Prevalence of impunity alarming: Arbour
Sri Lanka succeeded in ensuring that a resolution on the country at the Human Rights Council Sessions, which ended on September 28, was dropped. However, country visits by top UN officials could not be prevented. In most cases, requests made to visit the country were turned into invitations.
Thus, just as UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, ended his weeklong visit to Sri Lanka on October 8, flying out on Tuesday morning, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, coincidentally, flew in on a mission of her own.
Nowak is expected to submit a report, including his conclusions and recommendations, to the Human Rights Council.
During his visit, Nowak met Government Ministers and officials; the judiciary; the Human Rights Commission; parliamentarians; officers of the Attorney General’s Department; the IGP; and representatives of non-governmental organizations and international organizations. He also visited detention facilities.
The government now awaits Nowak’s report with bated breath. Nowak was previously a UN expert on missing persons in the former Yugoslavia, a UN expert on legal questions on enforced disappearances, and a judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He also served as a member of the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
Following on from Nowak’s visit, Arbour who arrived on Tuesday and left yesterday, requested that Sri Lanka become a signatory to the new International Convention for the Protection of All persons from Enforced Disappearances.
“In light of the documented violations of international humanitarian law, Sri Lanka should seriously consider joining the 105 countries which have ratified the Rome Treaty creating the International Criminal Court,” said Arbour at a parting media conference.
Are there plans to haul Sri Lankans before this court for violating international humanitarian law?
For Arbour, the “prevalence of impunity is alarming”, even though she stated that her visit was not a fact-finding mission.
In 1982, a year before the riots broke out, after a soldier was shot dead in the north, furious Sinhalese soldiers went on a rampage—destroying 64 houses, buses, cars, and motorcycles. The Army High Command withdrew the mutinous unit to base and dismissed six soldiers. Some 90 soldiers who deserted in retaliation were sacked and six officers had their commissions withdrawn. That was the discipline then, and the international community kept hounding the Government on human rights violations both during the Northeast war and particularly during the crackdown on the JVP subversion to prevent a state of impunity.
However, it must be stated that policemen several months back who went berserk in Vavuniya killing three students, after the Tigers exploded a bomb, were brought to book and recently indicted. That is what the international community expects of the government.
The Government must realize that with the setting up of the Human Rights Council last year, the issue of human rights has been elevated to a higher status on par with security. It is possible that gross human rights violations by countries could be brought to the notice of the UN Security Council.
Compared to the visit of Allan Rock, John Holmes, and Manfred Nowak, the visit of Louise Arbour was less controversial. Of course, at the parting press conference, Arbour stood her ground that capacity building alone was insufficient to put right Lanka’s human rights record.
“One of the major human rights shortcomings in Sri Lanka is rooted in the absence of reliable and authoritative information on the credible allegations of human rights abuses,” said Ms. Arbour adding, that independent information gathering and public reporting was essential.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was careful to state that Ms. Arbour’s press statement was not a joint one, even though it was tabled at a joint press conference. He took a contrary view and insisted that a physical UN human rights monitoring mission would violate the independence and sovereignty of the country, and, therefore, was not required. He, however, persisted with a request for assistance from the UN in training and capacity building.
But, the biggest warning that Arbour gave the 10-year old local Human Rights Commission was that it may lose its accreditation to the international body governing these institutions.
Contrast this with the joint press conference the Minister had with John Holmes, which was very cordial. The cordiality however ended with the controversial interview given to Reuters. The Government felt that Rock, too, rocked the boat during an international press conference saying there was credible evidence to show military complicity in Karuna cadres abducting under-aged children.
The government subsequently appointed a committee to probe the charges after initially strongly disputing Rock’s claim. In the end, Karuna was packed off, albeit, temporarily.
Arbour reiterated that the UN High Commission would not force itself upon Sri Lanka, and would come only on invitation—even though her request to have a regional monitoring office in Colombo was turned down.
Ms. Arbour observed that her office is not like the UN Security Council, which can enforce its resolutions. There was talk that the Sri Lankan issue was likely to be taken up at the Security Council.
On the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, India, which has been knocking on the Security Council’s door for a permanent seat, would do everything possible to prevent UN intervention here, even though it is not averse to monitoring of human rights in Sri Lanka as violations have a direct fall out at its own end.
Arbour had been keen on visiting Kilinochchi but the government declined in keeping with its consistent policy of depriving the LTTE of gaining any legitimacy through visits by UN officials. In the aftermath of the tsunami, too, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was not allowed to visit Kilinochchi, home to the Tiger headquarters. This was during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure.
