28 August 2007
In 1990, Mahinda Rajapaksa was arrested at Colombo airport trying to smuggle dossiers on the "disappeared" out of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva. Rajapaksa, then an rising politician from the country's south, worked to organize the mothers of the "disappeared" during an insurrection of 1988-90, when more than 16,000 people went missing.
Today, Rajapaksa is Sri Lanka's sixth president, leading a government accused of egregious human rights abuses. Since fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam resumed in full vigor in mid-2006, civilians have become the primary target - not just in direct clashes but in the insidious "dirty war" fought by both sides.
Human Rights Watch researchers spent months investigating allegations of abuses, publishing a report this month that uses eyewitness accounts to show how security forces have subjected civilians to "disappearances," indiscriminate attacks, forced displacement and restrictions on humanitarian aid. Critics of the government - as Rajapaksa was in the 1980s - have been threatened and demonized as national traitors and terrorist sympathizers.
The situation has deteriorated dramatically in the past couple of years. A cease-fire agreement in February 2002 had put a halt to serious fighting. While the Tamil Tigers continued to recruit child soldiers and assassinate moderate Tamils, the situation was relatively calm for a country that had been at war since 1983. The government still committed abuses, but it was able to claim the moral high ground against an opponent that pioneered the use of suicide bombings.
The government has lost that high ground. Since it resumed serious military operations against the rebels last year, 315,000 people have had to flee their homes due to fighting. The government has forced some to return home in unsafe conditions against their will. Since January 2006, more than 1,100 "disappearance" cases have been reported. Almost all of the disappeared are Tamil men between the ages of 18-50, and in a majority of cases witnesses allege complicity of security forces.
The government continues to cooperate with the Karuna group, a breakaway faction of the Tamil Tigers headed by the LTTE's former eastern commander leader. Like the Tamil Tigers, the Karuna group is notorious for abducting and forcibly recruiting boys and young men, sometimes as government forces stand by and watch.
Despite numerous promises from President Rajapaksa and others to investigate, the government has done nothing to shut down Karuna's child recruitment.
Even aid workers face threats. One year ago, gunmen killed 17 local workers from the Paris-based Action Against Hunger. Despite evidence linking soldiers to the murders, the government has failed to hold anyone to account. The same goes for two Red Cross workers murdered in June.
Since the renewed outbreak of fighting, humanitarian groups have faced severe restrictions on access to the embattled northeast and the government is cutting the number of work visas it grants to international nongovernmental organizations.
The government has arrested journalists, Tamils and Sinhalese, under recently reintroduced Emergency Regulations, which allow the authorities to hold a person for up to 12 months without charge.
Eleven media workers have been killed since August 2005. The government has arrested no one for those crimes.
Successive Sri Lankan governments have become famous for pledging to investigate abuses, setting up commissions, and then failing to hold abusers accountable.
In response to this downward spiral, foreign governments haven't done much. Sri Lanka has little strategic or economic importance to most countries. Foreign governments mostly limited their criticism to "private messages" and minor aid cuts.
The Sri Lankan Army has warm ties to the US military. Britain has close historical relations with its former colony and is a major aid provider. Sri Lanka receives 40 percent of its foreign assistance from Japan. India is the big neighbor with the greatest influence. Indians have not forgotten their failed military intervention in 1987 or the Tamil Tigers' assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Sri Lanka relies heavily on India for naval intelligence to counter arms procurement by the rebels.
While in private these governments have raised concerns about human rights abuses with President Rajapaksa, they have not exerted concerted pressure to make abuses stop.
These allies should work to set up a UN human rights monitoring mission tasked with protection, monitoring, capacity-building, and public reporting of abuses by all sides. Such a mission would - unlike the government or Tamil Tigers - be committed to protecting the rights of all Sri Lankans - Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim - from extrajudicial killings, abductions, intimidation and indiscriminate military attacks.
As important, President Rajapaksa should remember his days as a human rights activist and confront the rampant abuses taking place on his watch.
Charu Lata Hogg is a South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report "Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege."