Rajapaksa regime ‘violated human rights by intention’
Says visiting HRW chief Brad Adams, citing facts
emerging from two presidential commission reports:
Banned from entering Sri Lanka in 2008 for his
human rights work, Brad Adams, the current Executive Director of the
Asian Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) is happy to resume work in
the island. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Adams, who was in
Colombo to meet top government officials and to launch ‘We live in fear:
Lack of accountability for police abuse in Sri Lanka’ on October 23,
said facts emerging from two recent presidential commission reports
indicate the former government and the security forces serving under its
directives have not been negligent but have ‘violated human rights by
intention’. He said, though diluted and flawed, the same reports have
accepted widespread rights abuses including the controversial ‘white
is indicated that the controversial incident happened with the
concurrence of very senior public and military officials. There is no
doubt that former President Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and top military officials were involved in the
decision to kill people,” he said.
Adams has worked in Cambodia as the senior
lawyer for the Cambodia Field Office of the UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights and legal advisor to the Cambodian Parliament’s Human
Rights Committee before undertaking his current position with the HRW.
He is a member of the state bar of California and has worked extensively
in the Asia Pacific including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and
Q: When were you here last for
A: I was here just before being
declared ‘persona non grata’ by the former government. The ban came into
effect in 2008. We had just published a report on the North by then as
part of our continued work on Sri Lanka. Up until then, HRW was
tolerated, but after that report, we had some contentious discussions
and that was it. Before that, we have done some detailed reports on
child soldiers and the LTTE, Diaspora’s contribution to funding the LTTE
and fuelling terrorism, LTTE’s continued rights abuses and so on. Some
Tamil rights advocates were extremely angry with HRW at that time. There
were threats to my personal safety. I was condemned by some sections of
the Tamil community together with HRW. I was branded anti-Tamil in
But ahead of the 2009 final offensive, HRW had a report on the Sri
Lanka Army’s offensives which critiqued the military direction of the
government. Then the labelling suddenly changed. I was labelled pro-LTTE
due to the HRW report raising some critical issues about the military’s
conduct. HRW was called an LTTE mouthpiece and its work was condemned.
There was so much hate speech and the word ‘terrorist’ was widely used
against us individuals and the organization.
Our previous reputation changed almost overnight with that single
report, from friend to enemy. There was zero tolerance for criticism in
the Rajapaksa regime.
The government’s excuse for all the listed excesses: They were
fighting terrorism and all was fair in love and war.
Q: What was the government’s response to
the issues you are ready to raise now?
A: There is a marked change in
the attitude of the government today. It is 100% different from what we
experienced a few years ago. We have had interactions with Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
They were very cordial. Minister Samaraweera visited the HRW office in
London twice, post January. To the various issues raised by us, the
government has responded in calm and measured way. There is hope.
Q:Has the ban on you lifted?
A: Not completely. Despite the
freedom I felt when arriving here, I was courteously but differently
treated by the Chief Immigration Officer. He took me aside and politely
interviewed me for a full 15 minutes. He was nice but I realized I am
still not off the list and they still keep an eye on me. But I believe I
am not fully blacklisted or else they would have not allowed me entry.
Hopefully things will evolve soon.
Q: What were the key issues raised with
the Prime Minister?
A: Several. But we raised issues
that are linked to processes, post war and sought assurances. We called
for a ‘trustworthy process’ in investigating human rights abuses as
promised to this world last month and to make it fast. Time does not
wait for anyone, and especially for Sri Lanka, which needs to
demonstrate its commitment to a sincere process and restorative justice.
Q: Are you
satisfied with the responses? Too many questions are being already
raised on the proposed process?
A: No single process can enjoy
complete support. We used to view Sri Lanka as we do China, or even
worse. Authoritarian and unable to handle criticism. In fact, Cambodia
was more open than Sri Lanka during President Rajapaksa.
It has changed today for the better. Sri Lanka has the greatest
chance in decades to place it back on the internationally map as a
democracy and an opportunity to right its wrongs.
Q: What are
the likely next steps the government discussed with you?
