AIUSA testimony - Sri Lanka

AIUSA testimony - Sri Lanka

By James McDonald

(Date: Nov 1995)

Below is the testimony which I delivered on behalf of Amnesty International USA at the Congressional hearing on Sri Lanka on November 14.


Sri Lanka Coordinator, Amnesty International USA
Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
House Committee on International Relations
US House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.
November 14, 1995

Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Amnesty International USA, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the current situation in Sri Lanka. Amnesty International has reported on its human rights concerns in Sri Lanka for at least the past 20 years. Over the last decade, we have witnessed massive numbers of human rights violations in connection with armed conflicts on the island, including the present conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers). These violations include arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions and "disappearances" committed by the Sri Lankan security forces. The armed opposition groups have themselves also been guilty of human rights abuses such as the killing of prisoners, hostage-taking and torture. In recent years, the number of violations committed by the government forces has declined dramatically due to steps taken by the former and current Sri Lankan governments, and we have welcomed their efforts. However, in general, with respect to past violations committed by the government forces, a climate of impunity has prevailed, with very few members of the security forces being held accountable.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called upon the Sri Lankan government to end this climate of impunity by investigating past violations and prosecuting those found responsible. Currently, commissions established by the Sri Lankan government are investigating reports of gross human rights violations since 1988, but impunity remains one of our major concerns. We have also recommended that the Sri Lankan government reform the Sri Lankan security legislation so that such violations cannot recur. With respect to the LTTE, we have repeatedly called upon them to end their human rights abuses and attacks on innocent civilians and to observe the laws of war as embodied in the Geneva Conventions, which the Tigers had pledged to abide by in 1988. In connection with the latest round of fighting, we have called upon both the government and the Tigers to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and others not taking an active part in combat. Whatever the outcome of the current fighting, we believe that true peace will not be obtainable unless justice is done by addressing past violations and ensuring that safeguards are in place to prevent future ones.


In the general election in August 1994, the People's Alliance, a coalition of parties headed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, won a majority of seats. In November of that year, Sri Lanka's newly elected President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, appointed three commissions of inquiry to investigate the fate of thousands of people who "disappeared" in Sri Lanka since January 1, 1988. The three presidential commissions, each assigned a specific geographical area of the country, began investigations in mid- January of this year. Amnesty International welcomed the establishment of the commissions and urged that their mandate and terms of reference should be in accordance with relevant United Nations principles. In a report issued in April of this year, we made a number of recommendations with regard to the new commissions, including that they be allocated the necessary resources required for an effective examination of the more than 30,000 cases brought before them.

The new government took a number of other important steps in the field of human rights, including introducing legislation to give effect to the UN Convention Against Torture (to which the former UNP government had earlier acceded), and ordering a review of the cases of all detainees held under the Emergency Regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act. While welcoming these steps, Amnesty International has appealed to the Sri Lankan government to bring its security legislation, including specifically the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, fully in line with international human rights standards. We also continue to call for the repeal of the Indemnity Act. The issue of Sri Lanka's security legislation was recently examined by the UN Human Rights Committee when it reviewed Sri Lanka's latest report to it under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee urged Sri Lanka to bring its security laws in line with the Covenant.

Shortly after coming to power, the new Sri Lankan government initiated a dialogue with the Tamil Tigers and on January 8, 1995, a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed between the two parties. Representatives of the government and the Tigers met on four occasions in Jaffna but shortly after the fourth meeting, on April 19, the Tigers called an end to the truce and fighting between the two sides resumed. Since the resumption of hostilities, Amnesty International has received reports of dozens of extrajudicial executions and "disappearances" carried out by the Sri Lankan security forces in the northeast and Colombo, the capital. There have also been reports of arbitrary arrests of hundreds of Tamil people under the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It is important to note that the number of recent reported violations is not on the same scale as in the past. Nonetheless, we are still calling upon the Sri Lankan authorities to take immediate action to investigate all reports of human rights violations and bring those responsible to justice in order to send a clear message to the security forces that no human rights violations, whatever the scale, will be tolerated.

In this connection, special note should be made of recent government action to stop death squad activities in and around Colombo. Over this past summer, 31 mutilated bodies were discovered in lakes and rivers in the vicinity of the capital; some of the victims were later identified as Tamils who had been abducted and subsequently "disappeared." On June 29, President Kumaratunga ordered an investigation into the discovery of, at the time, 11 bodies found in one lake. At the end of August, the police announced the arrests of 18 members of the security forces and seven civilian informants suspected of being responsible for the "disappearance," torture and killing of at least 21 people. 10 of those arrested are members of the Special Task Force, an elite police commando unit. President Kumaratunga also reportedly suspended the head of the Task Force. Amnesty publicly welcomed the arrests and suspension and has urged the government to ensure that the investigations proceed smoothly and that those responsible for these crimes be promptly brought to justice.

