Five years after the civil war ended in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan security forces are still committing crimes against humanity - including rape, sexual violence, torture, murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and land grabs - against Tamil civilians in the island's Northern Province, according to a report released today by the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a London-based group with a track record of accurate reporting and analysis of Sri Lankan affairs (of which I am chair).
Until now, international debate about Sri Lanka has focused mainly on what happened during the last months of the war in 2009, when thousands of civilians perished as government forces crushed the last pocket of Tamil Tiger resistance along the northeastern coast. But this new report is the first to claim that the government's actions after the war, and through to the present day, include crimes of comparable gravity.
And these findings come at a crucial moment, just when the UN's Human Rights Council is debating what to do about Sri Lanka's failure to comply with its last year's resolution calling for an "independent and credible investigation". They may increase the chance that the Council will decide to set up such an investigation internationally, as advised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. UK Prime Minister David Cameron also promised to push for an international inquiry during his visit to Sri Lanka last November.
This report makes the legal case for an investigation into post-war violations, using the framework of international criminal law. It puts together a composite picture, highlighting the scale and gravity of the crimes, from previously published reports of specific actions, which it assesses as credible on the basis of corroboration by survivors, attorneys, journalists, and human rights campaigners in 26 interviews.
It has been endorsed, after a thorough review of both its legal analysis and its research methodology, by the Centre for Justice and Accountability, a highly regarded non-profit international human rights organization based in San Francisco, and by a wide range of international legal experts including Juan Méndez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.
As Mr. Méndez says:
"These documented allegations of torture, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, murder, and other inhumane acts against Tamil civilians are troubling in any context and they elicit an affirmative obligation on the State to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible. This report raises the disturbing possibility that they have been committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population, which would make them international crimes that should trigger the jurisdiction of international courts if the Sri Lankan judiciary proves unable or unwilling to prosecute them."
Other experts who have endorsed the report include Yasmin Sooka, a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and one of the three-member panel appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to advise him on accountability issues in Sri Lanka; Mr Méndez's predecessor Manfred Nowak; and William Schabas, a leading scholar on international criminal and human rights law now based at Middlesex University in London.
The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice is releasing the report now in the hope of influencing the UN Human Rights Council's decision this month - since it shows how badly an official international Commission of Inquiry into crimes in Sri Lanka is needed - but also with the longer-term objective of changing the way Sri Lanka is discussed in the international community. Crimes against humanity did not just take place during the final stages of the war in 2009: there is strong evidence that they have continued ever since, and are still being committed now.
Some of the stories in the report are truly horrible. It documents 20 incidents involving rape, and two further ones involving sexual assault, 12 incidents involving torture, eight others involving severe violence, nine of arbitrary arrest, four involving murder, and two incidents disappearance. These are cases where it was possible to obtain and corroborate detailed evidence. In all probability they are only the tip of an iceberg of brutal treatment to which the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka has been subjected.
In all cases the perpetrators were members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces or the Police, and the victims were Tamils from the Northern Province. These incidents have all been reported before, but this new report links them together, showing that they form part of a systemic attack on the civilian population of the Northern Province by members of the Sri Lankan security forces.
Here are a few examples:
- In 2013, a Tamil woman from the Northern Province was picked up at home by five or six men and taken into a white van. She was blindfolded and taken to an unknown destination. She was tortured. The first night, she was gang-raped by men in military uniforms. They continued raping her the following morning. She was tortured including by cigarette burns all over her body and her genitals.
- On 6 February 2013, in Jaffna, a distributor of a Tamil daily newspaper, Thinakkural, was assaulted with metal rods at Point Pedro. The attackers burned his motor bicycle and the newspapers. As a result of his serious injuries, he was rushed to the Jaffna Base hospital.
- In January 2013, in Kilinochchi, officers from the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID searched the office of a member of parliament belonging to the Tamil National Alliance twice, and claimed to have found explosives, pornographic material and condoms. The TID officers arrived at the MP's office alongside journalists, who took pictures of the TNA MP's private secretary and assistant posing with the pornographic material and explosives purportedly found at the office. These images appeared in leaflets that were distributed in and around Kilinochchi town shortly thereafter. The TID officers detained the MP's private secretary and assistant. The two were later transferred to Boosa detention camp, under an administrative detention order issued under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They challenged their detention in a fundamental rights application to the Supreme Court. They were later released in November 2013. No charge was filed against them at any point, nor was the TNA MP even questioned regarding the alleged discovery of explosives at his office.
- On 26 November 2010, the Deputy Director of Education of Jaffna District, Markandu Sivalingam, was shot dead by armed men in Urumpiai, Jaffna. He had reportedly refused to instruct schools in his educational zone to sing the national anthem in the Sinhala language.
Many more examples are given in the report, which you can download here.