Sri Lanka

 

I am extremely concerned at the situation in Sri Lanka. I know that many of my constituents have friends and family in that country and some are desperately waiting to hear news of them worrying whether they were killed in the bitter fighting between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces or whether they are amongst the estimated 280,000 men women and children being held in detention camps since the conflict ended four months ago. Yesterday I met with diplomats from the Sri Lankan High Commission in London to express my concerns at the humanitarian situation in their country and to press for an early release of all those being detained in the camps. I also drew their attention to the HUman Rights report of the Foreign Affairs Committtee which I chair published last month which concluded that ” the FCO’s decision to include Sri Lanka as a “country of concern” in next year’s human rights report is amply justified by recent events in that country, and is to be welcomed. We recommend that, notwithstanding the regrettable vote in the UN Human Rights Council on 27 May, the Government should press for the setting up of an international war crimes inquiry, to investigate allegations of atrocities carried out by both sides in the Sri Lankan civil war. We further recommend that the Government uses such leverage as it has at its disposal to encourage the Sri Lankan government to tackle what the FCO refers to as “the prevalent culture of impunity”.

Here is what we said in full

257. President Rajapakse took office in Sri Lanka in November 2005 in the context of a 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) that was already crumbling and political negotiations on a peace agreement that had gone nowhere. Government and Tamil Tiger militants clashed regularly during 2006 and 2007. By this point the ceasefire agreement was dead in all but name. During 2008 the Government finally declared it dead and launched a massive military offensive against the Tigers, which has now led to what appears to be their complete defeat.

258. On 18 May 2009 the Sri Lankan military reported that the leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had been killed. The head of the Sri Lankan army, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, said the military had defeated the rebels and “liberated the entire country”. The BBC noted that this claim cannot be verified as reporters are barred from the war zone.[383]

259. Aid agencies have expressed concern about an acute humanitarian emergency in northern Sri Lanka as large number of civilians have fled the fighting, while others have remained trapped in the so-called safe zone which has been subject to heavy bombardment. Both sides in the conflict have been accused of human rights abuses, including the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. There have been allegations, which the authorities deny, that the armed forces have used cluster munitions. The LTTE have been accused of using civilians as human shields on a massive scale.

260. Some observers worry that the growing triumphalism of the government is being accompanied by increased intolerance towards independent critics. On 8 January, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickramatunga, was shot dead in Colombo. Prior to his death, he wrote an open letter in which he stated that, if he was assassinated, he expected that it would be by elements from within the state.

261. During the earlier fighting, the Foreign Secretary called for a ceasefire. This call was greeted with hostility by supporters of the Sri Lankan government. On 17 May a large crowd demonstrated outside the British High Commission in Colombo and burnt an effigy of Mr Miliband.

262. In its report, the FCO noted that “allegations of extra-judicial killings, abductions, disappearances and violence and intimidation against the media continue. There has been little progress in the investigation of those incidents. The prevalent culture of impunity is one of the main obstacles to peace in Sri Lanka.”[384] However, Sri Lanka is not one of the “countries of concern” singled out for special attention in the FCO’s report.

263. On 14 May the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that thousands of people remained trapped in a small area along the coast within the conflict zone:

As fighting goes on unabated, civilians are forced to seek protection in hand-dug bunkers, making it even more difficult to fetch scarce drinking water and food. “Our staff are witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe,” said the ICRC’s director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, from the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva today. “Despite high-level assurances, the lack of security on the ground means that our sea operations continue to be stalled, and this is unacceptable,” added Mr Krähenbühl. “No humanitarian organization can help them in the current circumstances. People are left to their own devices.”[385]

264. The following day Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development, commented that he was “utterly appalled” that the ICRC is unable to evacuate war wounded to safety or provide aid to the 50,000 civilians trapped in the conflict zone.[386]

265. On 18 May, the Foreign Secretary along with other EU Foreign Ministers issued a statement stating that they were “appalled by the loss of innocent civilian lives as a result of the conflict” and called on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to take “all necessary steps to prevent further loss of life”.[387]

