Books/Modernization vs Militarization: Ethnic Conflict & Labour in Sri LankaAppendix 1: The Amnesty letters
The fundamental difference between the violence of terrorists that of the security forces
The following letters relating to Amnesty International have been included to show how the Sri Lankan government tries to legitimise extra-judicial executions, torture, and other violations of civil and political rights. Global condemnation of the violence in Sri Lanka, including such measures as the appointment of a Human Rights Rapporteur by the Human Rights Commission threats of withdrawal of aid or the linking of aid to human rights improvements, and other forms of international chastisement have had a profound effect on Sri Lanka. While the basic elements of repression remain in place, some degree of peoples' participation to bring about change has been made possible due to this chastisement and the world's awareness of the Sri Lankan crisis.
The following is a letter from Bradman Weerakoon, Presidential Adviser on International Relations, to Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, Chair-woman of the Lawyer's Group of Amnesty International; it is in reply to an earlier letter from Ms. Kiddell-Monroe to Sri Lanka's President Premadasa.
I am writing to thank you for the letter you addressed to the president on October 19 expressing your concern over the alleged violations of human rights in Sri Lanka. The president has directed me to respond.
First, let me thank you for the concern you have shown over the welfare of Sri Lankans and about Sri Lanka as a whole. We value the interest that you are taking in the affairs of this country.
I should emphasise that the alleged threat to human rights in Sri Lanka has been engaging the serious attention of the government for some time and is currently the responsibility of a high-powered task force that the president has constituted for dealing with it.
Before I deal with the specific averments made by you in your letter, I thought it might help if I sketched out for you the background to the problem.
You are, of course, aware that during the past four decades most so-called Third World countries have been struggling to come out of the distortions that the colonial experience of several hundred years had inflicted on them. This struggle has involved two gigantic tasks. One, the task of nation - building, and the other, the task of restructuring their economies.
It took the industrialised countries four centuries, innumerable wars, tens of millions of dead and wounded and the subjugation of almost two-thirds of the globe to the status of colonies before they completed these tasks within their own countries. In some notable cases among them, these tasks are still not complete.
On the other hand, Third World countries have been addressing these tasks only for about four decades, and that too has been attempted under conditions so inimical to their fulfilment that it is a wonder that they have been able to achieve even what they have within this period.
During these four decades, Sri Lanka also has been engaged in the task of nation-building and restructuring its economy. In the process it has encountered misunderstandings, violent conflicts, insurrections, terrorism, threats to democracy and attempts by the two terrorist groups, the LTTE and the JVP, at systematically dismantling society itself.
It is regrettable that, while organizations like Amnesty International have devoted a great deal of time, space, energy and money to exposing the "violations" that the government is alleged to be guilty of, hardly anything has been said of the deliberate and systematic atrocities perpetrated on civilians and against society as a whole by these two terrorist groups.
The LTTE and the JVP have both openly proclaimed their ideology of trusting in the power of the bullet instead of the ballot. Both have committed themselves to the attainment of their political goals through a systematic assassination of persons opposed to them rather than through persuasion and dialogue. Both organizations have openly repudiated any obligation to conform to the rule of law. Above all, both organizations during the past several years have actually set about systematically and meticulously trying to achieve their social and political goals by implementing their ideologies of indiscriminate killings.
Curiously, 'human rights' groups seem to argue that the atrocities perpetrated by terrorist groups against the state, or even against other civilian groups, do not constitute 'violations.' Only the 'state' is deemed to be capable of such defections.
Unfortunately this has reduced the discussion of alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka to a purely one-sided affair. Regardless of the problems of governance and ignoring altogether the right of the state, indeed its obligation, to defend itself against the challenge to its legitimacy and survival, lobbyists have adopted the highly populist pursuit of condemning the government and its functionaries and turning a blind eye to the activities of the terrorists.
Such partisan lobbying, while being a distortion of the truth, is also highly dangerous because it tends to encourage and legitimise the atrocities perpetrated by terrorists.
