Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced as a result of fighting in the north and east. By November, tens of thousands of families were trapped in the Wanni region without adequate food, shelter, sanitation and medical care as the government barred UN and other humanitarian staff. Government allied armed groups committed unlawful killings and enforced disappearances. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) deliberately targeted civilians in the south in a string of attacks throughout the year. The government failed to address impunity for past human rights violations, and continued to carry out enforced disappearances. The government arrested and detained increasing numbers of Tamils without charge. Human rights defenders and journalists across the country reported increased attacks including death threats.
In January, the government formally withdrew from the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with LTTE and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission departed. Independent accounts of the situation in conflict areas were rare as access by the media, the UN and humanitarian agencies was restricted.
Sri Lanka was not re-elected to the Human Rights Council in May 2008.
In July, the conflict shifted to the north-eastern Wanni region, displacing over 300,000 people, mostly Tamils, including 30,000 children trapped between approaching Sri-Lankan security forces and LTTE, which imposed restrictions on their ability to leave and used them as an involuntary pool of recruits and labourers.
"Journalists faced physical assaults, abductions, intimidation, harassment and being shot..."
On 9 September, the government ordered the UN and NGOs to leave the Wanni region. However, from 29 September, the government did allow some international UN workers to accompany food convoys into the Wanni region but humanitarian access remained extremely limited. Due to these restrictions, displaced populations faced immense hardship including lack of shelter and restricted access to food and medicine. Tens of thousands of families were forced to live in the open during the rainy season in November.
The government also maintained the closure of the A9 highway, the only land route to the Jaffna Peninsula. The closure severely restricted access to humanitarian supplies by civilians living in Jaffna.
Violations by government-allied armed groups
The government increasingly used allied armed groups to carry out its counter-insurgency strategy. At the Human Rights Council session in June, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions expressed concerns about the government relying extensively on paramilitary groups to maintain control in the East and, to a lesser extent in Jaffna, noting that there was evidence that these groups carried out extrajudicial executions.
The Tamil Makkal Vidulthalai Pulikal (TMVP), operating in the eastern provinces, continued to carry out unlawful killings, hostage-taking for ransoms, recruitment of child soldiers and enforced disappearances.
The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), operating in Jaffna Peninsula and the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam operating in Vavuniya District, were reportedly responsible for unlawful killings and enforced disappearances.
Abuses by the LTTE
The LTTE increasingly carried out targeted attacks on civilians. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 180 civilians were killed and nearly 270 were injured in the first six weeks of 2008 in a series of attacks on civilian buses, railway stations and individuals in Colombo, Dambulla, Kebhitigollewa, Madhu, Okkampitiya and Welli Oya and Anuradhapura.
The LTTE imposed a strict pass system, hindering thousands of families from the Wanni region from moving to safer areas. They also sought to ensure that families returned to LTTE-controlled areas by forcing some family members to remain behind.
The LTTE punished those who resisted forced recruitment into the LTTE by holding them in detention centres. Child recruitment increased in LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni region.
Enforced disappearances continued to be part of a pattern of abuse apparently linked to the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. Enforced disappearances were reported in the north and east as well as previously unaffected parts of the country including in Colombo and the south. Many enforced disappearances took place inside high-security zones and during curfew hours.
- Sebastian Goodfellow, a driver for the aid agency Norwegian Refugee Council, was last seen on 15 May 2008. It is suspected that an armed group operating with the tacit support of government security forces abducted him.
In June and December, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed concern about the high number of recent cases of enforced disappearances.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions
The security forces in Colombo arrested an increasing number of Tamils under emergency regulations in cordon and search operations. Over 1,000 Tamils were in detention without charge; some have been in detention for several years. In September, the Police ordered all Tamils who had arrived from the north and east in the last five years to register with the authorities. Tamils holding National Identity Cards from the north and east were most likely to be arrested.
Investigations into human rights violations by the military and police stalled and court cases did not proceed as witnesses refused to come forward for fear of reprisals.
In April, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons tasked with overseeing the latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI) into 16 cases of serious violations of human rights terminated their mission stating that the COI had not been able to investigate cases in an efficient and independent manner in accordance with international standards. The lack of a functioning witness protection system was highlighted by the COI.
In July, Sri Lanka rejected the recommendation made by at least 10 states during its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent human rights monitoring mechanism, in co-operation with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, despite a dysfunctional domestic criminal justice system.
- On 7 October, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, otherwise known as Karuna, was sworn into Parliament. As military commander of the TMVP, and previously as a military commander in the LTTE, Karuna is suspected of serious human rights abuses and war crimes, including the abduction of hundreds of teenagers to serve as child soldiers, and the torture, holding as hostage and killing of hundreds of civilians. There has been no official investigation into these allegations.
Human rights defenders and journalists
Journalists faced physical assaults, abductions, intimidation, harassment and being shot, by both government personnel and members of armed groups. Journalists and media workers in the north and east were particularly at risk. Since 2006, nine journalists and media workers have been killed in Jaffna.
- On 23 May, Keith Noyar, editor of Nation, was abducted from his home in Colombo and returned the next day beaten. He has not spoken publicly about what happened during his abduction.
- On 28 May, journalist Paranirupasingam Devakumar, aged 36, of Vaddukoddai, Jaffna, was hacked to death in Navanthurei by unidentified attackers while returning home to Jaffna town. Paranirupasingam Devakumar had been reporting on abuses by the EPDP; he was the last reporter to file television news based in Jaffna.
- Journalist and prisoner of conscience Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam has been detained in Colombo since 7 March. He is believed to be held in connection with newspaper articles he wrote about the human rights situation in the Eastern Province. Although he was not initially charged with any offence, in August he was formally indicted in the Colombo High Court under terrorism legislation for inciting racial hatred. In December, the Supreme Court ruled that an alleged confession obtained while he was detained by the Terrorism Investigation Division was voluntary and admissible as evidence in his trial despite his claim that the confession was made following torture and other ill-treatment.
Human rights defenders continued to be attacked and threatened. Domestic human rights groups reported an increase in threats to their staff, particularly those working in the north and east.
- On 27 September, human rights lawyer J.C. Weliamuna and his family survived a grenade attack on their home in Colombo.
Amnesty International visitsNo delegates were able to gain official permission to visit the country.
Amnesty International reports
Sri Lanka: Silencing Dissent (7 Febraury 2008)
Sri Lanka: Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review – Second session of the UPR Working Group, 5-16 May 2008 (8 February 2008)
Sri Lanka: Further information on arbitrary detention: Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam (15 May 2008)
Sri Lanka: LTTE, government endangering lives of tens of thousands of newly displaced around Wanni (14 August 2008)
Sri Lanka: Karuna’s presence in Parliament a travesty of justice (7 October 2008)
Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan government must act now to protect 300,000 displaced, (19 November 2008)