Zero abduction in Sri Lanka: Is it possible?
Sri Lanka has been witnessing gross violations of human rights committed by both the government and other groups from late 2005 and since the resumption of the war between the armed forces and the LTTE, it has recorded an exponential rise. This has received much international condemnation, especially from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions- Professor Philip Alston, the Co-Chairs of the peace process and the SLMM. The International Crisis Group, the Human Rights Committee, the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights bodies have also universally condemned the continued abductions and extrajudicial killings. Whilst all these reports condemn the violations committed by the LTTE, severe strictures have been tabled against the Government of Sri Lanka. If this trend continues, there will be serious consequences for Sri Lanka internationally. Some of the consequences are as follows.
n Reduction in international assistance to Sri Lanka. Germany has already withdrawn aid. The UK has reduced a sum allocated to debt reduction. It is likely that others will follow.
n Sanctions to be introduced starting with travel restrictions, freezing of assets and a resolution in the Security Council. Recently the UN severely criticized both parties for gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law.
The argument of this paper is that new mechanisms have to be developed which can address the phenomenon, since the existing criminal justice system is unable to deal with the issue adequately. It argues for a Special Commission with authority which can examine the nature of the crimes committed and which can obtain the cooperation of all service personnel under the direction of a DIG with outstanding qualities. Such an authority must have a council of distinguished lawyers, politicians with known integrity and expertise. What is required is a national mechanism for verification and action as the Presidential Commission to investigate extrajudicial killings does not have the mandate to address the current violations. I am of the opinion that it is better that Sri Lanka relies on homegrown efforts to resolve this crisis, rather than depend upon international efforts.
Contextualising the situation
It is important that we contextualise the violations of human rights in Sri Lanka. During the period 1987 -1988 when President Premadasa was combating the JVP insurgency, the number of disappearances and abductions were recorded as over 30,000 by the various commissions that were appointed at that time. A review of the commission reports reveals that there were recommendations on how to improve the human rights record in the country. There were few cases of punishment. It is therefore proper to say that Sri Lanka has failed to arrest the culture of impunity. Whilst the 1987- 88 confrontations was largely against the JVP and the Sinhalese, the current spate of violations is largely a result of the war with the LTTE. Government spokespersons including the Secretary for Defence has repeatedly said that human rights violations have not been committed against any of the parties of the south or parties representing the hill country Tamils.
It has been reported that more than 2500 combatants have been killed in battle and more than 250,000 civilians displaced since early 2006. In addition, more than 1,500 are reported as missing. Moreover, the Civil Monitoring Committee, an organization documenting disappearances has reported 125 abductions in Colombo during the last three months. Many more have been detained under newly strengthened emergency regulations that give the government sweeping powers to arrest and detain people without charge. In a recent report by the SLMM, a staggering number of 34 people have been reported abducted in the East within the space of just one week and the number includes 16 under aged youth. (SLMM weekly situation report, June 11-17). In addition to this, media personnel have been under great threat in the recent past. According to the statistics available since January 2006, 8 media personnel have been killed, 2 abducted, 3 arrested and a further 12 harassed and threatened with death.
The different types of abductions/extrajudicial killings
Analysing these cases, it becomes clear that there are several types of abductions being committed by different groups in Sri Lanka at present. They are as follows:
State sponsored abductions
The theoretical basis of abductions and extrajudicial killings is that the civilian base of the LTTE has to be destroyed if the armed forces are to protect the Jaffna peninsula. This is very clearly obvious in Jaffna, where abductions happen largely at night. In addition, political interference too has proven to be a hindrance. It is alleged that state sponsored abductions and extrajudicial killings take place with the cooperation of paramilitary groups. It is also alleged in newspaper reports that abductors often have in their possession the tax returns and bank account details of those whom they have captured. It has also been reported that in Colombo people who pay ransom money are allegedly allowed to pass check points without any hindrance. As a result of international pressure and local concerns being expressed, the level of abductions in Jaffna has dropped significantly. It is important that this trend continues and is monitored.
