U.S. faults Sri Lanka’s slow progress arresting rights violations
Impunity for crimes committed during and following the armed conflict between the government security forces and Tamil Tigers continued, particularly in cases of killings, torture, sexual violence, corruption, and other human rights abuses, says the United States Department of State-released Annual Human Rights Report for 2016.
The report was released Friday March 3 at the State Department in Washington. Trump administration’s top diplomat secretary of state Rex Tillerson was conspicuously absent during the presentation of the report, a clear departure from earlier practice.
The report continued to say that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government made incremental progress on addressing impunity for violations of human rights.
Washington’s perennial allegation that the armed forces personnel who allegedly committed war crimes were shielded by the Sri Lankan administration, it refers in one place “The government took some steps to arrest and detain a limited number of military, police, and other officials implicated in old and new cases, including the killing of parliamentarians and the abductions and suspected killings of journalists and private citizens.
The global human rights report covering 190 countries was prepared by the former Obama administration Foreign Service officials in worldwide American diplomatic missions and whetted by Washington state department officials.
The Trump administration into its six weeks, at Washington, state Department’s hundred-odd senior positions are still vacant including the number two position of deputy secretary of state.
Following are the salient observations of state department’s human rights assessment on Sri Lanka.
The issue of disappearances the report states “The issue of involuntary disappearances during the war remained unresolved and in a July report, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) stated, “enforced disappearances have been used in a massive and systematic way in Sri Lanka for many decades to suppress political dissent, counterterrorist activities, or in the internal armed conflict.” WGEID noted the number of outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances at 5,750.”
On Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: In May the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment and the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers visited the country and delivered preliminary observations and recommendations. They concluded that torture remained a common practice in both criminal and national security cases and that the criminal justice system facilitated the use of torture to extract confessions to build cases. They stated that police investigators used torture and ill treatment routinely.
In July the government established a committee to visit, examine, and take preventive measures on allegations of torture.
The International Truth and Justice Project reported seven cases of torture and/or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by security forces. All of the reported victims were men of Tamil origin.
Role of Police and Security Apparatus: Impunity for conflict era abuses also persisted. Prosecutions for abuses committed by the security forces and police are rare, as are prosecutions for government corruption and malfeasance. There is no internal mechanism to investigate security force abuses and the only recourse is filing a case with the Supreme Court. The HRCSL and courts can investigate such abuses, but civil society organizations widely assert impunity is embedded in the system and the courts are reluctant to take action against security forces.
Arbitrary Arrests: According to human rights groups, the police and its Criminal Investigation and Terrorism Investigation Departments unlawfully detained people in police stations, army camps, and informal detention facilities on allegations of involvement in terrorism-related activities, without bringing charges or arraigning detainees within the timeframe required by law. Detainees were sometimes held incommunicado and lawyers had to apply for permission to meet clients, with police frequently present at such meetings. In some cases, unlawful detentions included interrogations involving mistreatment or torture. There were reports that authorities released detainees with a warning not to reveal information about their arrest or detention, under the threats of rearrests or death.
Political Prisoners and detainees: there were reports of at least 167 political prisoners; the government did not acknowledge any prisoners as political prisoners. The government permitted access to prisoners on a regular basis by the HRCSL and magistrates and gave the ICRC a limited mandate to monitor prison conditions. Authorities granted only irregular access to those providing local legal counsel, however, and conversations with clients frequently took place in the presence of police or military personnel.
Property Restitution: The military seized significant amounts of land during the war to create security buffer zones around military bases and other high value targets, known as high security zones (HSZs). According to the 1950 Land Acquisition Act, the government may acquire private property for a “public purpose,” but the law requires posting acquisition notices publicly and providing proper compensation to owners. The former government frequently posted acquisition notices for HSZ land that were inaccessible to property owners, many of whom initiated court cases, including fundamental rights cases before the Supreme Court, to challenge these acquisitions. According to the acquisition notices, most of the land acquired was for use as army camps and bases, but among the purposes listed on certain notices were the establishment of a hotel, a factory, and a farm. Throughout the year, many lawsuits, including a Supreme Court fundamental rights case and numerous writ applications filed with High Courts, remained stalled. Although there was no legal framework for HSZs following the lapse of emergency regulations in 2011, they still existed and remained off limits to civilians.
The previous government began the process of returning government occupied land to its original owners after the war ended in 2009 but the process moved slowly until the 2015 change in administration. Since January 2015, the government returned approximately 4,500 acres across several districts, including 1,055 acres near the Trincomalee Naval Base and 702 acres in the Jaffna HSZ. With the amount of land remaining to be returned to civilian owners in dispute, and with some Tamil civil society organizations arguing that it remained at approximately 13,000 acres, many of those affected by the HSZs complained that the pace at which the government demilitarized land was too slow and that the military held lands it viewed as economically valuable.
Internally Displaced Persons: The country’s long civil war that ended in 2009 caused widespread, prolonged displacement, including forced displacement by the government and LTTE, particularly of Tamils. According to the government’s Ministry of Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Hindu Religious Affairs, and Prison Reforms, 43,607 citizens remained IDPs as of August 31. The large majority resided in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Puttalam, and Trincomalee districts in the north and east. While all IDPs had full freedom of movement, most were unable to return home due to uncleared land mines; restrictions designating their home areas as part of HSZs or exclusive economic zones; lack of work opportunities; inability to access basic public services, including acquiring documents verifying land ownership; and lack of government resolution of competing land claims and other war related destruction. The government did not provide protection and assistance to IDPs in welfare camps.
The government promoted the return and resettlement of IDPs by returning military seized land and making state land available for landless IDPs. In August the government approved a national policy on durable solutions for conflict affected displacement to provide a rights based set of principles and standards to guide all stakeholders working with IDPs and displaced populations, in accordance with law and policy and international law and humanitarian standards.
The military and other government agencies supported the resettlement of IDPs by constructing houses, schools, toilets, and providing other social services on recently released lands.
- Asian Tribune -