Legacy of Abuse in Sri Lanka

For several months during and after the end-game of the decades-long civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka’s government brushed off Western criticism of its abusive practices. It has relied instead on moral and financial support from states less concerned with such matters, such as China and Pakistan. Countries with similar problems and equally questionable human rights records are paying close attention — has Sri Lanka discovered the magic formula for brazenly ignoring meddlesome Western countries and getting away with it?

Sri Lanka’s policy of complete dismissal was initially successful. But now the government seems to have discovered that ignoring the strongly held opinions of powerful Western partners has consequences that might not be in the long-term interest of the country or its ruling elite after all.

Atrocities and Cover-up

On May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the LTTE. This marked an end to a 26-year-long civil war that killed tens of thousands of people. Human Rights Watch’s continuous research in the country established that during the final phase of the conflict, both the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the LTTE repeatedly violated the laws of war, causing numerous civilian casualties.

Forced to retreat by SLA offensive operations, the LTTE drove civilians into a narrow strip of land on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. They effectively used several hundred thousand people as human shields. On at least several occasions, the Tamil Tigers shot at those trying to flee to government-held territory. LTTE forces also deployed near densely populated areas, placing civilians in greater danger from government attacks. As the fighting intensified, the LTTE stepped up its practice of forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, into its ranks and into hazardous forced labor on the battlefield.

The government, in turn, used the LTTE’s grim practices to justify its own atrocities. Sri Lankan forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas densely populated with civilians, sometimes using area weapons incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants. As the LTTE-controlled area shrank, the government unilaterally declared “no-fire zones” or “safe zones” on three different occasions, telling civilians to seek shelter there. Nevertheless, government forces continued attacking these areas. In blatant disregard of the laws of war, government forces also fired artillery that directly struck or landed near hospitals on at least 30 occasions.

Sri Lanka claimed that in the last days of the war, it carried out “the largest hostage-rescue operation” that liberated thousands of Tamils from the oppressive rule of the LTTE. Yet in reality, to this day the “rescued” Tamil population has seen neither freedom nor relief. From March 2008 until the present, the government has confined virtually all civilians displaced by the war in military-controlled detention camps, euphemistically called “welfare centers.” In violation of international law, the government denied the displaced their rights to liberty and freedom of movement. The camp residents are kept in the dark regarding their own future and the fate of their missing relatives. More than four months after the end of hostilities, the government continues to hold more than 250,000 civilians in illegal detention.

The full extent of the crimes committed by both sides to the conflict is still unknown. The Sri Lankan government spared no effort to prevent independent coverage of its military operations and the plight of displaced civilians. It has kept out both international and local media as well as human rights organizations, has made sure that witnesses to its abuses are securely locked up in camps, and has harassed and persecuted those who dared to speak out — doctors, activists and journalists. It has even deported outspoken UN officials.

Turning East

Despite mounting evidence of abuses in Sri Lanka, the response from Western countries was initially weak, though eventually several governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France, raised their voices. They strongly condemned indiscriminate attacks and urged a humanitarian corridor for civilians trapped in the war zone. After the war, they called for an independent investigation and continued to advocate against indefinite detention of the displaced. In a show of disapproval of Sri Lanka’s human rights violations, these countries, along with Germany and Argentina, also made the unprecedented move of abstaining from the vote on the International Monetary Fund’s $2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka. The loan, delayed for several months because of these concerns, was eventually approved in July 2009. But each quarterly installment will need a separate vote of approval by the IMF’s board of governors.

The Sri Lankan government, however, gambled on the idea that no matter how upset the West may be, nobody would judge the “winners.” It dismissed all criticism out of hand. It attacked Western governments for their own human rights practices, calling the pleas for civilian protection “hypocrisy and sanctimony.” And it accused critical governments and international institutions of being LTTE sympathizers.

Sri Lanka’s confidence in the face of criticism was also boosted by a gradual re-orientation of its foreign policy toward the East. According to some defense experts, Chinese military ordnance was decisive in the final stages of the war against the LTTE. Pakistan has boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly $100 million. Iran granted $450 million for a hydropower project and provided a seven-month credit facility so that Sri Lanka’s entire crude oil requirement could be sourced from there; it also reportedly provided low-interest credit so that Sri Lanka could purchase military equipment from Pakistan and China. Libya pledged $500 million as a financial co-operation package for development projects. Even Burma donated $50,000 to the Sri Lankan government.

In addition to substantial financial support, Sri Lanka’s new friends also stood up to defend Sri Lanka against accountability at the UN Security Council. In the Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka received wholehearted support from countries like Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, Iran, and others who ensured the adoption of a deeply flawed resolution that largely commended the Sri Lankan government for its current policies. In June, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — an intergovernmental mutual-security organization founded by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — granted Sri Lanka the status of Dialogue Partner.

While the support for Sri Lanka was largely driven by each country’s political and economic motives, some common factors were also clearly in play — an effort to counterbalance India’s influence in the region (in the case of China and Pakistan), similar problems with separatist groups and abusive counterinsurgency campaigns, and an overall tendency to jointly oppose Western criticism and challenge Western domination in the international arena.

Reality Bites

Sri Lanka’s hardnosed response to its Western critics may have worked in the short term but it may not be, after all, sustainable.

The first reality check came with the European Union’s threat to withdraw significant trading privileges granted to Sri Lanka under a trading scheme called the Generalized System of Preferences plus (GSP+). Since 2005, the privileges allowed Sri Lanka to export goods and products duty-free to EU countries. According to an EU estimate, the agreement was worth Ä900 million and employment of over 100,000 people in the apparel sector in Sri Lanka.

In September this year, the EU presented the Sri Lankan government with the results of a year-long investigation of Sri Lanka’s compliance with human rights requirements for continued GSP+ status. The Sri Lankan government refused to cooperate with the investigation. However, upon realizing that the threat of withdrawal was real and could become politically costly if the government calls early presidential elections, authorities launched an aggressive campaign, spearheaded by a president-appointed ministerial task force, to ensure the continuation of the trade concessions. Through it all, the government insisted at home that it wouldn’t bend under Western pressure.

In the meantime, the U.S. State Department has been preparing a congressionally mandated investigative report into allegations of war crimes committed by both sides during the final phase of the conflict. Around September 21, when the investigation was due to be presented in Congress, pro-government Sri Lankan media published dismissals of the report, saying that it was based on hearsay and “violates Sri Lanka’s rights and sovereignty.” The critics admitted they hadn’t seen the text — which wasn’t surprising, given that the presentation of the report had been postponed and the whole campaign proved to be a false start. It did indicate, however, how anxious Sri Lanka is about the report’s possible conclusions. Some of the top officials must be particularly concerned about being accused of war crimes by a country where they hold citizenship or permanent residency status.

Sri Lanka’s nervousness about its international standing has not yet triggered any significant improvement on human rights matters, and there is no indication that the government is genuinely rethinking its policies. The changing discourse, however, implies that the government may be more susceptible to pressure than the international community previously believed. And the international community should use this moment to ensure progress on some of the burning human rights issues — freedom for thousands of displaced Tamil civilians, the end of persecution of journalists and civil society activists, and accountability for violations committed during the conflict.

In addition to pushing publicly and privately for the release of the displaced, the United States has a particularly important role to play on the issue of accountability. It should use its influence at the UN to help launch an international independent investigation into violations of humanitarian law. Washington should also make clear that future development aid to Colombo will depend on concrete progress on these key issues. Abstaining from the vote on the second tranche of Sri Lanka’s IMF loan would be an appropriate way to convey the message.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Anna Neistat is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s emergencies division and is a specialist in humanitarian crises.