in Sri Lanka that ended with the defeat of the LTTE
in May 2009 was characterized by serious violations of international
humanitarian law by both sides. Despite repeated denials, government
forces frequently shelled densely populated areas, including at least
30 attacks on or near hospitals in the government-declared “no-fire
zone” – an area where it had urged civilians to take shelter. The LTTE
violated the laws of war by using civilians as human shields, using
lethal force to prevent their fleeing from the combat zone, and
deploying their forces in and near densely populated areas, exposing
civilians to unnecessary risk. However, because independent observers,
including the media and human rights organizations, were prevented from
operating near the war zone, the information available on the fighting,
and possible laws of war violations by both sides, is limited.

A joint statement by Secretary-General Ban and President Rajapaksa on
May 23, 2009, underlined the importance of an accountability process
for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human
rights law. The statement said that “[t]he Government will take
measures to address those grievances.”

This has not happened. Five months after the end of the war, the
government has made no attempts to investigate violations of
international law. On the contrary, in several statements, the Sri
Lankan government has dismissed the need for such an investigation,
contradicting the promises it made in its joint statement.

In a July 14 interview with Time magazine, President Rajapakse,
speaking about the war, said that “There was no violation of human
rights. There were no civilian casualties.” Even with respect to a
truth and reconciliation commission, Rajapaksa said that he did not
want to “dig into the past and open up this wound.”

The attitude of the Sri Lankan government towards accountability is
also evident in its official reaction to a recently broadcast video
that shows what appears to be Sri Lankan army soldiers summarily
executing prisoners. The Sri Lankan government, however, dismissed the
video out of hand, labeling it a fabrication and a “concocted story.”
In September, the government told the Human Rights Council that four
hand-picked local investigators, two of whom were government officials,
had concluded the video was “fake,” but failed to provide detailed
investigation reports to support such a finding. Philip Alston, the UN
Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions,
has called for an investigation of this video.

The Sri Lankan government has a poor record of investigating serious
human rights abuses and impunity has been a persistent problem. Despite
a backlog of cases of enforced disappearance and unlawful killings
going back two decades that run to the tens of thousands, there have
been only a small number of prosecutions. Past efforts to address
violations through the establishment of ad hoc mechanisms in Sri Lanka,
such as presidential commissions of inquiry, have produced few results,
either in providing information or leading to prosecutions.

The most recent commission, investigating 16 major human rights cases
including the August 2006 killing of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers with the
Paris-based humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim (ACF), highlights
this failure. After having investigated just a few of their mandated
cases, the commission concluded this year, finding no evidence of
government wrongdoing, including in the ACF case. A group of respected
international experts tasked with monitoring the commission withdrew
from its role because it had “not been able to conclude … that the
proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied
basic international norms and standards.” The commission’s full report
to President Rajapaksa remains unpublished.

Sri Lanka’s past record, recent statements, and the government’s lack
of action since the end of the conflict make it clear that the
government has no intention of impartially investigating violations
committed during the war.

We urge the new Japanese administration to:

Publicly denounce the clear unwillingness of the Sri Lankan government
to impartially investigate credible allegations of serious violations
of international human rights and humanitarian law and bring to justice
those responsible;

Support the call of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary
or arbitrary executions and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights
for an independent investigation into alleged abuses;

Unequivocally press for the establishment of an independent
international investigation into abuses committed by both government
forces and the LTTE in the final months of fighting; and,

Call on the UN secretary-general, who had joined with President
Rajapaksa in promising an inquiry into abuses, to promptly establish
such a UN-sanctioned investigation, and to take all necessary steps to
facilitate its creation and execute its mandate.

The fighting in Sri Lanka may be over, but for approximately a quarter
of a million people, the suffering continues. There will be no reprieve
and there will be no accountability unless Japan and others within the
international community persistently demand it.

We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters and would
welcome the opportunity to meet with you for further discussion.

Sincerely yours,

Mina Watanabe Secretary General, Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (wam)

Makoto Teranaka Secretary General, Amnesty International Japan

Kinhide Mushakoji President, IMADR-JC
Yuriko Hara Secretary-General, IMADR

Brad Adams Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
Kanae Doi Tokyo Director, Human Rights Watch

Kazuko Ito Secretary General, Human Rights Now