The Sunday Leader

US Issues Damning Report On Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Abuse

Many civilians were wounded in the government’s  humanitarian operations during the final stages of the war

Many civilians were wounded in the government’s humanitarian operations during the final stages of the war

By Munza Mushtaq

Sri Lanka’s controversial human rights record was dealt yet another blow last week with the United States jumping on to the bandwagon by issuing a 70 page report which detailed the alleged abuses carried out by both the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE, during the last leg of the quarter century long ethnic conflict in the island.

The report by the US Department of State to the Congress comes hot on the heels of a negative European Commission report issued on Monday centering on the country’s alleged human rights violations which may even lead to Sri Lanka losing the GSP+ scheme.

The US report released on October 22, documented by the State Department’s Office of War Crimes Issues, gives detailed summaries of various forms of human rights violations including mass killings and abductions by both the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE while informally incriminating the security forces as the main culprits behind most of the shelling incidents to which a large number of civilians fell victim.

The unclassified report titled, Report To Congress On Incidents During The Recent Conflict In Sri Lanka covers the months of January, February, March, April and May when the conflict final came to a close with the killing of LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
International legal

The report’s executive summary while noting that the US recognised a state’s inherent right to defend itself from armed attacks, including those by non-state actors such as terrorist groups emphasised on the need for states and non-state actors to comply with international legal obligations.

“This report compiles alleged incidents that transpired in the final stages of the war, which may constitute violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) or crimes against humanity and related harms. The report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described herein actually constitute violations of IHL crimes against humanity or other violations of international law. Nor does it reach conclusions concerning whether the alleged incidents detailed herein actually occurred,” the report said.

According to the State Department, it had not received casualty estimates covering the entire reporting period from January to May 2009. However, one organisation, which did not differentiate between civilians and LTTE cadres, recorded 6,710 people killed and 15,102 people injured between January 20 to April 20 but it was highlighted that the actual number of casualties may have been much higher.

A 48-hour ceasefire

“The Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) announced that it would observe a 48-hour ceasefire on two occasions. The stated aim of these was to allow civilians to move into areas in which they would not be subject to shelling. Incident reports suggest, however, that the GSL may have begun shelling before the end of the second 48-hour ceasefire. Reports also indicated that the LTTE forcibly prevented the escape of IDPs and used them as ―human shields,” the report claimed.

In one incident reported in January, quoting Puthukudiyiruppu hospital staff, 40 civilians were killed and 188 seriously injured by shelling in the villages of Thevipuram, Udayarkattu, and Moonkilaru, while in another incident in the same month, 102 people were killed and 274 people were injured in a shelling incident in Puthukudiyiruppu

On February 18, an organisation’s source in Ampalavanpokkanai reported that at 2 a.m. the Sri Lanka Army fired more than 200 shells, killing 20 persons, most of whom were children.

Continuous SLA shelling

On February 21 – an organisation’s local sources reported severe, continuous SLA shelling in the Mullivaikkal, Pokkanai, and Mattalan areas (declared safe zones by the government), killing 19 civilians. Other sources reported that 50 civilians were killed and 130 fatally injured due to heavy artillery while on March 8 – an organisation’s source in Mullaittivu reported shelling that killed over 150 people.

On March 10 – a media outlet broadcast footage showing army shelling of LTTE positions near Puthukudiyiruppu, despite GSL pledges that it would no longer use heavy artillery, tanks or aerial bombing.
On May 4 – an organisation’s source in the No Fire Zone (NFZ) reported that the Sri Lanka Army was engaged in daily shelling and bombing of the NFZ, killing an estimated minimum of 100 people per day.

“May 9-10 – A local source in the NFZ reported that a congested civilian area was under heavy shell attack with many houses and vehicles burning. Many civilians’ temporary tarpaulin houses were struck by shells, and many hundreds of civilians were killed.