In the Sri Lankan situation, what actually happened was that President Premadasa, out of a genuine commitment to reconciliation, peace and democracy, not merely opted for negotiations, but even endangering the survival of his government, ordered his security forces for many months to stay in their barracks lest any activity shown by them, even of a purely defensive nature, might be construed by the terrorists as a lack of good faith on his part. These facts are well known, both within the country and outside.
Not only did the terrorists fail to avail themselves of President Premadasa's offer to negotiate, but they systematically and ruthlessly escalated the level and intensity of violence. Finally the JVP started murdering, dismembering and mutilating the wives and children, the parents and relatives of service personnel in the hope of terrorising them into mutiny and desertion.
At this stage the president, realising the risk of serious disaffection within the services, ordered them to take measures effectively to wipe out terrorism.
In the case of the LTTE, they too spurned President Premadasa's commitment to negotiations. When parliament was on the verge of putting through legislation that was necessary for meeting their most urgent demands, they attacked and overran 25 police stations and murdered more than 600 police constables who had surrendered to them. Since then the LTTE has killed more than 300 Muslim civilians who were at prayer in their mosques and hundreds more of innocent women and children who had nothing to do with combat operations.
Strangely, human rights lobbyists do not seem to consider it necessary to condemn or even talk about these violations. In Sri Lanka the two terrorist groups, the LTTE and the JVP, have violated the right to life, the rights of children to education, the rights of shopkeepers to trade, the rights of 6tizens to travel, the rights of voters to go to the polls, the rights of the sick to receive treatment in hospitals, the rights of the clergy to practice their vocations and even the rights of people to bury their dead. But lobbyists for human rights have remained strangely silent.
Predictably, when security forces have to deal with terrorist groups who, as a matter of ideology and deliberate strategy, adopt practices of the most unimaginable savagery, excesses are bound to occur. The government is aware of several such instances and has instituted appropriate measures to deal with them.
The proneness of security forces to commit excesses is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. It is a characteristic universal to military personnel of all cultures and all traditions. This is even more true when the 'enemy' they are called upon to deal with has, as a matter of ideology as well as of systematic practice, shown themselves to be ruthless killers capable of violating every known standard of human decency.
However, we need to draw a fundamental distinction between the violence of the terrorists and the violence of the security forces.
The former is ideological, is not constrained by the need to explain, is unaccountable to anyone and is, therefore, unbridled. The latter is always reactive, always occasioned by the need to defend the state and society, always accountable to the law, and always exposed to scrutiny by the international community.
This is not an argument in defence of excesses that may have been committed by the security forces. It is only an attempt to restore perspective and balance to a debate that has become highly partisan, prejudiced and unhelpful.
Finally, allow me to assure you that the particular issues you have raised in regard to alleged human rights violations have been noted and are being dealt with by the task force that has been set up for this purpose by the president.
What Sri Lanka needs at this moment is not the censure and condemnation of human rights lobbyists, but their active assistance in the country's effort to create the social and economic environment in which terrorist groups like the LTTE and the JVP will neither originate nor survive.
Whatever assistance that you personally or the institution you represent can give to this country in this matter will be greatly valued.
I thank you again for the interest you have taken.
[Reprinted from The Sunday Observer of December 2, 1990, published in Colombo, Sri Lanka.]
Governments have special responsibility for human rights violations
The following letter from Ian Martin, secretary general of Amnesty International, is the response of the organization to Mr. Weerakoon's letter of November 13, 1990, and was reproduced in an edition of the Sri Lanka Review.
I would like to take this opportunity to reply to your letter to Amnesty International member Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, which was published in the Sunday Observer in Colombo in December, as it was put forward there as the government of Sri Lanka's response to Amnesty International's recent work on Sri Lanka.