It was not long ago, during the previous UNF peace process, that India did not want to give the LTTE the legitimacy it sought during international meetings. India, on several occasions, turned down invitations to send representatives to meetings the LTTE participated in. But, at the Washington preparatory meeting in mid April 2003, where the LTTE was not invited, India sent a representative.
One of the first things Arbour did during her visit here was to meet up with representatives of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) and members of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Tuesday morning.
Ms. Arbour stated that members of the Commission of Inquiry had intimated to her that State officials had failed to turn up when requested and that the lack of a witness assistance and protection system was a major constraint to their work.
Ms. Arbour also noted that the Commission would gain greater public confidence and support by conducting public hearings.
After meeting Attorney General C.R. De Silva, P.C., and a team of senior State lawyers at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, Ms. Arbour proceeded to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa at 11 a.m. Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona, Secretray Justice, Suhada Gamlath, Attorney General De Silva, Deputy Solicitor General Shavindra Fernando and Ms. Shirani Goonetilleke Director Legal Affairs Secretariat for Coordinating Peace participated at the meeting. (Ms. Goonetilleke along with the Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights arranged Ms Arbour’s itinerary). Responding to the issues raised by Ms Arbour, the President informed the High Commissioner that the public hearings of the Commission would commence soon.
The delay to commence the public hearings has been due to the lack of witness protection legislation. A draft for this law has already been prepared by the Attorney General’s Department based on inputs from various sources including civil society. Ms Arbour was told the Legal Draftsman was putting the final touches to the bill, which is to be referred by the President to the Supreme Court as an Urgent Bill.
The CoI will be completing its mandated one year in a little over a fortnight, and will wind up unless it is extended.
President Rajapaksa had told Ms. Arbour that instead of clashes between the Commission and the IIGEP, he would have preferred it if results were delivered as he has spent more than 100 million rupees of public money and was answerable to the people.
Some wonder whether this was a hint that the commission may not be extended and instead allowed to lapse early November.
As a former federal court judge in Canada, Ms. Arbour also paid a courtesy call on Chief Justice Sarah N. Silva. Justice Secretary Gamlath also participated in that meeting.
In her statement, Arbour said the application of treaties in domestic law has been questioned by the Supreme Court in the Singarasa case, and the proposed legislation (The Nation reported a fortnight back) only partially addressed the issues and risks, confusing further the status of different rights in national law.
On Tuesday after meeting the IIGEP and CoI, Ms Arbour proceeded to Parliament where she met the JVP, JHU, and UNP delegations, and had a one to one meeting with Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Ms. Arbour also discussed several issues with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
The visiting top UN official who was hosted to dinner by Human Rights Minister Samarasinghe on Tuesday night met him for a formal meeting the following morning. On Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. she met Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollogama.
On Friday she flew to Jaffna for a two-hour meeting with various stakeholders. She met Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Chandrasiri and subsequently met Jaffna Bishop Thomas Savundranayagam, NGO representatives, and members of civil society. While in Jaffna, Ms Arbour had telephoned Minister Samarasinghe to arrange a meeting with political prisoners at Welikada who had undertaken a fast unto death. The press was kept out of the meeting with prisoners that took place after the noon media conference on Saturday.
While Ms Arbour’s request to visit Kilinochchi was not granted on a matter of policy, President Rajapaksa, on Thursday, had inquired whether she was keen on visiting the East, to which Ms. Arbour replied that it was not possible as she was leaving on Saturday.
Concerning human rights, Ms. Arbour is the most senior UN official to visit Sri Lanka. Internal displacement as a result of the war has led to another human rights issue that is to be addressed by Walter Kälin, Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who will also be visiting Sri Lanka.
Kälin’s mandate is to engage in dialogue and advocacy with Governments and other actors concerning the rights of IDPs, strengthen the international response to internal displacement, and mainstream human rights throughout the UN system. Among other things he has to report annually to the Commission on Human Rights and General Assembly.
On September 19, Kälin told to the HR Council that in order to ensure the full protection of the human rights of internally displaced persons, there should be a strong normative framework, political will, and the capacity to protect. He said the mandate to pursue dialogue with Governments, as well as to mainstream the human rights of internally displaced persons into all relevant parts of the United Nations, was a call to support the strengthening of political will for the protection of the internally displaced and their rights.
(See box story for statistics)
IDPs: The statistics
According to the UN inter-agency standing committee, in the Trincomalee district, 1143 IDP families (3,778 persons) currently reside in the Kiliveddy transit sites; while 135 IDP families (493 individuals) from the Uppooral area are to be settled soon.
It has been reported that IDPs in Konesapuri have expressed concern about moving to Kiliveddy due to hardships in living conditions and difficulties in food assistance.
