The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UN WGEID) confirmed Wednesday what Tamils in Sri Lanka have known for many years: the Sri Lankan state runs secret detention camps in which it holds and tortures Tamil detainees.
The UN WGEID’s announcement that it had discovered a “secret underground detention cum torture center” during its recent visit corroborates reports by Tamil victims and human rights groups that the Sri Lankan authorities are operating several secret camps to torture Tamils.
Since the new government of Sri Lanka has emphasized its willingness to positively engage with the international community on accountability for violations of human rights law and humanitarian law, the international community must press the government to take immediate and decisive action on these secret detention and torture camps.
First, the government must disclose the locations of all detention centers being operated by its security forces and affiliated paramilitaries, publish the names of all those who are or have been held in these camps, and account for the present whereabouts of these individuals.
Second, the government must end its use of torture and prosecute all military, paramilitary, and police personnel responsible for operating and perpetrating abuses in these camps. To fully put its pledges into practice, the government must prosecute leaders of the camps, under the internationally accepted doctrine of command responsibility, and other personnel involved in their operation. It is impossible that the upper and highest echelons of the Sri Lankan military and government were unaware of the existence of these camps. Therefore, it is imperative that they are held accountable for their involvement in the commission of grave human rights violations in the detention centers.
Third, with a view to future prosecutions of the military personnel involved, the government must immediately provide witness protection to the victims of torture in the camps. It is of extreme concern that Tamils who spoke with the UN group are already being subjected to threats and intimidation.
Despite claims by President Sirisena and his government of making radical changes from the previous government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the UN WGEID’s findings demonstrate that there are significant continuities between these regimes. The new government cannot continue the policies and practices of its predecessor and expect the Tamil people to take seriously its assurances about implementing an internationally credible accountability mechanism on wartime and post-war atrocities and abuses, following the findings of the UN (OISL) investigation. As such, the implications of the UN WGEID’s discovery of secret torture camps are wide-ranging and profound.
The need for decisive action on secret detention and torture camps is all the more pressing amid the government’s continued occupation of the Northeastern Tamil region with a vast military presence, which enables such abuses to continue. Demilitarization is a long-standing demand by the public in this region and also one that has long been refused by the Sri Lankan authorities. This cannot continue.
Sri Lanka has asked for and, despite the deep scepticism of victims and witnesses of abuses, received time and space by the international community to address questions of impunity, accountability , and rights protections. The UN WGEID’s discovery demonstrates that victims’ doubts are well founded. Due to the Sirisena government’s failures to act on long-standing abuses, the international community cannot continue to heed its requests for second chances. Instead, the international community must rethink and recalibrate its present engagement with the government so as to compel its compliance. If the government is serious about reforms, it would act swiftly on disclosing the existence of further secret detention camps and initiate criminal proceedings against perpetrators at all levels.