Sri Lanka: effective action needed from UN Human Rights Council

May 23, 2009

The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold a special session on Sri Lanka in Geneva on Tuesday, May 26 (and not May 25 as I reported earlier).  Today, the Sri Lankan government tried to head off any serious review by the Council of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka by tabling a self-congratulatory resolution to be adopted by the Council.  For the sake of all the victims of the recent violence in Sri Lanka, the Council should reject Sri Lanka’s proposed resolution.

Even now, after the fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers appears to have mostly ended, Amnesty International continues to receive credible reports of widespread human rights violations by the security forces and their paramilitary allies, including enforced disappearances, torture and political killings.  More than 250,000 civilians displaced by the recent fighting, including some 80,000 children, are being held in internment camps without adequate security, food, water and medical care.  The Sri Lankan government has recently restricted access to the camps by international aid agencies, including the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Human Rights Council should note that the human rights issues in Sri Lanka go beyond the current humanitarian crisis.  They stem from a breakdown in the rule of law and a pervasive climate of impunity which has seen human rights violations by the security forces go unpunished for decades.  I should also mention that the Tamil Tigers have over the years been responsible for gross human rights abuses, including deliberate and indiscriminate killings of civilians, torture of prisoners, and the forced recruitment and use of child soldiers. 

Switzerland also tabled a draft resolution today for the Council’s special session.  While it’s much stronger than Sri Lanka’s own resolution, it doesn’t go far enough.  It calls for Sri Lanka to undertake investigations into human rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice.  Given the Sri Lankan government’s weak institutional mechanisms for human rights and repeated failures to hold violators accountable, we need international involvement.  The Council should set up an international fact-finding mission to investigate abuses of human rights and humanitarian law by both the security forces and the Tigers.  It should also establish a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka, to help the Sri Lankan government to implement reforms to provide effective safeguards for human rights.

Finally, I don’t want to omit the immediate crisis.  The Council must persuade the Sri Lankan government to open up the internment camps so that aid agencies can provide the necessary assistance and reporters can find out the truth of what’s been happening.  International monitors should be placed at all registration and screening points, internment camps and detention places, so that human rights violations are prevented.  The displaced civilians should be allowed to leave the camps if they wish – they’re not prisoners of war, they’re people who were trapped in the crossfire against their will and have already suffered too much.  They desperately need the Council’s assistance now.  We’ll be watching Geneva next week.  I hope we’re not disappointed.