With respect to human rights abuses committed by the Tamil Tigers, Amnesty International has repeatedly raised its concerns about reports of gross abuses of human rights with the leadership of the Tigers conveyed through Tiger representatives outside Sri Lanka. Our concerns have included the deliberate killing of hundreds of non-combatant Muslim and Sinhalese civilians. Members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are reported to have deliberately killed at least 90 civilians in four separate attacks around October 24. Attacks on Padaviya in Anuradhapura District, Boatta in Polonnaruwa District and Mangalagama in Amparai District, left 19, 36 and 16 civilians dead, nearly all Sinhalese. In another attack on 22 October in the village of Kotiyagala, Moneragala District, 19 Sinhalese were reportedly killed. According to survivors at Boatta, Polonnaruwa District, members of the LTTE came in the night and entered houses, killing people in their sleep. Among those killed are reported to be 28 adults and eight children, among them 10 Tamils. One family of a home guard (see below) was reportedly specifically targeted and killed although the home guard himself was not present.

At Kotiyagala, survivors reportedly gave evidence to journalists that approximately 50 LTTE members entered the village around 5.30 PM. They hacked to death several people as they were returning from the field. Others were shot dead while in the field or in the village. Among the victims are six men, four women and ten children.

On the basis of the evidence available, all the victims appear to have been civilians. Although home guards (villagers provided with arms by the security forces to defend the villages against LTTE attacks) were present in the villages, none of them was reportedly killed.

Additional concerns include the arbitrary killing of civilians in bomb attacks on public buses and trains, the torture and killings of prisoners, and abductions for ransom. Amnesty International has also expressed concern about reports of execution-style killings of prisoners accused of being traitors and those held for committing crimes in line with our organization's policy of total opposition to the death penalty in any form. In cases where we learned of the imposition of death sentences, we have appealed for their commutation.

We have also appealed for an immediate halt to incommunicado detention and have asked to be informed of the fate or whereabouts of individual prisoners held by the Tigers, some of whom have reportedly been tortured and killed. They include the student and writer Thiagarajah Selvanithy and the dramatist Thillainathan, who were both arrested on August 30, 1991. There has been no information about the fate of these two prisoners of conscience since their arrest. If they are still alive, we call upon the Tigers to release both of them immediately and unconditionally. If they have died in detention, we ask that that be promptly disclosed.

We have also continually urged that all people held in custody by the Tigers, including members of the Tamil community seized on suspicion of being sympathetic to other Tamil armed groups or organizations, be seen promptly and regularly by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In relation to members of the Sri Lankan security forces, we have appealed for guarantees for their safety and for them to be seen promptly and regularly by representatives of the ICRC.

Other potential concerns that Amnesty International is currently investigating include reports of abuses in the context of the forcible recruitment of children by the Tigers.

In the context of the current fighting, Amnesty International has repeatedly called on both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and others taking no active part in the hostilities. At the very least, safeguards should be introduced to avoid deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians and those persons who, having once taken an active part, are no longer involved in fighting because of sickness, wounds, detention or any other cause. We have also urged both parties to ensure that detainees are not subjected to torture -- including rape -- or ill-treatment, and that the sick, the wounded and those who are detained or who surrender are protected from all acts of reprisal and violence -- including hostage-taking.

Although Amnesty International does not address the general issue of military tactics, our appeal for such protections is based on concerns for the life and safety of civilians, prisoners and the wounded in view of widespread human rights abuses reported in the context of previous offensives. In order to prevent such abuses, we have also called on both parties to at least give unimpeded access to all areas under their control, including all places of detention, to fact-finding and other missions dispatched by humanitarian and intergovernmental organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


It is important to know some of Sri Lanka's recent history to better understand how the country arrived at its current situation. First, a definition: a "disappearance" is not someone who has simply left home and cannot be located. Amnesty International uses the term "disappearance" only for those people who have been arrested by the government forces or their agents and whom the government claims are not now in their custody. The grim reality is that "disappearances" and political killings are the biggest threat to human rights that the world faces today.

Sri Lanka, the number of people who have "disappeared" or been extrajudicially executed over the last 15 years runs to the tens of thousands. In January 1992, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported that it had recorded about 12,000 well-documented cases of "disappearance" in Sri Lanka. It said at the time that this was by far the highest number ever recorded by the Working Group for any single country.