The central issue addressed in your letter concerns the role of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, in contexts of wide-spread opposition violence, and the relative weight we place on abuses committed by armed opposition groups as compared with those of the official security forces. Indeed, you make the grave and false charge that by reporting on only one side of the issue, "and ignoring altogether the right of the state….to defend itself against the challenge to its legitimacy and survival," human rights organizations, such as ours, tend "to encourage and legitimise the atrocities perpetrated by terrorists." At the same time, you appear to argue that excesses committed by the security forces during counter-insurgency operations, while not defensible, are a natural consequence of their situation: "The proneness of security forces to commit excesses is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. It is a characteristic universal to military personnel of all cultures and all traditions." We believe these views are misleading and fail to address the fundamental issue of the state's responsibility to protect and promote human rights.
As an organization which works on human rights issues world-wide, we are well aware of the varying political contexts in which human rights. violations are committed and of the serious provocation which armed organizations, such as the LTTE and the JVP, pose for security forces' personnel.This is why in our reports on Sri Lanka we have taken great care to ensure that the nature and scale of opposition violence is clearly stated, and that when reported violations by the security forces were apparently committed in response to murders by members of these groups, they are presented in context as acts of reprisal.
Indeed, we have included in our reports precisely those points which readers of your letter alone might think we had omitted: that the JVP and the LTTE systematically murdered political opponents and many other people; that they threatened and killed voters; and in the case of the JVP, that they called extensive strikes under threat of death for non-participants, and in August 1989 announced a program of murdering the relatives of personnel in the security forces who did not resign. In the case of the LTTE, we have also reported their murder of hundreds of policemen whom they took captive in June 1990; their killing of many hundreds Sinhalese and Muslim civilians; and their imprisonment of Tamils as hostages or because they believed them to be politically suspect. Far from encouraging and legitimising" such actions by these groups; as you allege, we have clearly, unambiguously arid consistently condemned them.
However, you are correct in saying that we concentrate on human rights violations committed by governments and their agents and that it is to governments that we address our concerns. We do this in full recognition of the right and obligation of governments to defend themselves and their citizens against violent attacks as we have also made very clear in our reports. In fulfilling this obligation, however, we believe that governments must fulfil their obligations under international law to uphold and respect fundamental human rights. However widespread the violence of opposition groups - and however much space we have devoted to it in our reports - their abuses can never justify government forces ignoring the most basic of fundamental rights in response: the right to freedom from arbitrary deprivation of life and the right to be free from torture. There can be no justification for the deliberate killing and enforced "disappearance" of thousands of prisoners or for torture. The government of Sri Lanka in 1980 clearly expressed its acceptance of these basic principles of international human rights law when it acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and while the ICCPR does permit derogation from various rights at times of national emergency, there are no circumstances in which it permits derogation from the rights to life and freedom from torture.
Amnesty International urges governments around the world to protect basic human rights and respect international standards because this is a universally recognised governmental responsibility. Governments have the legal obligation to bring to justice those who violate human rights just as they have responsibility for bringing to justice those who commit other kinds of crime. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that when we call for those who have committed violations such as extra-judicial executions to be brought to justice we are upholding the rights of only one side to a conflict. This is not so: upholding the right to life can include the prosecution of members of opposition groups who have committed murder as well as bringing to justice members of the security forces or other government officials who have violated this right.
It is also sometimes mistakenly thought that we object to the use of force by government forces to counter opposition violence. Again, this is not the case so long as the force used is necessary and regulated and is proportionate to the demands of the situation. That is, the force used should not exceed what is necessary to prevent crime or lawfully arrest suspects. The killings we object to and report on are those which exceed these bounds: the deliberate killings of unarmed criminal suspects as an alternative to their lawful arrest; of prisoners held in detention or facing trial; and of unarmed demonstrators. It is killings such as these which clearly violate international law as does the deliberate killing of any other person who is clearly defenceless, including enemy combatants who are wounded and offering no resistance or who have surrendered.