A: After the UNHRC resolution
co-sponsored by your government, which in itself is a huge shift in
position, there was a parliamentary debate on the OHCHR report on
alleged rights abuses, the UNHRC Resolution and the Udalagama and
Paranagama commission reports. After the parliamentary debate, there
will be three bills presented to create the mechanism that has been
As HRW, we urge the government to ‘do it fast.’ The UNHRC review will
be in June next year. It will be good for Sri Lanka to have actions to
show than mere words. Let’s hope the government remains committed not
just in letter but also in spirit. If not, the government will come
under severe domestic and intentional pressure. This is the litmus test
on government’s genuineness. It should not lose the momentum.
public expectations are high. Is the government able to deliver?
A: We would like to believe so.
Delays will contribute to loss of trust in the process and the
establishment as well. Public support will not remain indefinitely.
Public opposition to the UNHRC resolution was modest. This was
despite the overstated risks. People have come to accept it seems that
this is the new way forward.
recent commission reports hold the LTTE responsible in a significant
manner. While the LTTE is clearly responsible for serious violations,
there is less emphasis on the role of the government forces. Do these
reports show a bias towards the establishment?
A: It is the political
position-taking of the government. LTTE is quite rightly blamed for
rights abuses. The priorities today are the three bills to kick start
the process and the actual work that has to follow.
Q: These commissions were appointed by
the previous government. Despite their credibility being repeatedly
attacked, the new government seems to accept the contents?
A: If you look carefully, these
reports also look at various issues and fault the security forces. It is
clear that the government is keen to avoid an open conflict with the
military as an institution. It is avoiding a direct battle with the
forces and thus, serious public opposition. That’s a political reality.
But the government must ensure that those responsible for
indiscriminate shelling, ground offensives where whole communities were
run over are taken to task. Now that’s the action point. The government
must demonstrate that it was not state policy and whoever who acted in
contravention, needs to be legally dealt with. There is no way to avoid
group responsibility for the atrocities.
The whole world knows that there was systematic ignoring of
international conventions by the previous government. There was scant
respect for universal human rights. It was not just about negligence but
about violation by intention.
The reports clearly seem to be avoiding some of that. The important
thing is not words but actions. What matters is action beyond the
rhetoric and stance staking than sidestepping. If the credibility and
transparency of the criminal prosecution process is there, if that is
independent and sincere, then the government’s publicly stated political
views do not matter. If the criminal justice system can deliver justice,
none of these statements will matter. Not even the judges would matter.
Only the process and the conclusions will matter.
The same reports do accept widespread abuses including the
controversial ‘white flags’ incident. There is an indication that the
incident happen with the concurrence of very senior public and military
officials. There is no doubt that former president Rajapaksa, former
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and to military officials were
involved in the decision to kill people. This has been verified to HRW
by top UN officials who were engaged with the Sri Lankan Government at
the time, over this issue of surrendees.
Using the same reports as a foundation, it is hoped that, where
credible evidence exists, those responsible will be charged.
process of recording evidence by the said commissions has been a
concern. What is HRW’s position?
A: That process is clearly very
seriously flawed. If these reports were released during President
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure, in all likelihood the contents would have
been different and further diluted. I do not wish to cast aspersions on
anyone but the fact remains that these gentlemen would not have spoke
truth to power. Clearly, even good people do wrong during difficult
times and for political reasons mostly.
But the reports, from being a complete white wash have now become
useful material. This may not be a fair and objective summary of what
happened but it gives enough material to build on. What is important is
the judicial process. The delivery of criminal justice those wronged.
Q: HRW has
called for the urgent repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and
introduction of witness and victim protection laws? How far down the
line do they become advocacy priorities?
A: Not way down the priority
The first step is to release those who are in detention without
charges being framed. This is easy and a first step. The second step is
hard. That’s about releasing persons through presidential pardons.
That’s mired in controversy and a political process that is often open
to question. Third is about the ongoing trials. If they are stopped,
then that would amount to interference.
So there are three levels to handle with regard to detainees. The new
government has said, many in detention are not actual suspects and can
be released. So we call for speedy action. If there six no evidence,
then let those people go.
This is also why we are talking systemic issues with the government
now. We are asking the government to go beyond the war through our
latest report on police torture as a method of interrogation. This is
very important to the people and restores faith in the system. This is
the government’s litmus test. That will demonstrate how the new
administration is willing to go.
Sri Lankan people have begun expressing their outrage against police
action now. But that outrage should be now used to demand systemic
change. The system must reform itself now.