While, according to government statistics, the total registered IDP population in the Batticaloa district is 10,300 families (38,153 individuals).
The government has officially announced the return of IDP families to 5 villages in the Chenkalady division on the 18th and 19th October, with 2,523 families (9,158 individuals) scheduled to be resettled over these two days.
The Kilinochchi District Secretariat has reported that 12,517 families (48,512 persons) have been registered as IDPs in the Kilinochchi district since April 2006, while 9,060 families (32,323 persons) have been registered as IDPs in the Mullaitivu district.
In the Mannar district, there are 5,658 IDP families (21,368 individuals) displaced while 3,071 IDP families (10,302 persons) are displaced in Vavuniya district.
Following a Defence Ministry meeting, the Mannar GA states that no resettlement will take place in the Musali DS division before January 2008. 1,123 families have been displaced from the Musali DS division to the Nanaddan and Mannar DS divisions.
Following this announcement, the Mannar humanitarian agencies are planning to relocate the people from current welfare centers of Murunkan church, Nanaddan Rice Mill, and Nanaddan church to new locations.
The current welfare centers were established with limited facilities as a short term measure. With the onset of the rainy season people are to be relocated from low land to high land, in areas with more long term IDP facilities.
The IDP issue is the next big problem the government will have to address before the UN Representative on the subject arrives.
Varaha sees action
The former Indian Coast Guard Ship, SLNS Sagara, finally saw action this week when she, along with the Navy’s flagship Sayura (also from India), and the Israeli built fast missile vessel SLNS Suranimala, sank what is said to be the last of the LTTE’s cargo ships. The encounter happened on October 7, 1700 km’s south of Dondra Point, in international waters.
The event marked the baptism of SLNS Sagara to the offensive OPV fleet of the navy, which has further being strengthened by its latest addition.
At a reception, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda yesterday received and returned a salute in a ceremony that was not made public. Karannagoda took the opportunity to “pass over his deepest and heartfelt appreciation to the ships’ crews for their dedication and unwavering efforts in defeating terrorism by obstructing the transporting of lethal weaponry by means of destroying the floating arms warehouses.”
“The Sri Lanka navy has now gained ‘blue water” capability for the defence of the country from the most heinous LTTE terrorism,” states a Navy release.
On February 25 this year, The Nation exclusively reported that the Indian government had donated an Offshore Patrol Craft, the second of its kind given by our neighbour, to the Sri Lankan Navy.
The transfer of the Indian Coast Guard Ship (CGS), Varaha, to Sri Lanka has been a low profile matter with the Indian side not wanting to arouse passions in its important southern states over increased military cooperation with Sri Lanka.
The transfer was a marked contrast to the donation of a similar coast guard ship from the United Sates during the previous regime. The former US Coast Guard Cutter, Courageous, was commissioned as the Sri Lanka Navy’s Ship (SLNS), Samudura, with much pomp and pageantry. In contrast, the re-commissioning of CGS Varaha as SLNS Sagara took place sans media attention. CGS Varaha has been in service with the navy since last year while Sayura was undergoing refurbishment in India. However, with the return of Sayura to Sri Lanka, the Indian government, after some persuasion, agreed to transfer its coast guard ship to boost the island’s defences against LTTE weapon smuggling vessels.
SLNS Sagara is a Vikram class OPV, which was first commissioned in 1992. At the time of construction it was designed to be in service for 20 years until 2012. However, after some modifications, the vessel is expected to be in service for approximately 26 years.
The 75 metre long ship requires a crew of 100, including 11 officers. It can reach a top speed of 22 knots while having a range of 8500 nautical miles.
SLNS Sagara was a notable absentee in the naval flotilla that took part in the Independence Day celebrations in February this year. It was also not involved in the epic encounter on September 11, when four navy ships engaged and sank three LTTE weapons carrying ships. On that occasion, SLNS Sayura, the largest vessel of the navy—also purchased from India—along with SLNS Samudura, SLNS Suranimala, and SLNS Shakthi were involved in the operation. Although, the SLNS Shakthi is mainly used as a troop carrier rather than an Offshore Petrol Vessel (OPV), and is not ideally suited for an offensive mission.
The omission of SLNS Sagara in this sea battle had led some to believe that the Indian government had imposed certain restrictions on the use of its former vessel for offensive operations.
More operations on the cards in Mannar
Pooneryn, Mullaitivu, and Elephant Pass were major military bases in the nineties until they were overrun by the LTTE in 1993, 1996, and 2000, respectively.
The military, which captured the Jaffna peninsula in 1995 courtesy of Operation Riviresa, managed to stall the advancing Tigers at the Kilali- Muhamalai- Nagarkovil axis in 2000.