The view that armed opposition groups necessarily provoke the security forces into committing unavoidable excesses is both misleading and p0-tentially dangerous. First, the kinds of killings that we are concerned with in our reports are not panic killings committed by security force personnel who are out of control; they are deliberate killings carried out in reprisal attacks on particular localities several hours or days after murders by the armed opposition or committed after people have been taken prisoner. Second, there is a strong argument to be made that in permitting such excesses to be committed by its forces, governments can, in fact, further the aims of the very insurgent groups they seek to eradicate. If a government succumbs to the temptation - which in some circumstances can be strong - to let its forces commit crimes similar to those being committed by such groups, the breakdown in law and order at every level leads to a loss of moral authority, of the ability to protect public security and social stability, and of the very distinctiveness, and even legitimacy, of government itself.
Amnesty International campaigns for the protection of human rights on the basis of international human rights standards. These standards were created by, adopted by and binding on governments around the world. They are not addressed to opposition groups or individuals who are answerable for the abuses they may commit under national criminal law. This approach is not intended to minimise the potential gravity of opposition violence; it does, however, recognise that there is a basic difference between governmental and non-governmental groups.
Treating abuses committed by members of non-governmental organizations as being equivalent to human rights violations committed by governments or their agents would blur an essential distinction. Governments and opposition groups are not equivalent, and Amnesty International does not treat them as such. The system of international human rights law is founded on governmental responsibility. Governments have a special role, a special responsibility to their own citizens and to the international community to uphold the basic standards of justice contained in international human rights law. This includes providing remedies when human rights violations are committed: for example, by compensating victims and by identifying and bringing to justice the perpetrators. Opposition groups which show no respect for law and which are not recognised as having international legal obligations can be condemned, but there is no basis in law nor any practical means for calling upon them to demonstrate their accountability. They cannot be asked to institute such remedies as bringing perpetrators to justice through the courts because to do so would be tantamount to suggesting that they establish their own criminal justice system separate from that of the state.
I hope these comments help to clarify Amnesty International's position.
An Open Letter of Support for Amnesty International
Following is a comment on Mr. Bradmaan Weerakoon's letter, published n the Sri Lanka Review, 1991:
In Mr. Weerakoon's letter of November 13, 1990, he does not attempt to deny the alleged violations of human rights. Perhaps photographs and other evidence available to the world is far too overwhelming that it is no longer possible to deny the massive acts of brutality, extra-judicial killings and torture in Sri Lanka. Many journalists from throughout the world have claimed these to be among the worst abuses of human rights in the world, making Sri Lanka one of the world's worst places in which to live. Mr. Weerakoon, speaking for the government, even adds that a high powered task force has been constituted by the president "to deal with it" (human rights abuses).
Amnesty International, Sri Lankan, and other concerned people and groups who have carried on a ceaseless campaign to halt the brutality experienced in Sri Lanka, may console themselves that they have at least. achieved a moral victory by this tacit admission. Mr. Weerakoon, however, has adopted a more sophisticated approach by attempting to justify the human rights violations of the State's forces. The arguments in defence of such violations expressed in his letter are as follows:
a. Violations of the State's forces were only in retaliation for the violence of the JVP and the LTTE, and he calls the campaign to expose such violations as partisan.
b. These acts, which have received international condemnation, he refers to as "excesses" and states the "excesses" are inevitable. "Excesses are bound to occur," he says. "The proneness of the security forces to commit excesses is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. It is a characteristic universal to military personal of all cultures and all traditions."
C. He claims that there is "a fundamental distinction between the violence of the terrorists and the violence of the security forces." He adds that "the former is ideological, unaccountable and unbridled," and "the latter is always reactive, always occasioned by the need to defend the state and society, always accountable to the law, and always exposed to scrutiny by the international community."
All these basic premises that Mr. Weerakoon has postulated are false in relation to the brutal horror Sri Lanka has experienced and continues to experience.
Before analysing these, it is necessary to refer to the most disturbing sentence found in Mr. Weerakoon's letter: "At this stage the president, realising the risk of serious disaffection within the services, ordered them to take measures effectively to wipe out terrorism.
Mr. Weerakoon must be thanked for that frank statement as it exposes the violent situation in the country better than criticism made by any human rights organization. By the above statement, the presidential adviser makes the president responsible for all of the alleged violations by the state's forces and the cruelties for which Sri Lankan forces, including the police, have become notorious. All actions done by the state's forces are thus made to appear as "authorised" actions.