Blackmailing Tamil businessmen is a phenomenon which is largely aimed at obtaining a ransom. The sums asked for are in the range of Rs.50-100 million. These threats against Tamil businessmen have largely declined due to the pressure of the Indian government which has come down very hard against this phenomenon. In the absence of this lucrative business, Muslim businessmen are now a target of attack. Often businessmen do not report such incidents to the Police. It is reported that Muslim businessmen are moving to countries like Malaysia as a result of this situation. This is a major loss to the country. In the East, the Karuna group is responsible for ongoing child recruitment, abductions and targeted killings, as well as intimidation and violence against the internally displaced. The recent split in the Karuna group may further escalate human rights violations against civilians.
Abductions by the LTTE
The LTTE has been engaged in a number of cases of extortion, abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings. It has also been prime culprit of child recruitment. During the first few years of the Ceasefire Agreement, the LTTE was responsible for large scale extrajudicial killings of intelligence officers and members of other Tamil political parties. These actions have been thoroughly condemned and have led to the banning of the LTTE in several western countries. In the last few months, the LTTE has abducted a large number of young persons in the North to recruit them to the LTTE military ranks. The numbers run to thousands.
The President`s stand
The President when he was in the opposition was very passionate about this issue and continued to visit Geneva and give submissions on human rights to the Human Rights Commission. He organized mammoth demonstrations against the Bheeshanaya of President Premadasa. In the late 80`s, he even took some bones from the famous Balanakanda mass grave to Parliament and placed them on the Speaker`s table, demanding an inquiry on the brutal massacres being conducted by the Army and the STF. He was one of the most vociferous critics of the Batalanda torture chambers and continuously raised the concerns and agony of the mothers and fathers whose children had gone missing.
Repercussions of human rights violations
There is growing allegations that there are state sponsored abductions and extra judicial killings in Sri Lanka. It is because of this very reason that a Presidential Commission of Inquiry has been appointed. Even during President Jayewardene`s tenure, state sponsored violence was used to suppress the militant Tamil youth in the North and every Tamil was seen as a potential terrorist. However, state sponsored violence was not successful in addressing the Tamil insurgency rather it fuelled the insurgency into new levels of violence. In the case of the Tamil population, it could be said that the violence and abuse suffered by them has ensured increased support and funding for the insurgents. It has to be borne in mind that it is the state that has the responsibility to ensure that all of its citizens are protected. This is even more important when there is an armed conflict. Human rights law and humanitarian law are the twin pillars of protection for the citizens. Even if and when non state actors resort to violation of human rights, it remains the duty of the state to adhere to these norms. It is the adherence to these principles that is the litmus test between barbarism and civilisation.
Bodies appointed to arrest abductions and extra judicial killings
In this light, it is imperative that steps are taken to achieve zero abduction in Sri Lanka. This is a question of political will by the President and higher authorities. Although many committees have been set up to investigate abductions and political killings, none of these bodies have been effective so far very few culprits have been arrested.
The Mahanama Tillekaratne Commission. This report has still not been made available to the public.
The Presidential Commission on Extra Judicial Killings. The Eminent Persons Group has expressed serious misgivings about the slow progress and lack of political will. They have also complained about the undue influence of the Attorney General`s office.
The Advisory Council on Human Rights. This body works under the chairmanship of the Minister for Human Rights. It has a mandate to advise the Minister on human rights issues.
Recently, the President appointed a group of MPs. to review the manner in which inquiries into reported cases of abductions and extrajudicial killings could be expedited.
One single authority should be entrusted with the task of maintaining zero abductions. To achieve this purpose, it has to be granted power and authority to ensure compliance with the law. A task force should also be appointed which acts under this authority to include all service personnel under the direction of a DIG with outstanding qualities. International experts should be drawn in wherever necessary.
A 24 hour help line should be established so that citizens can call to report incidents of human rights violations. This helpline should be wisely advertised in the printed and electronic media.
A rapid response mechanism should be put in place so that all checkpoints are alerted and cordon and search operations conducted as soon as an incident is reported.