An estimated 1,000 killed

A local source for an organisation also reported heavy shelling with an estimated 1,000 killed and another estimated 1,000 injured. The US Embassy in Colombo also reported that heavy shelling occurred in the NFZ, killing at least 300 civilians.

A source in the NFZ reported to the BBC that the bodies of 378 people had been registered at the hospital that day and 1,122 others had been injured. More bodies were on the beaches and along road sides. The source said that heavy arms appeared to have been fired from government-controlled territory into a mainly civilian area under LTTE control,” the report claimed.
A source said that a total of 430 ethnic Tamil civilians, including 106 children, were either brought to the hospital for burial or died at the facility after the attacks.

May 12 – According to HRW, an eyewitness stated that when he and several hundred others tried to leave LTTE-controlled areas, LTTE fighters opened fire on the first row of people. They shot at least 15 people; children were among those shot.

“A number of sources alleged that the GSL committed unlawful killings,” the report says. “There is video footage showing purported evidence of GSL soldiers killing captive Tamils in January. Separately, multiple reports alleged that in the final few days of fighting, between May 14 and May 18, senior LTTE leaders contacted international representatives via satellite phone in an effort to broker a surrender but were killed after they allegedly reached a surrender agreement with the Sri Lankan government.”

In early February young men who managed to reach the government-established safe zones with their families were being picked up by the military; their bodies were found several days later.

May 14-18 – all LTTE persons remaining in the NFZ were allegedly massacred by the military.

A media outlet reported on July 18 that at a celebratory event in Ambalangoda Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka stated that the military had to overlook the traditional rules of war and even kill LTTE rebels who came to surrender carrying white flags during the war against the LTTE. It was also alleged that at night young girls were taken out from the IDP camps in Vavuniya and never returned. “Due to death threats, most of these events were never reported to the camp authorities,” the report says.

In May, numerous organisations, including the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, reported that children were being abducted from IDP camps and from Vavuniya by government-supported paramilitary groups that enjoy tacit support from the government.

With regard to food and medicine scarcity in the north during the last few months, an organisation’s local source in the Wanni reported that a hospital in the area has said that 11 patients died due to the food shortage in February, while in early March 13  deaths due to starvation in Mullaitivu were reported.

“A witness released from an IDP camp in September reported that in the final weeks of the conflict, doctors in the Mullivaikkal hospital had to operate with butchers’ knives and watered-down anaesthetics due to the shortage of medical supplies,” the report says. “With replacement blood running out, staff filtered what they could from the patients through a cloth before feeding it back into their veins.”

The report says that an aid worker in the NFZ ―literally begged for medicines to treat injuries, as medical workers were forced to operate on severe injuries without anaesthetics. Sources at the US Embassy in Colombo reported that the GSL did not permit anaesthetics to be shipped into the NFZ due to fears that they would be used to aid wounded LTTE cadres instead of civilians.

The 70-page report was compiled from intelligence reports from the US Embassy in Colombo, text messages, photographs from inside the war zone, foreign government sources and reports from human rights and media organisations.

Government slams report …

The Foreign Ministry in Colombo in response said that the report appeared to be  unsubstantiated and devoid of corroborative evidence.
“There is a track record of vested interests endeavouring to bring the Government of Sri Lanka into disrepute, through fabricated allegations and concocted stories.  Thereby these interests hope to fan, once again, the flames of secessionism and to undo the concerted efforts of the government and people of Sri Lanka, for rehabilitation and national reconciliation. The people of Sri Lanka therefore have every reason to be concerned that this report to the US Congress may be abused for a similar end,” the Foreign Ministry added.

HR group calls for international inquiry
As a reaction to the report, the New York based Human Rights Watch has highlighted the need for an independent international investigation into the alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka.
“The US State Department report should dispel any doubts that serious abuses were committed during the conflict’s final months,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Given Sri Lanka’s complete failure to investigate possible war crimes, the only hope for justice is an independent, international investigation,” he added.

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