UN: Civilians at risk in Sri Lanka

The government denies human rights abuses in the island's ethnic war.

    LTTE fighting and ethnic conflict has killed 3,000 people and driven thousands of people from their homes in recent weeks [GALLO/GETTY]

    As fighting intensifies in northern Sri Lanka, the UN and advocacy groups say there is grave concern for the state of human rights in the war-torn country. 


    A US State Department report issued on March 11 said that in 2007, "The government's respect for human rights continued to decline."


    It then cited "numerous reports" that the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups had "participated in armed attacks against civilians and practiced torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and extortion with impunity."


    Since the 1980s, the conflict between the government and the LTTE, who are fighting for a separate Tamil homeland on the island, has left some 70,000 dead. The fear among many Tamils is that their community is now being targeted by the authorities as part of a 'dirty war' against the LTTE.


    Officials in Colombo, however, counter that those alleging government responsibility for violations are ignoring atrocities committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel group fighting against government forces.


    They have also rejected the US report for throwing "a lifeline to the LTTE", a group classified as 'terrorist' by the US and the European Union.


    Witnessing abductions


    Civilians have been caught in the
    crossfire in Sri Lanka [GALLO/GETTY]

    Kaaviya Sepaja, a housewife living in the bustling market district of Pettah, Colombo that is home to many of the city's Tamil minority, says her husband has been abducted by a group thought to be affiliated with the capital's police force.


    "One evening, in December last year, my uncle and my husband were coming back from visiting my aunt. There was a white van waiting in the road. Then some people got out of the van and grabbed my husband. They forced him into the van and drove off," she told Al Jazeera.


    "I haven’t seen or heard of him since."


    The Civil Monitoring Commission, a rights body that tries to help victims of abductions and disappearances, has documented 210 such cases of abduction and kidnapping in Colombo alone.


    "They come in a white van," Ragunathan Muralitharan, an inspector at the Commission, told Al Jazeera.


    "There are no number plates or proper identification marks. They take one or two family members. If they find the family has money, they exchange them for ransom. If not, they are taken out of Colombo and killed or otherwise go missing."


    Akshana Kumaran, also a resident of Pettah, says the police denied they knew of her husband's wherabouts after he had been abducted by the occupants of a white van.


    "We went to the police station to ask why they had taken him, but they said he wasn't there. We went to another police station and saw the van outside, but the police said he wasn't there either."




    A March 2008 report from the Washington-based advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), claims that since the resumption of fighting on the island in 2006, "hundreds of enforced disappearances" have placed Sri Lanka “among the countries with the highest number of new cases [of disappearances] in the world." 


    The US State Department report backs this up, saying that while in 2007, Tamils constituted only 16 per cent of the population, "the overwhelming majority of victims of human rights violations, such as killings and disappearances, were young male Tamils."


    The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, also recently told the UN Human Rights Council that the number of disappearances and abductions on the island was "alarming" and that "there has yet to be an adequate investigation or public accounting for the vast majority of these cases."


    Those who disappear, the report adds, are "primarily young ethnic Tamil men."


    But government officials dismiss many of the claims of abductions as lacking in evidence. 

    Lakshman Hulugalle, the director of the Sri Lanka's Media Centre for National Security, told Al Jazeera that the government has established committees to look into allegations of human rights abuses.


    "Certain organisations outside have been making statements, but inside the country, no one is making a fuss about the fact that 75-80 per cent of the people who 'disappeared' have later been found, while other incidents turn out to be elopements, personal affairs," he said.


    Investigating abuse


    The Commission of Inquiry, an investigative committee set up by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president in November 2006, is investigating 16 of the most serious rights abuses.


    These include the August 2006 murder of 17 aid workers belonging to the French charity, Action Against Hunger.


    An International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), headed by P. N. Bhagwati, a former Indian Chief Justice, was invited by Rajapaksa to monitor the working of this Commission.


    But the IIGEP resigned en masse in late February after declaring it was unable to carry out its work. Meanwhile, the Commission of Inquiry has yet to prosecute anyone in any of its 16 cases.


    As Bhavani Fonseka of the Colombo based think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Al Jazeera: "There is a growing culture of impunity here, as we haven't had any convictions of serious human rights violators, not for killings or abductions."


    LTTE targeting civilians


    The LTTE was blamed for a bus blast
    which killed two last month [EPA]
    Sunanda Deshapriya of the Sri Lankan press advocacy group, the Free Media Movement, says journalists have also been intimidated when reporting of human rights abuses.


    "These include threats, injuries and killings ... every month there are at least a dozen incidents of intimidation," he said.


    Bu Hulugalle says more should be written about the LTTE's attacks on civilians.


    "These rights groups don't say what has been done to the Tamils or the Muslims or others by the LTTE," he told Al Jazeera.


    "Before our independence day in February, eight school students were killed by an LTTE suicide bomber – two of them were Tamils. There are bombs planted on buses by them, and LTTE suicide bombers on train stations. These abuses are never talked about."


    The US State Department did report that the LTTE "continued to attack civilians and engage in torture and arbitrary arrest and detention," while also engaging in the forced recruitment of children.


    Meanwhile, those waiting for news of their abducted loved ones say they are living in agony.


    "I feel my husband must be still alive and will come back one day," says Sepaja.


    "We have to keep hoping so, don't we?"


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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