The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Philip Alston, today called on the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to take urgent measures to end political killings and to strengthen protection for human rights as conflict looked set to spiral out of control.
‘The current impasse in negotiations is no excuse for either side not taking immediate steps to end political killings and protect human rights,” he said. “The dangerous escalation of the conflict in recent days is a direct consequence of killings being allowed to run unchecked.”
The Special Rapporteur has recently released the final report of his fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka in December 2005. His report draws on visits and interviews undertaken in Ampara, Batticaloa, Colombo and Kilinochchi with Government officials, representatives of the LTTE, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), representatives of the diplomatic community, witnesses of extrajudicial killings and relatives of those killed, representatives of various political parties, and members of Sri Lankan civil society.
The Special Rapporteur expressed deep concern about the widespread killings and violence that has continued to spiral since his visit, culminating in a suicide bomb attack on the army chief in Colombo and retaliatory military strikes on 25 April. These included the assassination of Tamil National Alliance MP Joseph Parajasingham while attending church on Christmas Eve 2005; the apparent extra-judicial execution by security forces of five students in Trincomalee on 2 January; and the killing of a prominent Tamil community leader in Trincomalee, Mr J Vigneswaran, on 7 April. The victims also include members of the Sinhalese and Muslim communities, including transport workers, business people and government officials. During the same period, there have been numerous claymore mine and other attacks on police and security forces.
Alston observed that “Every such killing represents a major setback to the peace process, and every retaliatory death plays into the hands of those whose interests do not lie in the restoration of peace. In responding to the situation, the Government must give primacy to protecting civilian lives.”
The Special Rapporteur noted the difficulties in attributing responsibility for many attacks in the absence of effective investigation by Sri Lanka’s law enforcement bodies or the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission that oversees the ceasefire. Both parties appear to be exploiting the ambiguities presented by the ceasefire agreement and the weakness of its monitoring mission to consolidate and advance their position. He noted also that the national Human Rights Commission currently had its hands tied due to the Government’s failure to appoint new members through the Constitutional Council.
The Special Rapporteur found the LTTE’s denials of responsibility for many attacks unconvincing, and warned that itsapparent use of surrogate groups to attack the security forces represented a dangerous escalation of the conflict. He also noted that the LTTE’s characterization of its political opponents within the Tamil community as paramilitaries is a gross oversimplification of a complex situation.
At the same time, the Special Rapporteur reported a dangerous indifference on the part of the Government to other armed elements responsible for attacks, including the Karuna group. While he found no clear evidence of official collusion during his visit, he reported strong circumstancial evidence of at least informal cooperation between Government forces and these factions.
The Special Rapporteur noted the Government had failed to effectively investigate most political killings. Few suspects are pursued or identified, let alone apprehended. In many cases, the police act as if the ceasefire agreement itself prevented them from fulfilling their law enforcement functions. Even where arrests have been made, witnesses face threats and prosecutions rarely proceed. The Special Rapporteur expressed special concern about serious threats made in recent weeks to Dr Manohoran, the father of one of five students killed in Trincomalee on 2 January who had given eyewitness testimony, and urged the authorities to expedite this case while ensuring full protection to the witnesses and families. He was also disturbed by the re-emergence of reports of deaths in custody and disappearances at the hands of the security forces, problems that have wracked Sri Lanka in the past.
At the same time, the Special Rapporteur noted that the SLMM has taken an overly narrow view of its mandate as excluding investigation, making it appear simply as a recording agency. While the SLMM has made an invaluable contribution over the past four years, the time has come to reinforce its work. He urged the parties to accord the SLMM a stronger and better-equipped role to enable it to carry out more in-depth monitoring of killings and to publicly report its findings of the facts in different cases. This would build public confidence and help quell the claims, counter-claims and rumours that were only fuelling the cycle of retaliation and conflict.
Longer term, the Special Rapporteur said a broader human rights framework and more comprehensive international monitoring mechanism is needed to address the many human rights issues that went beyond the ceasefire. He commended to the parties the options presented in this regard by their human rights advisor, Mr Ian Martin.
In his report, the Special Rapporteur also stressed the need for reforms to the criminal justice system as a whole to improve law enforcement, prevent problems of torture and deaths in custody, and better safeguard the human rights of all Sri Lankans.
Professor Alston is an independent expert appointed by the Commission on Human Rights to investigate these issues worldwide. He was invited by the Government of Sri Lanka to make a fact finding visit to the country.