The Pulse

Looking at Systemic Torture in Sri Lanka

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The Pulse

Looking at Systemic Torture in Sri Lanka

The Diplomat’s Taylor Dibbert speaks with Frances Harrison of the International Truth and Justice Project.  

Looking at Systemic Torture in Sri Lanka
Credit: Francescsharrison via Wikimedia Commons

Frances Harrison is the program coordinator of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) and author of a book on the final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war. She discussed a new ITJP report with The Diplomat.

ITJP has recently released a new report. What are a few of the big takeaways?

Tragically, “white van” abductions, illegal detention, and torture continued throughout 2016 and into 2017. One security force team abducts, another interrogates and tortures and a third releases for a ransom. The victims, who are Tamil, were detained in purpose-built cells and interrogated in rooms specially equipped for torture. Senior officers walked into torture chambers. [The Eelam People’s Democratic Party] EPDP remains involved in securing releases for money; immigration fraud at the airport [in Colombo] persists unchecked. The military and [Terrorism Investigation Division] TID are still using Joseph Camp as a torture site along with unknown sites; perpetrators are beginning to use biometric fingerprinting machines that were only recently introduced in Sri Lanka.

What’s very shocking to me is that we are now seeing families where several siblings have all been tortured in the post-war period. And individuals who have been detained and repeatedly tortured on as many as three or four separate times. They arrive in the United Kingdom and promptly try to kill themselves – hardly the action of economic migrants. Being an asylum seeker in Britain after enduring war and torture is a terrible ordeal. I help run a small project for 30 recent survivors from Sri Lanka, offering group trauma counselling in Tamil and English classes and a hot spicy meal, and I can’t describe the intensity of the suffering we see. Torture survivors are the first to fall through the cracks of the welfare system.

Very few of the victims we meet now were hard core [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] LTTE cadres, who joined voluntarily and spent years with the organisation being extensively trained. Instead we see forced or child recruits or people with only a tenuous link to the LTTE often through family members. We tend to make assumptions that the Sri Lankan security forces would logically only persecute senior LTTE cadres who might be deemed to pose a future security threat, but instead it’s now clear that this is an ongoing process of crushing Tamils who demand their democratic rights as Sri Lankan citizens. Indeed, asserting one’s rights if one is Tamil, is interpreted by the security forces as an act of defiance and equated to “restarting the LTTE.”

How long did it take to prepare the report?

The report is based on 24 statements from victims of torture that occurred in 2016 and 2017, and reinforced by 33 statements from 2015 victims. Each statement took 3-4 days to record and obviously the work has been ongoing over the last 30 months. We analysed the information and wrote the report, asking our talented Tamil graphic designer to visualize the torture methods in a way that was innovative.

In terms of policy-oriented recommendations – to address torture, abduction, unlawful detention, sexual violence and impunity – what are some positive actions Colombo could take in the next few months to suggest it’s serious about meaningful reform?

I have divided the recommendations into how easy they would be, not politically, but administratively. These are just a personal selection, acknowledging that many others in Sri Lanka have made important recommendations on specific initiatives that I won’t repeat:

Instantly possible:

  • Show at peak hours (and on repeat) the Channel 4 “No Fire Zone” film in Sinhala on Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (state run TV).
  • The President, Prime Minister and armed forces commanders go to Palali Air Base and, in front of hundreds of soldiers and on peak time state TV, issue in Sinhala their instructions to military and police not to commit sexual violence, showing they really mean it this time.
  • The President and Prime Minister publish a version (redacted to protect victims not perpetrators) of the [UN Office of Internal Oversight Services] OIOS inquiry report in to the allegations of extensive child sexual exploitation by Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers from 2004-7 in Haiti and to announce how may Sri Lankan soldiers/officers were held criminally accountable rather than just demoted or early retired.
  • Publish photos and names of all Sri Lankan service men and women going abroad henceforth as UN peacekeepers, so as to be transparent.
  • The President and Prime Minister stop denying the allegations of war crimes and praising the “war heroes” acknowledging that their current rhetoric emboldens racists and deniers.
  • The President and Prime Minister “own,” endorse and adopt the recommendations of the consultation task force report [pertaining to transitional justice mechanisms] that they commissioned.
  • Order the 58th Division [of the Sri Lanka Army] to hand over the list of surrendees from May 18, 2009 [when the war ended] to the Mullaitivu court.

Require administrative action but no new legislation:

  • Institute a vetting process for public officials and stop appointing alleged perpetrators to senior positions.
  • Reply to the questions [the UN Committee Against Torture] UNCAT asked about Sisira Mendis’s alleged involvement in torture.
  • Reconstitute the witness protection National Authority without alleged perpetrators.
  • Enable witnesses abroad to testify through letters rogatory rather than requiring them to enter Sri Lankan embassies.
  • Set up a credible independent investigative unit with international assistance, so as to be able to start holding perpetrators accountable.
  • Decommission Joseph Camp.
  • Establish an independent body to pay reparations to thousands of torture victims outside Sri Lanka, while protecting the victims and their families.

Do you expect that the Sri Lankan government will take any of the steps that you’ve suggested?


What are the best ways for international actors to help Sri Lanka curtail systemic torture and related offenses?

Increased international pressure is urgently required on the human rights issues. I have heard people in the UN argue that speaking out about ongoing violations and impunity will only bring the Rajapaksas back to power and that one cannot approach this government in the same terms as the last. Here at the ITJP we are not interested in regime change or supporting one government as opposed to another; we hold them all to the same high standards, which they have committed to. I do expect the UN to learn from its appalling past in Sri Lanka in 2009 and to speak out clearly for the destroyed people I see still fleeing abroad who have no voice. The failures of the international community in 2009 in Sri Lanka sparked the UN’s “Rights Up Front” movement, but it’s tragically made absolutely no difference in Sri Lanka itself. Independent experts like Felice Gaer and Ben Emmerson have been outspoken about the violations though.

I can’t help recalling that at the height of the war in 2009 the assumption of many in the international community was that if the LTTE were “removed” as a political force then “the problem” would be solved. A few years later, the assumption was that if the Rajapaksas were removed then “the problem” would be solved. Personifying the problems and pushing all the collective blame for systematic failures on to individuals is obviously a flawed approach. This is about systemic and institutional failure.

Many in the international community convinced themselves that Sri Lanka in 2015 offered a once in a lifetime opportunity for historical change. They’re now so invested in wanting the country to be a transitional justice success story that they cannot readily admit it’s failing rapidly and the transition was flimsy at best. A new and more sophisticated international approach is urgently called for – one that I hope prevents any more human beings being branded with a hot metal rod to give them “Tiger stripes” until they pass out unconscious from the pain.

This interview has been edited lightly.