“Citizens in Sri Lanka deserve to have confidence that civilian oversight of key public bodies will be restored three years after the end of the war. This has not yet happened which is why there remains international scrutiny,” she asserts.
Q: In the 50th global report on the state of human rights, Amnesty International has reiterated its call for an independent international probe into war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka. But one of the most credible witnesses to the war former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, who was freed from prison last week, has dismissed these accusations as false. Why does AI continue to insist on an international inquiry?
The rationale for Amnesty International calling for an international investigation is that there aren’t credible domestic mechanisms fully functioning in Sri Lanka at present to deal with human rights violations. The country’s climate of impunity – stretching back decades and its long history of ineffective domestic inquiries into human rights violations has meant that justice has been poorly served. Many institutions lack independence, the Police Commission for example falls under the purview of the Ministry of Defence.
We have to remember the scale and gravity of crimes committed at the end of the war by both government security forces and the Tamil Tigers. Victims of these crimes deserve to have an independent investigation.
A UN Experts’ Panel report investigating these allegations confirmed what many have alleged, that there are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the closing days of the war, particularly government shelling of civilians, hospitals, and denial of humanitarian aid to those caught in the conflict. All such allegations deserve to be investigated instead of which the government has campaigned to silence critics.
Unless there is a proper investigation we will probably see new excesses by state forces and proxy armed groups, as inaction simply deepens impunity. Reports of enforced disappearances and abductions have surged in the last few months. Political activists critical of the state continue to be victims. There has been little evidence of effective investigation of these cases. Where are the political activists, Lalith Kumara Weeraju and Kugan Muruganandan missing since December last year? Their colleagues believe they were abducted by the Sri Lankan Army.
Q: What does AI have to say about the release of Mr. Fonseka? Under Sri Lankan law, he is barred from holding political office for another seven years. What are your comments about the terms of his release?
Amnesty International was relieved to see the news that former Sri Lankan Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has been pardoned and freed by the Sri Lankan authorities. We believe he should never have been jailed for his alleged statements accusing Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defence of involvement in war crimes (statements he later retracted). We appreciate his recent statements acknowledging human rights issues on the ground and a willingness to co-operate with an international investigation into war crimes. The personal views of Sarath Fonseka on the allegations themselves are not as important as a proper process which seeks to clarify what happened.
Q: How concerned is AI about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka in the global context? Do you think Sri Lanka remains a priority for the international community?
For the past three decades, the Sri Lankan authorities have circumvented or ignored protections built into the ordinary criminal justice system, sometimes acting outside the law, but often taking advantage of security legislation that allowed them to arrest suspects without evidence or warrants and to hold them without charge or trial for extended periods. This security regime has been a way of life for a generation of policymakers, law enforcement and military personnel, civil servants and ordinary Sri Lankans.
Just one example is a recent ‘cordon and search’ operation in the Trincomalee district in late April in which nearly 200 people were detained. Security forces failed to follow basic arrest and detention procedures, leading a Muttur Magistrate to order the release of several detainees. Lawyers reported a subsequent pattern of detainees being moved between detention facilities, making it difficult for families to track their location.
Examples like this show how the state is trying to take short cuts instead of respecting the safeguards in the ordinary criminal justice system.
These safeguards are vital but are often ignored. Sri Lankan law permits police to remove prisoners from their cells and transport them from place to place for the purpose of investigation – a practice that has contributed to torture and custodial killings.
The lack of respect for the procedures in the criminal justice system is why Sri Lanka remains a priority human rights country. Citizens in Sri Lanka deserve to have confidence that civilian oversight of key public bodies will be restored three years after the end of the war. This has not yet happened which is why there remains international scrutiny.
Sri Lanka does not seem to have recovered from this deliberate amnesia about human rights violations and this fuels ongoing violations.
Q: Some serious aspersions have been cast on the neutrality of your organisation. Specifically, it has been widely reported that AI received C$ 50,000 from the Canadian Tamil Congress, an LTTE front organisation, in January 2012. Under such circumstances, how can we repose confidence in your organisation as an independent body?
This donation in no way impairs the independence of Amnesty International – which is nonpartisan and works on human rights issues around the globe. We receive financial support from a broad range of individuals committed to the protection and promotion of human rights. These contributions are offered with no conditions or qualifications.
The AI Canada funding is not earmarked to support our programming on Sri Lanka and will in fact be used to support a variety of ongoing global initiatives, our work to end violence and discrimination against Indigenous women in Canada; campaigning with respect to serious human rights violations in Colombia; research and advocacy efforts in response to the protests, transition and deepening crackdown in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa; and responding to crises in such African countries as Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
I think the donation also needs to be seen in perspective. In 2011, Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch raised approximately CDN$11.2 million. These contributions amount to less than ½ of 1% of those revenues. It is probably smaller than the amount the Sri Lankan government invested in its 71 member delegation to Geneva, where, for example, Amnesty only sent two representatives to work on Sri Lanka.
Q: A recent Gallup poll has revealed that Sri Lanka is among the Asian countries with the highest approval rating for its Chief Executive with 91% of Sri Lankans approving of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s performance. How do you tally such high popularity ratings to the human rights concerns that groups such as AI have been highlighting?
Questions of popularity are not really on Amnesty’s agenda. We’re concerned about human rights issues. Many of the promises that Sri Lanka made to the international community during the Universal Periodic Review in 2008 at the Human Rights Council have not yet been implemented. Amnesty International’s concern is that the state is not delivering on its obligations to its citizens including its commitments in a number of international treaty bodies.
A serious area of concern is the issue of enforced disappearances. Hundreds of women came before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to speak about disappearances – the LLRC Commissioners themselves highlighted this as an urgent area for the government to respond to and yet the authorities have not accepted the Working Group on Enforced Disappearance’s request to visit Sri Lanka to meet and talk to victims.
Q: How concerned is AI about the unequal application of international law? Do you see a two-tiered system of international justice; one for the rich and powerful states, and another for the rest?
We don’t yet live in a world where international justice serves all equally and that’s a huge concern for our activists. A recent example can be drawn from a decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that it cannot consider allegations of crimes committed during the 2008-9 Gaza conflict. To Amnesty, this means that Palestinian and Israeli victims of human rights violations are likely to be denied justice.
The prosecutor’s office said it could not consider allegations of crimes committed during the conflict unless the relevant UN bodies or countries that are party to the ICC determine that the Palestinian Authority is a state. In response our International Justice Campaign Head Marek Marczyński noted that: “This dangerous decision opens the ICC to accusations of political bias and is inconsistent with the independence of the ICC. Despite Amnesty International’s calls and a very clear requirement in the ICC’s statute that the judges should decide on such matters, the prosecutor has failed to do so.
Amnesty is also waiting for the US to uphold international law and support an investigation into George W. Bush’s admission of torture. AI called for a criminal investigation after Bush confirmed in his recently released memoirs, ‘Decision Point’s, that he authorised the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against detainees held in secret US custody.
The promise of international justice is not just eroded by geopolitics but we also see a different promise of justice globally for men and women. The lack of due diligence by state authorities on delivering women’s rights has been highlighted in recent reports by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
For example in the African court of Human Rights there have not yet been cases relating to specific violations of women, however the Inter-American human rights court has cases.