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The killings must be investigated

I recognize that my visit has come at an extraordinarily sensitive and critical time for the peace process. During the short period I have been here, there have been numerous killings in the north and east of the country of both Tamil and Muslim civilians as well as members of the security forces and the LTTE. I condemn these attacks without reservation and urge all parties to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation and prevent this tide of violence rising further with catastrophic results for the country and its hopes of finding peace.

I am an independent expert, appointed by and reporting to the UN Commission on Human Rights. My final report will be submitted in early 2006. I should emphasize that the comments included in this statement are only of a preliminary nature. My full and final report will be available within three months from now on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Before the report is made public the Government of Sri Lanka will be given an opportunity to make observations on the report. I will also seek further input from the LTTE and other parties.

The principal theme of my report is that extrajudicial killings, if left unchecked, have the potential to fatally undermine the peace process and to plunge Sri Lanka back into the dark days of all out war. This conclusion has tragically been borne out by the developments of recent days.

Neither of the principal parties to the conflict seems to give adequate recognition to the deeply corrosive impact of the killings that have been steadily accumulating and then accelerating throughout the course of 2005. These killings should not be thought of only in the cold and detached language and statistics of ‘ceasefire violations’, although they clearly are that. Nor should they be thought of only in abstract terms as violations of the international legal obligations of the parties, although they are that too. Most importantly, they are violating the right to life of a large number of Sri Lankans from all ethnic groups, and by undermining the peace process, putting at risk the lives of many more.

Both the Government and the LTTE have signaled the need to review the implementation of the CFA and to strengthen international monitoring arrangements. But pending a resumption of contacts and talks on these issues, it is essential and urgent for all those involved to immediately adopt a range of confidence-building measures. These steps cannot wait until a major breakthrough is possible. But equally importantly, they will make it far more likely that such a development can occur.

In order to put an end to the killings the key is to strengthen the accountability of those responsible. This involves a mix of initiatives including: far more effective police investigation, a role for the SLMM that includes investigation as well as monitoring, and unequivocal denunciations of killings by all parties. It is simply not enough for one party or another to throw up its hands and proclaim ‘we didn’t do it, and we can’t really tell you who did’. Permit me to elaborate briefly.

The upsurge in extrajudicial killings has been accompanied by a vacuum of investigative responsibility. The Sri Lanka Police have lost much of their appetite for serious investigations. While the difficulties presented by the environment in which they work must be acknowledged, they have in too many cases become a recording agency. This deters witnesses from coming forward and leaves the groups involved free to accuse one another regardless of the facts which might emerge from serious investigation.

The LTTE, for its part, issues frequent denials of killings and then contents itself with accusing the Karuna faction or other groups of acting in cahoots with the security forces to perpetrate most such killings. These denials do not appear credible to most observers and are contradicted by evidence I have collected during my visit that suggests that the LTTE has either been directly involved or has given protection to the perpetrators in some cases.

At the same time, the security forces find it convenient to downplay the significance of the Karuna faction by dismissing many incidents as being LTTE-related and suggesting that it is irrelevant whether the LTTE or Karuna was responsible. This ambivalence toward the Karuna faction is reflected in the weak response of the Government to the relevant killings despite firm official instructions and denials of involvement.

The failure to effectively investigate the killings has resulted in many areas of the North and East – whether controlled by the Government or by the LTTE – becoming zones of impunity for killers with different motivations and affiliations. This in turn generates inflammatory and often contradictory rumours that risk giving way to cycles of retaliation.

A case in point is the attack last month on the Akkairapattu mosque which killed six persons and seriously wounded 29 others. This was a particularly heinous act, involving the violation of a place of worship and an assault on innocent parties at prayer, and it has led to further convulsions of violence between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the East. I do not exclude that there were many complex elements at play in the incident.

But no such elements can excuse such an act. And unless crimes of this kind are properly investigated, and those responsible held to account, they will only fuel the cycle of retaliation and violence. With that in mind, I call on the police to effectively investigate this attack. I must also note that, while the LTTE has denied its involvement in this attack, it has not taken the further step of unequivocally denouncing this act of killing.

The absence of effective investigation has placed considerable pressure on the SLMM to fill the vacuum. But its mandate has sometimes been interpreted excessively narrowly and in a way that makes it also appear to be mainly a recording agency. While it has made an invaluable contribution over its nearly four years in existence, it is time to reinforce its vital work. It should be accorded a stronger and better equipped role to enable it to carry out more in-depth monitoring of killings and to publicly report its findings of the facts in different cases. The Minister of Foreign Affairs said the Government had a long-standing desire to strengthen the effectiveness of monitoring arrangements. And Mr Thamilchelvan indicated to me that the SLMM’s role should be upgraded and ‘given teeth’. While the parties should continue to explore other, specialized models for human rights monitoring, strengthening the role of the SLMM on these issues would be an important first step in promoting respect for human rights and building confidence among the parties and the people.


Professor Philip Alston is the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. He visited Sri Lanka earlier this month.