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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, where required.

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 reported.

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 missing.

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 Tamils.

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 at Illuppaikadavai.

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 Tigers.

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 three incidents.

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 targets.

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 combating terrorism.

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 materials.

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 killed.

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.

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Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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