Human Rights in Sri Lanka:
Facts vs Fiction
The Sri Lankan Government recognises that in some areas human rights
situation needs to be addressed, and strengthened and it has sought
assistance for the same.
Unfortunately, such requests have often been ignored, whilst the
whole debate has turned into a no holds barred attack in which every
possible allegation is flung at the Government and its agencies. This
confrontational attitude is not helpful in improving the situation,
Among the various false and exaggerated accusations, the most
insidious is the claim that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces deliberately
target the civilians.
However, from the summary of allegations against Sri Lanka submitted
by the usual Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), only two submissions
made this claim. One of these is the notoriously selective ‘Human Rights
Watch’ (HRW), which has failed to respond to the detailed refutation of
the allegations in this respect.
The press release issued by the secretariat last year, when the HRW
first floated this canard, is appended to this release.
Objective observers will notice how HRW began by personalising the
conflict with a gratuitous attack on the Sri Lankan President and the
Secretary of Defence, and how the main body of their report included
only one example of the ‘indiscriminate attacks’, they allege.
It will also be noticed that, as was borne out by the regular reports
of the Scandinavian monitoring mission throughout the military
operations in the East, no other instances of civilian casualties were
This time around the HRW talks of “indiscriminate bombing and
shelling resulting in civilian casualties.”
They are joined in their assault by a group of NGOs and individuals
who contributed to a ‘joint civil society report’ which claims that
there were flagrant violations of the international humanitarian laws
including targeting of the civilians, attacks on places of worship,
hospitals and schools.
Interestingly, ten of the earlier thirty nine signatories have
disappeared from the list that the United Nations (UN) cites, with the
‘Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya’ (JSS) being the most conspicuous of those
One hesitates to assume that this organisation, which assisted in the
compilation of the report to attack the government, is the very same JSS
which was led for many years by Cyril Mathew, the minister who was the
scourge of the Tamils during the Jayewardene government, and which was
notorious in the eighties for attacks on striking workers as well as
No actual examples are given in the statement of the 39
signatories-now 29- of any such targeting. But, since concern about the
safety of the civilians has been one of the most impressive feature of
the military operations during this period, it may be useful to consider
exact number of the civilian casualties since the Forces began to
respond vigorously, to the massive attacks launched by the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in August 2006.
As noted above, there have been no allegations at all of civilian
casualties during the army operations over the last eighteen months,
except in the Kathiravelli incident which occurred on November 8, 2006
and which is dealt with below, and in an incident of dating September
24, 2007, when a civilian died due to shrapnel, though whether this was
caused by the LTTE or the army fire is unknown.
While it cannot be conclusively stated that there have been no other
casualties at all in such operations, there is no doubt that the LTTE
would have managed-with the assistance of its sympathisers worldwide-to
ensure massive publicity for any such incidents.
Where there have been reports of civilian casualties, it is with
regard to the air strikes, and also with regard to the claymore mines
exploded inside the LTTE controlled territory. To deal with the air
strikes apparently, there were 168 air missions from June 1, 2006 to
March 25, 2008.
There is no doubt that, had there been any civilian casuality, it
would have been widely publicised. However, a collation of all
accessible criticism, including Tamil websites, indicates that there are
only five incidents where civilian deaths have been alleged.
The first of these occurred on January 2, 2007, when seven children
are reported to have been killed. There were conflicting reports in the
newspapers at the time, and the Air Force has maintained that the
incident in Pudahathurai, though only a few kilometers away, had nothing
to do with what had been a successful strike on a known LTTE sea hideout
Another incident that took place on July 11, in which two people
died, was also in connection with an attack on a sea hideout of the
A third strike, on January 18, 2008, in which one person died, was in
connection with an LTTE military and arms storage complex. Thus, the
only claims as to collateral deaths from air strikes are with regard to
The other two incidents in which the deaths of civilians are alleged
relate to the attacks on broadcasting facilities, and the Air Force
makes no bones about the fact that, as has been the normal practice in
hostilities, such unauthorised propaganda outfits are appropriate
The same goes for the incidents at Kiranchi on February 22, 2008,
when three female LTTE cadres died. This also holds true for the
incident at Sencholai, where it was initially claimed that an orphanage
had been bombed.
When it was proved that the orphanage had been moved away years ago,
it was alleged that this was a training centre. However, photographs
indicated that the training was of conscripted young girls who were
forced into military fatigues, and this has been borne out in the
reports from the two girls who survived.
Apart from the incidents noted above, which reduce the allegations of
civilian deaths to just three, there are seven allegations of aerial
bombing which caused injuries to civilians, and eight allegations of
aerial bombing which damaged civilian settlements-though without
injuries or deaths.
In all the cases, the Air Force maintains that the targets were
carefully chosen, and the paucity of the damage suggests that what was
targeted was certainly not ordinary civilian settlements. This record
compares very favourably with that of any other nation engaged in
Failure of the organisations to recognise is understandable as they
have their own agenda. But it is extremely regrettable that even
governments, that should know better, reiterate unfair allegations.
With regard to the collateral incidents attributed to the ground
forces, apart from the one at Kathiravelli and the shrapnel incident
noted above, there have been only eight such incidents reported since
the beginning of October 2006.
Three of them led to the deaths of individuals due to the explosion
of a mortar bomb when some children were playing with it, a land mine,
and a shell attack.
Another incident involved the explosion of a van that had been
released by court, which led to the deaths of three civilians. In none
of these incidents is there any trace of deliberate targeting, and at
least two of them are almost certain to have resulted from LTTE
In the last six months, however, there have been four instances of
claymore mines used in areas under the control of the LTTE. It is
alleged that these are the work of what are termed ‘deep penetration
units’ of the Armed Forces. In two cases, several children were killed,
and in the other two, a priest and an MP, along with his driver, was
Governmental involvement, of any sort. in such incidents would be
totally unacceptable. But it should be noted that, with regard to the
first incident, involving children, the ‘Jaffna University Teachers for
Human Rights’, which has never hesitated to be critical of the
government or the LTTE, attributed the action to the civilians in the
area who were opposed to the LTTE. Even if they had been equipped by the
military forces, as was suggested, the military cannot be held
responsible for inappropriate or inaccurate targeting.
Comparisons would be odious, but it cannot but be noticed that much
more damage to the civilians has occurred in other theatres of warfare.
It seems that there are a few countries which benefit from total
impunity, as far as criticism from what is termed- the international
community goes, with regard to aerial and terrestrial attacks that lead
to civilian deaths.
Sadly, the fact that life is unfair has to be recognised. But it is
also counter-productive to the common goal of the civilised world to
combat terror while preserving human values, that there is hardly any
recognition of the tremendous care that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have
evinced about their own citizens while fighting against terror.