Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. Thank you very much for inviting Human Rights Watch to testify at this important and timely hearing.
Over the last two decades, Human Rights Watch has documented human rights violations in Sri Lanka, especially those committed by security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE, particularly during the conflict that ended in May 2009.
Today I'll talk a little bit about the lack of accountability for alleged war crimes, particularly during the final stages of the conflict, and also about the current human rights situation in the country.
With regard to the final stages of the conflict, Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of victims and eyewitnesses to abuses. We have analyzed photos, video, and satellite imagery. Our findings are consistent with the investigations by other independent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group, and more recently, a panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General.
The panel's report, which was published in April this year, found strong and credible allegations that both the government and the LTTE committed serious violations during the final months. The report actually concludes that up to 40,000 civilians may have died during this period, the majority as a result of government shelling.
In terms of the specific abuses that we have documented, we documented abuses by the LTTE such as the use of civilians as human shields and deliberately firing on civilians to prevent them from fleeing to safety. The LTTE also forcibly recruited children.
On the government side, government forces killed civilians by widespread shelling. They committed numerous indiscriminate attacks, including attacks on the government-designated safe zones, including clearly marked hospitals, as well as humanitarian objects such as food lines and UN trucks that were trying to deliver aid. The government also deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid. Many more people died because of insufficient food and medical attention.
Some specific examples of war crimes that were committed by government forces are included in video footage that has now been released and was recently shown in a U.K. Channel 4 documentary, The Killing Fields. It included some footage of summary execution of prisoners on May 18, 2009.
Human Rights Watch has obtained a longer version of this video and photographs of the same incident from various different sources. We believe this footage is authentic. It shows what appears to be a summary execution of various prisoners by government troops. The footage also pans over about a dozen dead bodies in a field.
One of the dead bodies in the video and photographs is a woman named Isaippiriya, a 27-year-old reporter for the LTTE. Her body and the bodies of other women that appear beside her are partially naked, and soldiers who recorded the video make lewd comments, raising concerns that these women may have been sexually assaulted.
Despite the existence of such graphic evidence of alleged war crimes, the Sri Lankan government has taken no efforts to genuinely investigate these allegations.
Immediately after the war ended, in a joint communiqué issued in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government and the UN Secretary-General agreed to address accountability; however, since that time, there really have been zero good faith efforts on accountability by the Sri Lankan government for any of the extensive laws-of-war violations committed by both parties to the conflict.
The government has established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, but this lacks the mandate to investigate serious violations such as war crimes. Instead, the mandate of this commission is to look at what were the failings of the 2002 ceasefire agreement. The members of this commission also lack independence and impartiality. The UN panel report has described the process of the LLRC as deeply flawed.
The government has really used the LLRC as a delaying tactic. After several delays, the report is now expected to be presented to the Sri Lankan president on November 15 of this year. So far, interim recommendations that have been made by the commission have not contained a single recommendation relating to accountability.
Since 1977 the Sri Lankan government has established 14 government commissions, and usually these commissions have been established in response to international criticism of its human rights record. The work of these commissions has been tainted by political interference and has mainly served to exonerate government security forces.
The last such commission prior to this one was the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons, the IIGEP, which had a broad mandate, but even they in the end terminated their work, citing a lack of political will on the part of the government to take any action on their findings and recommendations.
If we return to that example of the video of summary executions aired on Channel 4, there is information posted on the website of the Ministry of Defence of Sri Lanka implicating the 53rd division of the Sri Lankan army in the killing of several of these individuals. Yet there has still been no credible investigation, either by the military or by the civilian authorities. Incredibly, the government continues to dismiss the footage as fake, despite several UN experts who have found it to be authentic.
Now I will turn to the current human rights situation in the country. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka remains bleak, despite the end of the war. Constitutional amendments passed last year have expanded the president's powers and reduced the independence of key institutions such as the judiciary, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Elections Commission.
The Rajapaska family has really consolidated power and extended their authoritarian rule. They hold key government portfolios, and about 94 government departments are in control of various members of the family.
Severe restrictions on free expression remain. People are unable to express views opposing those of the government. This year there have continued to be several reports of independent journalists and editors who have been severely beaten or threatened. Opposition political candidates have also faced violence in Sri Lanka.
The armed forces continue to have police powers, and there's a strong military presence in the north. While most of the internally displaced people have left the detention camps, there hasn't been a permanent durable solution for those who come from areas where the final stages of the fighting occurred.
While emergency regulations in Sri Lanka lapsed at the end of August, there continue to be very strict counter-terrorism laws that remain in place and that allow for up to 18 months of preventive detention. Several thousand suspected LTTE members are still being held under the lapsed emergency regulations and have not been brought to trial.
This repressive government has really shown no serious effort to address accountability, and it still fails to protect the fundamental rights of its people. Instead of investigating these alleged violations, the Sri Lankan government has engaged in an aggressive public relations offensive against anyone who calls for accountability, summarily dismissing a lot of these allegations as fake or LTTE propaganda.
The Government of Canada has recently taken a number of positive steps with regard to its foreign policy on Sri Lanka. Canada's Prime Minister said recently in Perth that he intended to boycott the 2013 Commonwealth heads of government meeting to be held in Colombo unless Sri Lanka really shows progress in addressing human rights issues and accountability.
Human Rights Watch supports this move and, together with other groups, we have suggested various benchmarks that really need to be met before Sri Lanka can host the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.
Firstly, there needs to be an effort at criminal investigations into alleged war crimes that have been committed. It has long been evident that justice and accountability in Sri Lanka cannot simply rely on the government, but depend on strong and concerted actions by the international community. What's really needed is an international accountability mechanism, as recommended by the Secretary-General's panel of experts, to investigate war crimes that were committed in the final stages of the war.
The Canadian government has already expressed support for this recommendation. What we need to see now is for Canada to show some leadership on this issue by mobilizing other countries ahead of the next Human Rights Council session in March. We would certainly welcome Canada's leadership in establishing such a mechanism.
Given Sri Lanka's dismissive approach, there needs to be international oversight of any domestic accountability measures that may result from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The victims of Sri Lanka's war crimes have waited long enough and deserve nothing less.