Nothing could better explain the state of anarchy that exists in the country, and the fear in which ordinary citizens are living, than this idea of authorisation. If everything that the military and the police have been doing, and are doing, are regarded as actions for which the president accepts responsibility, then the president has been acting beyond the powers vested in him by the constitution.
For example, does the president accept responsibility for the bodies floating in the rivers; the burning of bodies and their disposal outside of authorised places for cremations and burials; the thousands and thousands of disappearances; the torture of people using the cruelest of techniques - that has been attributed to the state's forces; the killing of innocent people for which Richard de Zoysa has become a symbol. Are these actions for which the president accepts responsibility? The answer to these questions lies in the solution to most of the political riddles of the recent past in Sri Lanka.
In the very first issue of the Sri Lanka Review, we raised constitutional issues relating to the Sri Lankan presidency, including the president's relationship to elected representatives as well as to the cabinet. Did the Sri Lankan president, acting together with the cabinet, "order them (the military) to take measures to effectively wipe out terrorism?" If so, when, at which meeting, and recorded in which minutes? Or was the cabinet merely a spectator to what the president and his advisers were doing; an ill-informed spectator at that? What documents are available about the discussions between the military and the president when he "ordered them to take measures effectively to wipe out terrorism?" Or was it verbal only? The people inside the country, as well as anyone interested in democracy, have a right to know more about the "order" or "orders" that have been referred to in the paragraph written by one of the president's closest advisers in his official capacity and as a reply to a letter addressed to the president.
The second most disturbing as well as revealing aspect of this sentence is: "ordered them to take the measures" (editor's emphasis). What this plainly implies is that a blank check [sic] was given to the military. If that is not so, what was the manner in which the military was to carry out the order mentioned above? Was there or is there a system of record keeping in which the president is aware of each of the actions of the military?
For example, if the military kills fifteen people in a village at Kelaniya and throws them into the Kelani River, or burns them with tires along the road, is there a record of this anywhere; and if there is, is the president aware of this? Is the public entitled to see these documents, say at least those relating to incidents in 1989, for example, now that these events are history and there is no threat to security involved by such a revelation. If the government wants to prove that it did the right thing under the circumstances, as this letter implies, there is no better way than to open its files on those operations, if they exist. Even if they do not want to open the files to the public, will the government state that such documents do in fact exist? Is not every individual entitled to a public statement relating to his or her life and death at the hands of the state? Are not such rights now well established in any civilised society?
On the other hand, does the blank check [sic] imply that the president ordered the State's forces to wipe out terrorism in whatever manner the forces liked and that the forces have no obligation to inform the president of what they have done or are planning to do?
It is factually untrue to state that it was the JVP and LTTE's actions that made the government's Cambodia-type of operation necessary. The ruling party has had almost 15 years to arrive at a just solution. Instead, it has followed a course which has provoked more and more violence. As a recent commentator has pointed out, "it is commonly believed that the 1983 violence was organized by the ruling party."
Brutal suppression of the JVP came about as part of the ruthless suppression of all opposition over a long period. If the opposition had the right to function democratically, this volatile situation would never have come about.
The 'excess' theory is equally bad. We refer to the following comment which appeared in the March 15 issue of Asiaweek:
Going for them meant unleashing a campaign of counter-terror unseen in Asia since the KhmerRouge rolled through Cambodia. Thousands of dead and burning bodies began piling up on the sides of roads, on the beaches and in town squares. On at least one occasion, the JVP tried to assassinate wijeratne, killing his driver in the attack. wijeratne made no apologies for his tough stance. 'It was my life against Wijeweera's life, 'said the minister referring to JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera. By December 1989 the rebel boss was dead and so was the movement. wijeratne later admitted that some of his soldiers may have been 'over-enthusiastic' in pursuing the insurgents.