"Disappearances" and extrajudicial executions have taken place in Sri Lanka in two different political contexts: the northeast and the south. In the northeastern part of the country, government forces are fighting the Tamil Tigers in a civil war which has escalated since 1983. The Tigers are fighting for a separate Tamil state, known as Eelam. The number of people in the northeast who have "disappeared" or been extrajudicially executed runs into the thousands. From 1984 to mid-1987, Amnesty International recorded over 680 "disappearances" in the northeast. From mid-1987 to March 1990, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (known as the IPKF) was responsible for security in the northeast under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. During this period, we recorded 43 "disappearances" there for which the IPKF was believed to be responsible. After armed conflict resumed between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tigers in the northeast in June 1990, the numbers reported to have "disappeared" or been extrajudicially executed exceeded 3,000 within months.

In the south, between 1987 and 1990, the security forces fought to suppress an armed insurgency within the majority Sinhalese community by the Peoples Liberation Front, which sought to overthrow the government. The Peoples Liberation Front conducted a campaign of terror, assassinating members of the ruling party, members of the security forces and their relatives, and members of other leftist parties. They called widespread strikes and stoppages, enforced by threats to kill those who refused to obey the strike call. In response, the government launched a campaign of counter-terror, during which tens of thousands of people are believed to have been murdered by the government forces under the cover of "disappearance."

The scale of "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions has gone down in Sri Lanka in the last two years or so, but arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment in custody continue to be reported from all parts of the country.

The government of the United National Party, which was in power from 1977 to 1994, did institute a number of investigations into human rights violations, but very few members of the security forces have been brought to justice as a result. It has to be pointed out that it was only after the international community began to put pressure on Sri Lanka to improve its human rights record that the former government initiated these investigations. To date, most of them have not yet been concluded and very little progress is being reported.

Amnesty International believes that the former government's failure to effectively prosecute members of the security forces responsible for human rights violations has contributed to a climate of impunity in the country. In September 1991, Amnesty issued a report containing 32 recommendations for the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government accepted all but two of the recommendations. The two rejected were both concerned with impunity: the government refused to permit a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal of Persons to investigate "disappearances" which occurred before January 11, 1991, and refused to repeal the Indemnity (Amendment) Act of December 1988, claiming that it was no longer in force. In fact, the Act, which provides immunity from prosecution to members of the security forces, continues to apply to the period from August 1, 1977 to December 16, 1988.

Amnesty International does not know of a single case in which a member of the security forces was prosecuted for human rights violations committed in the northeast in the 1980s. More recently, in June 1991, an independent Commission of Inquiry into a massacre of 67 Tamil civilians by soldiers at Kokkaddichcholai in the east was instituted - the first inquiry of its kind ever held in Sri Lanka. A military tribunal found the commanding officer guilty of failure to control his troops and illegal disposal of the bodies, and he was dismissed from the service. The other 19 soldiers under trial were acquitted. To date, nobody has been brought to justice for the killing of these 67 civilians. In the south after mid- 1987, in connection with the conflict between the government and the Peoples Liberation Front, cases of torture and extrajudicial execution provoked widespread publicity and public outcry; a few investigations were held and the alleged perpetrators prosecuted, but none of these cases has yet reached a conviction for murder.

In the late 1980s - early 1990s, victims of human rights violations and their relatives were often too afraid to seek redress in the courts. The Sri Lankan constitution permits lawsuits for habeas corpus and also for the infringement of fundamental rights as defined by the constitution. Many of the victims of violations and their relatives, as well as lawyers and witnesses appearing on their behalf, were threatened with death if they pursued their cases; several were indeed killed. However, fundamental rights cases and habeas corpus cases are recently being filed more frequently again.

At international fora, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, the former Sri Lanka government had repeatedly undertaken to prosecute those responsible for "disappearances" and other human rights violations and had provided lists of cases under investigation or before the courts to demonstrate this commitment. To date, little progress has been reported in these cases, which have been pending before the courts for long periods of time.

The large majority of arrests of suspected opponents of the government have taken place and continue to take place pursuant to the provisions of the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Under these laws, the government forces are given wide powers to detain people incommunicado and without charge or trial for long periods. They provide "a ready context" for deaths in custody, "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions, as borne out by the wide-scale violations that occurred in the recent past.

In light of both historical and current human rights concerns, Amnesty International requests that the US government press the Sri Lankan government to take the following steps:

1. Measures must be taken immediately to protect civilians and other noncombatants from the fighting. At the very least, safeguards should be introduced to prevent deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians. Also, humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be given complete access to people in all areas under government control.

2. The climate of impunity must be ended by conducting full, impartial investigations into all cases of past violations and prosecuting those found responsible.

3. To prevent future violations, the current human rights mechanisms created by the government must be provided adequate resources, and the structure of Sri Lankan security laws must be reformed to provide legal protection against abuses.

Thank you again for this opportunity to convey to you Amnesty International's concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka.