|Sri Lanka: Letter to Executive Director, Freedom House|
|Wednesday, 11 June 2008|
The Executive Director
10th June 2008
I write with reference to your recent report on Sri Lanka. Though most of it was balanced, and made clear the difficulties the government has in dealing with a forceful terrorist group, there were a few errors of face that should be corrected, whilst some nuances could be adjusted to better represent the actual situation.
In the tenth paragraph you refer to the victory of the government in the Colombo municipal election. It was actually in municipal and other local government elections all over the country, whereas the government slate actually lost in Colombo. Also, it seems unfair to talk of Rajapakse ‘engineering his election as president of the party’, since this was supported by the whole party, and was seen as a natural step following his election as President.
In that same paragraph you claim that ‘UNP members were urged by the ruling party to defect and join the government’. You should be aware that the crossover only occurred after the Deputy Leader of the UNP had been stripped of his post by the Leader, who holds that office for life according to the UNP constitution which he introduced, and appoints all other officials. The Deputy Leader was accompanied when he crossed over by many senior former cabinet colleagues, including both those who had led negotiations with the LTTE during the period of the previous UNP government.
In the next paragraph you say that ‘political power became centralized around the presidency and Parliament played a secondary role’. This is inevitable given our constitution though, because of the narrow parliamentary majority of the government, Parliament is much more important than it was for most of the period since the new constitution was brought in. You should also perhaps mention the reason for the constitutional council not being reconstituted, namely the failure of minor parties to agree on their nominee.
In the next paragraph, when you talk of talks being postponed, you should rather mention that in both instances the LTTE refused to participate; in June they actually traveled to Oslo, and then failed to appear, to the embarrassment of the Norwegian hosts.
In the fourteenth paragraph you do not mention that the air strikes following the attack on the army commander stopped promptly as the government waited to resume peace talks. Sustained fighting started only after two massive attacks by the LTTE in August 2006, in the East and the North respectively. These were repulsed with difficulty, and it was then only that the government took the decision that its right of defence under the CFA was not confined merely to holding off an attack and then waiting passively for the next one, but had to extend to preventing such attacks from the positions of advantage built up by the LTTE during the Ceasefire.
In the next paragraph you refer to ‘Largely indiscriminate aerial shelling by the Sri Lankan military in Tiger-controlled territory including attacks on a school and a camp for internally displaced persons’. This is nonsense. There were hardly any instances of civilian deaths during air strikes that year, or since. The incident of the school you refer to was when a training camp was attacked, as the aerial pictures of girls in military fatigues proved. The original assertion that the place was an orphanage was withdrawn when it was shown that the orphanage had been transferred. The survivors, who are cared for by the Sri Lankan government, have since testified about what they had been forced to do – the fact that they were conscripts is reason for grief, but the government aerial attack was on a legitimate military target.
The reference to an attack on a camp adverts to the only incident during the operations to clear the East in which there was loss of civilian life. This was not due to an aerial attack but, while the army immediately took responsibility for the incident, it pointed out that mortar locating radar had prompted the attack. Even the Human Rights Watch report, that first raised the canard of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, granted that ‘The LTTE had sentries in the area of the camp, ostensibly to monitor the movement of displaced persons’. It quoted a man in the camp saying ‘In the daytime, the LTTE didn’t carry weapons….When the LTTE has heavy weapons, they don’t show them because they’re afraid someone will inform.’ The report also noted the many bunkers in the school grounds though it claimed that the displaced persons dug bunkers so as to ‘protect their families from government shelling’. In short, this seems a classic instance of the LTTE using civilians as human shields though, unlike in other instances where government combats terror, on this occasion the Sri Lankan government did not know that it was civilians who would suffer from its radar directed attack.
In the next paragraph you fail to note that the SLMM had to suspend naval monitoring after the LTTE attacked a vessel which clearly had SLMM monitors aboard, and that the threats to the monitors – and to the ICRC, which took one food ship up to Jaffna at government request, but then had to stop this – came from the LTTE.
Then, in the 24th paragraph, you talk of ‘the introduction of anti - conversion legislation in July 2004’. The term is misleading since, though this was proposed by some politicians not attached to the ruling party, both President Kumaratunga and President Rajapakse have prevented this going through.
In the 28th paragraph you talk of the current Chief Justice having ‘narrowed the scope of human rights legislation’ and, while some of the judgments he has spearheaded suggest this, in others he has limited the scope of government security activity on the grounds that it violates human rights. Your claim of questionable rulings in favour of the government requires explication, and the resignation was not of two Supreme Court judges but of such judges who were members of the Judicial Service Commission.
When you talk in the next paragraph of the government transferring the police to the Ministry of Defence, the police have been under that Ministry since 1971, the exception being after 2002 when the new UNP government created a separate Ministry to handle what were termed internal affairs. When that Ministry was abolished, naturally the Police reverted to the Ministry of Defence. You will also grant that, while the powers available now under Prevention of Terrorism Regulations may seem excessive, similar powers are available to many jurisdictions suffering less acutely from terrorism than Sri Lanka does. In this context, the recent removal by the Supreme Court of roadblocks has been followed by a new spate of bombs, which at the very least suggests that measures courts may find abhorrent can sometimes save lives.
In the 31st paragraph you ought I think to have mentioned that, though the LTTE controls some territory, it is the government that pays for services in those areas, appoints administrators, and supplies relief to the displaced.
The next paragraph talks of the Karuna faction being reportedly responsible for abductions, and seems to assert the complicity of security forces. There have only been allegations about this last, with no evidence supplied to government requests for such so that investigations can proceed. In addition, the Karuna faction did release 1800 cadres when it split from the LTTE in 2004, and they say it was only because of neglect and threats from the LTTE that they took some of them back. Even if you do not want to believe the Karuna faction claim entirely, it is a fact that there has never been any allegation that under age children were used in combat by them after they split from the LTTE, as opposed to the continuing if less flagrant use of them by the LTTE up to now.
In the next paragraph you claim the government targeted members of pro-LTTE political factions such as the MP who was killed in December 2005. That is an outrageous claim – the government in fact arrested soldiers who had been in the vicinity, though they had to be released after an identity parade. Subsequently, though this information was never given direct to the investigation, through the IPU the government was informed that members of two separate Tamil militant groups were responsible. The policeman in charge of the case, a relation of the murdered MP, did not think the information sufficient to follow up. This year, when another Tamil MP was killed in Colombo, there were immediate allegations that the government was responsible. These died down when it transpired that the assassin had been arrested, and turned out to be a member of the LTTE.
In the penultimate paragraph, the figures are all wrong, and you should at least have consulted recent UNHCR material. There are only 26,000 tsunami displaced as opposed to the 350,000 you assert. More than the 250,000 you cite were displaced during the 2006/2007 fighting, but only 188,000 of them have not gone back to their places of origin. Certainly the 312,000 who had been displaced earlier should have been assisted more effectively, but action has begun in this respect, and been commended by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of IDPs who visited last December.
Finally, your claim that an army attack that hit an IDP camp in November (2006) killed at least 50 people is a repetition of a point I have dealt with above, and is grossly unfair in a context in which it is the only incident, during the course of the military operations to retake the east, in which there were even allegations of civilian casualties. Again, your generalization about rape in the final paragraph ignores the fact that there were no allegations even of rape made against the army in the course of operations.
I hope very much that you will take the above points into account, and issue a revised version of your report. Though I realize you try to be fair, such reports are grist to the mill of the LTTE, which then claims justification for its terrorism. When this wins it additional support, as when Mrs Clinton in the course of her campaign, for which the LTTE had ensured heavy funding, suggested that this type of terrorism was somehow justifiable, it makes it much more difficult for democratically elected governments to deal with such problems expeditiously whilst ensuring freedom and pluralistic democracy.
Prof Rajiva Wijesina
|Last Updated ( Monday, 02 February 2009 )|
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