To regard a Khmer Rouge-type of operation as "over-enthusiasm" or an excess" is to disregard the value of human life. To say the least, it is a cynical approach to the study of a catastrophe. Then, even as an "excess," what has the government done to punish those who engaged in the "excesses?" Richard De Zoysa's inquiry remains a moral indictment against the government. As the leader of the opposition has pointed out, not a single person has been punished, unlike the 1971 incidents. Instead, the 'excess' theory is a sophisticated attempt to minimise the demand for a full inquiry into all that has happened.
Is there a 'fundamental distinction' between the violence of the terrorists and those of the state's forces? Is not such violence also ideological? The ideology expressed by former president J. R. Jayawardene was that the terrorists must be dealt with as animals (murgayo). Is not this ideology simply a justification to wipe out the opposition and remain in power? Is not the ideology which gave rise to the 1982 referendum the same as the one that gave rise to the blood bath which some people still seek to justify?
What the letter of the president's adviser suggests is that the government is not yet in a mood to investigate the whole affair in spite of internal and international pressure. Even the disappearances commission has only a limited mandate. What is necessary is to intensify efforts to demand that the Sri Lankan government respects international requirements of decency towards its citizens.
Thus, we express sincere appreciation to Amnesty and other organizations for their work thus far, and we call upon all concerned people to help in the attempt to see that all human rights violations are fully investigated and redressed in Sri Lanka.
[From the Sri Lanka Review; published by Asia Solidarity Links for Sri Lanka]
A Resolution on Sri Lanka
(Passed - unanimously - on 13 December 1990 in the European Parliament) The European Parliament,
· having regard to the statement of 19 October 1990 by the twelve Member States on Sri Lanka and noting their concern at human rights abuses in Sri Lanka;
· having regard to the statement of the President of Sri Lanka that the October 1990 aid package was an endorsement of his Government's policies and programme;
e having regard to the European Parliament's resolution of July 1990 on Sri Lanka;
· whereas numerous cases of disappearances and extra-judicial executions continue to be reported in Sri Lanka;
· whereas the violence of the JVP contributed to a climate of brutality and repression;
· whereas the Sri Lanka government has acknowledged that the JVP was suppressed by December 1989;
· whereas renewed conflict by the LTTE in June 1990 has exacerbated problems in the North and East of Sri Lanka;
· whereas about 1,500 documented cases of disappearances and extra-judicial executions were delivered to the United Nations in November 1990 by members of the European Parliament;
· whereas no lasting solution to the conflict will be found without protection of equal rights for all people in Sri Lanka irrespective of religion, caste, class, race or ethnic background;
1. Calls on the Sri Lankan Government to constitute an independent Commission of Enquiry into disappearances and extra-judicial executions;
2. Calls on the Sri Lankan Government to publish immediately full and complete lists of those held in detention camps, police stations and other forms of incarceration;
3. Calls on the Sri Lankan Government to uphold its commitment to allow a UN working group to visit Sri Lanka in February 1991 to investigate disappearances;
4. Calls upon Member States to implement adequate mechanisms to indicate progress on human rights and proper law and order before further aid packages are agreed;
5. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Foreign Ministers meeting in political co-operation and to the Sri Lankan Government.
Intervention at the United Nations Human Rights Commission:
UN Working Group to visit Sri Lanka
The Solidarity Forum for Justice and Peace in Sri Lanka and the United Organizations for Human Rights were represented by Linus Jayatilake and Sunita Abeysekera at the United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting held in Geneva from 10 to 22 February. The issue of 'disappearances' was pin-pointed in the intervention, especially since the government's own Presidential Commission of Inquiry only covered cases that arose after January 11, 1991, and this despite the massive number of disappearances, abductions, and killings that took place from 1989 to 1990.
The result was the decision to send a United Nations Working Group on Involuntary Disappearances and a special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, to visit Sri Lanka in early September. Government representative Bradman Weerakoon who was also present at the commission meeting did not oppose this measure.
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Published on: 2002-11-17 (602 reads)[ Go Back ]