AI slams US State Department rights report on Sri Lanka

[TamilNet, Thursday, 08 May 2003, 19:04 GMT]
The Amnesty International Thursday criticised the US state department for putting out a biased human rights report on Sri Lanka for 2002. Mr. Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist, Amnesty International, U.S.A said Thursday that the US state department’s human rights report on Sri Lanka for 2002 made serious omissions relating to human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan armed forces.

The following in the full text of Mr. McDonald’s letter to the state department addressed to Mr. James Waller and Rebecca Schwalbach, State Dept. and Mr. Carl-Hein Wemhoener-Cuite and Lewis Amselem, U.S. Embassy Colombo:

I would like to share with you some comments on the 2002 State Department human rights report on Sri Lanka. While the report in many respects provides an accurate description of the human rights abuses committed by both sides in the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), there are serious omissions in the report. These omissions relate to human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan security forces in connection with an armed insurrection by a Sinhalese opposition group, the People's Liberation Front (known by its initials in Sinhala as the "JVP"), during the late 1980s.

Between 1987 and 1990, the JVP led an armed insurgency against the Sri Lankan government, led at the time by the United National Party (UNP). The JVP conducted a campaign of terror, assassinating members of the ruling party, members of the security forces and their relatives, and members of other political parties. They called widespread work stoppages and strikes, enforced by threats to kill those who refused to obey the strike call. In response, the Sri Lankan government launched a campaign of counter-terror, during which tens of thousands of people were killed or abducted by the government forces and made to "disappear." Most of the "disappeared" are presumed to have been killed. In addition, arbitrary detention and torture of suspected JVP members or supporters were widespread.

To give an example of just one of the cases of human rights violations committed by the security forces during the JVP uprising, Amnesty International has been campaigning to have the Sri Lankan government re-open the investigation into the murder of Wijedasa Liyanarachchi. Mr. Liyanarachchi, a well-known human rights lawyer, was arrested on August 25, 1988 on suspicion of being involved with the JVP. Eight days after his arrest, he died at a Colombo hospital due to multiple injuries resulting from torture. Three police officers were prosecuted for his murder but were given a fine and suspended sentences after the charges against them had been reduced. In its judgment, the court recommended that investigations be re-opened to establish who was responsible for Liyanarachchi's death. To date, no such investigations have been re-opened.

In the 1994 parliamentary elections, the UNP lost power to the opposition People's Alliance (PA). The new PA government established three commissions of inquiry to investigate the fate of the tens of thousands of people who had "disappeared" in Sri Lanka since January 1, 1988. The commissions found evidence of "disappearance" in 16,742 cases, though thousands of additional cases remained to be investigated when the commissions finished their work. A fourth commission was established in 1998 and worked for two years, investigating the cases that the first three commissions had not examined. According to its report of March 2001, the fourth commission found evidence of a further 4,473 "disappearances," thus bringing the total number of "disappearances" to 21,215. The majority of these "disappearances" took place in connection with the JVP uprising and not the ethnic conflict with the LTTE.

The PA government took some action to provide redress to the relatives of the "disappeared," including granting compensation to many of the relatives. It also began prosecutions into some of the cases examined by the commissions, but there are virtually no reported convictions in any of these cases. Thus, impunity for these "disappearances" is continuing.

In the 2001 parliamentary elections, the UNP returned to power. Amnesty International has been informed that a number of ministers in the new UNP government have pressured the Sri Lankan Attorney General not to proceed with filing indictments in cases emanating from the work of the four "disappearance" commissions.

In its 2001 and earlier reports, the State Department mentioned the JVP uprising, describing both the "disappearances" and arbitrary detentions arising from that conflict. The 2002 State Department report omits any reference at all to the JVP or its insurrection in the late 1980s. A reader unfamiliar with Sri Lankan history would assume that all the "disappearances" and other human rights violations mentioned occurred in connection with the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. It is as though, for the State Department, the tens of thousands of "disappearances" and other violations in connection with the JVP uprising are no longer worthy of mention in a human rights report on Sri Lanka!

These human rights violations are not "past history" or "old cases" that can just be forgotten or discarded. For the relatives of the "disappeared," especially, every day that passes without clarification of the fates of their loved ones constitutes a form of ongoing torture, continuing even today. The impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes is also continuing, so justice continues to be denied, even today, to the "disappeared" and other victims and to their relatives.

To write a report purporting to describe the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka while omitting any mention of the thousands of human rights violations committed by the security forces during the JVP uprising is unacceptable. Silence by the State Department in its human rights report may allow the world to forget these human rights violations. Such forgetting abets the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators and further harms the victims and their relatives. Surely, the State Department does not intend its report to have this result. One way to remedy this serious omission in the 2002 report would be for the State Department to issue a public clarification to the report, indicating its ongoing concern about these violations and the continuing impunity enjoyed by the security forces for them. At the very least, I hope that this omission would be corrected in next year's report.

These are my comments on the 2002 State Department report. I would greatly appreciate hearing any response you may have to these comments. I plan to provide copies of this memorandum to interested individuals and organizations one week from today. I look forward to hearing from you.


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