266. As noted earlier in this Report, on 27 May the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution praising the Sri Lankan government in its military campaign against Tamil Tiger insurgents, and describing the conflict as a domestic matter that did not warrant outside interference. The motion, proposed by the Sri Lankan government, was supported by 29 countries including China, India, Egypt and Cuba. It was opposed by 12 countries including the UK.[388]

267. However, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called for an international war crimes inquiry, saying she believed that both sides might be guilty of war crimes. The UN Secretary-General has been reported to be privately supportive of this approach:

Ban Ki-moon, at a closed-door briefing for Security Council members [on 5 June], called for a credible inquiry to be undertaken with international backing and full support from Sri Lanka’s government. He declined to elaborate on exactly how the inquiry should be done, but he urged an examination of what he said were serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian laws, according to diplomats and U.N. officials who attended.[389]

268. On 10 June Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch told us that “it is very difficult to get a very accurate picture of what is going on”, but that “terrible loss of life and destruction” had taken place. He added:

Sri Lanka should be included as a country of concern, perhaps in next year’s report. The human rights situation is about not just the behaviour of the Sri Lankan Government forces and the Tamil Tigers in the zone of conflict in the north, but the overall situation in the country. Critics of the Government—whether they are in the north or the south—tend to get into trouble. They are targeted in one way or another, and that is a source of real concern.[390]

269. Mr Miliband told us on 16 June that the reason why Sri Lanka was not listed as a “country of concern” in the FCO’s report was the timing of writing the report: “obviously at the height of the fighting in March and April there would have been very serious concern”.[391] He subsequently informed us that it will definitely feature as a country of concern in next year’s report.[392]

270. Mr Miliband stated that the test for Sri Lanka was whether it could live up to the commitments that President Rajapakse had given immediately after the cessation of hostilities: “to find a way of giving an inclusive political role to all the communities in Sri Lanka”. He also noted that there is a massive problem of internally displaced persons (IDPs), with 270,000 IDPs needing to be resettled; and a huge task of demining to be carried out.[393]

271. On 14 July the Government supplied Parliament with its latest assessment of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. It concluded that the situation was stabilising but that there was still a population of almost 284,000 IDPs held in camps. Conditions in the camps were continuing to improve, but the Government remained concerned about high levels of malnutrition, particularly among children, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation facilities. The Government also expressed concern about the lack of freedom of movement of internally displaced people (IDPs).[394]

272. On 19 July the Prime Minister, giving evidence to the Liaison Committee, said that:

I have talked to the President of Sri Lanka on a number of occasions. I have been very concerned about the humanitarian problems that have arisen from the numbers of internally displaced people. We think the number is about 280,000. […] There are high levels of malnutrition, overcrowding and inadequate water and sanitation facilities […] We are concerned about the lack of freedom of movement of the people in the camps, the restrictions that are put on activities. [395]

273. Asked whether it was time that the Sri Lankan Government recognised the rights of the Tamil people to an element of self-determination, the Prime Minister replied:

This is, if I may say, exactly the position that I put to the President, that to have an end of military conflict does not mean that the problem has gone away. It has got to be dealt with politically and it has got to be dealt with by discussion and negotiation and some form of conciliation. That is why we are anxious that Des Browne, who is our envoy to this area, has the chance to talk to all the different groups and that is why we are putting as much pressure on the President as possible that this has got to be a seen as a step towards and a mean by which a political solution can be found.[396]

274. We conclude that the FCO’s decision to include Sri Lanka as a “country of concern” in next year’s human rights report is amply justified by recent events in that country, and is to be welcomed. We recommend that, notwithstanding the regrettable vote in the UN Human Rights Council on 27 May, the Government should press for the setting up of an international war crimes inquiry, to investigate allegations of atrocities carried out by both sides in the Sri Lankan civil war. We further recommend that the Government uses such leverage as it has at its disposal to encourage the Sri Lankan government to tackle what the FCO refers to as “the prevalent culture of impunity”. 

 

16 September 2009 

 

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