But, exactly a decade back, in 1997, the military—courtesy of Operation Jaya Sikurui (victory Assured)—tried to regain the Wanni and the Mullaitivu areas. The final plan was to open up an alternative land route through the Wanni and Kilinochchi districts to link the Jaffna peninsula with the mainland.
The Army was able to capture the strategic towns such as Omanthai, Kanakarayankulam, and Mankulam, which were Tiger strongholds. But, the military lost Mankulam and Kanakarankulam in 1999 to the Tigers’ Unceasing Waves, although it managed to retain Omanthai, which has been the southern entry-exit point on the A-9 Road (the northern being Muhamalai).
In the current undeclared Eelam War IV, the major efforts by both sides to break the defences of its opponent in Jaffna failed. The military efforts to penetrate the Wanni west of Omanthai has also not been all that successful, even though it has managed to destroy bunkers and eliminate Tigers in its war of attrition where both sides have suffered casualties.
Prior to this, the military wrested control of the East with casualty figures on both sides comparatively low.
In its ‘central’ approach in the late nineties to wrest control of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, ground troops had two flanks to defend on either side of the road, which was no easy task.. In fact, the military is yet to fully recover from its Jaya Sikurui hangover.
The safer bet is to defend just one flank while advancing. For this, two other alternatives exist. They are inwards from either the Northwest coast or the Northeast coast via Weli Oya.
During the battles to wrest control of the East, the prime task of the Navy was to prevent the Tigers from sending reinforcements and stocks to the East from Mullaitivu.
The priority now is to prevent the Tigers from bringing in arms, ammunition, and other military ware to the country as the LTTE will naturally want to replenish its stocks after more than a year of fighting.
Attempts to do so have been severely restricted as three ships were destroyed barely a fortnight ago in the space of 24 hours, while last Sunday another was destroyed south of Dondra Head in international waters. (see box story)
On Thursday, the Navy destroyed two LTTE boats carrying war-like material including a remote controlled small aeroplane similar to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on the Northwestern coast. The craft were heading towards Vidattilativu, it was revealed.
Last week the military said it noticed an influx of civilians to this same place—Vidattilativu—and, according to defence officials, a humanitarian mission is to be undertaken like the one at Sillavataurai south of Mannar to rid the area of the Tigers.
The larger interest is to secure the northwestern coast and eventually to advance eastwards with naval cover from the sea. Eventually, the troops could move upwards to secure Pooneryn and Kalmunai Point, the artillery gun positions that have being wreaking havoc on the security forces and causing a threat to Palaly. But advancing towards Pooneryn is also no easy task as the Tigers could turn these same artillery guns on the troops. The 50 kilo-metre road from Mannar to Pooneryn is worth securing, sections of the military believe.
Military spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella himself, many months back, hinted at creating this alternative route to Jaffna.
Now that the Navy is in control from Foul Point down to Amparai, and there is no urgency for Tigers to penetrate the Eastern coast, the likelihood is to commence operations along the northwestern coast. And that makes sense given that the military has cleared south of Mannar along the coast including Sillwaturai.
Army Commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka flew to Vavuniya on Friday (12) morning and met Commander Security Forces Headquarters Wanni (SFHQ-W) Major General Jagath Jayasuriya who received him on arrival at the SFHQ (W) helipad. He conducted the army chief to the SFHQ auditorium where senior ground commanders briefed him on the security situation in respective Divisions, Brigades and Units.
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who reviewed the security situation in the areas under SFHQ (W), issued further instructions to the ground commanders present. A section of Senior Officers of Army Headquarters joined the Commander on his visit.
It is likely that more operations in the Mannar District are on the cards following a Defense Ministry meeting with the GA Mannar. No resettlement in Musali DS division is to take place before January next year.
The Tigers are strongly resisting advances on their Forward Defence Lines in the Yodha Wewa, Vilayathikulam, Pokkarawanni, and Periyathampane areas. It is reported that small groups of the army, that infiltrated to the Vanni LTTE stronghold, have obstructed supplies to the LTTE.
The LTTE has launched a recruitment drive in the Vanni claiming that they are preparing for the final battle. This is probably in view of the LTTE Leader’s Heroes Day message on November 27 when he makes his annual announcement. Currently, the LTTE’s main objective is to safeguard its strongholds in the Vanni.
The military believes that the LTTE is preparing to launch sporadic attacks on the Welioya Forward Defence Line, which has been strengthened while a new brigade has been established and bunker lines created. There were sporadic attacks in the northern front for the third successive week, too.