Sri Lanka Army, a professional fighting force committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms of all citizens -
Army Commander

In the recent past, U.S. lawmakers and the NGO community have expressed concern about alleged human rights violations by Sri Lanka’s security forces and the police. Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke says that, contrary to general belief that no action is being taken in the face of alleged violations leading to accusations of impunity, the embassy has made available to U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups, details of arrests, indictments and convictions of errant services personnel made over the past several years.

What is also not adequately appreciated is the fact that converting Sri Lanka’s ceremonial armed forces of post-colonial times into professional security forces capable of meeting challenges posed by one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, has been no mean feat. And Sri Lanka can be proud to have made this transition.

Despite such achievement, there are individuals, local and international human rights groups and countries that regularly express concern about Sri Lanka’s armed forces for alleged violation civilian human rights. While safeguarding human rights of civilians is an essential task, it can sometimes become a challenge for a country in constant battle with a lethal terrorist group. In recent times, Sri Lankan armed forces have been accused of impunity. What appears to be overlooked is that human rights violations are committed by individuals, and they are not a policy of a democratically elected government. Neither has the government shirked its responsibility in punishing wrongdoers when credible evidence was available. Over the years, the government has arrested, indicted and convicted many errant services and police personnel, when clear evidence of crime was available.

Recognizing the need to address such allegations of human rights violations, the Sri Lanka Army effected necessary institutional measures, by creating the Directorate of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (DHR & HL) within the army, on November 16, 2001. This Directorate is responsible for coordinating all human rights activities for the army, from International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) training classes to overseeing human rights cells assigned throughout the military. These cells are tasked with monitoring conduct of personnel and reporting any violations to Army Headquarters. The mandate of the Directorate also includes advising the Army Commander on all matters concerning international humanitarian law in conflict situations, conducting training programmes for army personnel, and coordinating with the ICRC in Colombo and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka, to address human rights and humanitarian concerns. According to the army, all its personnel have a mandatory training to complete before being assigned duties, and they pledge adherence to the “Rules of International Humanitarian Law.” The U.S. State Department’s Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices - 2001 states, “The armed forces operate under written rules of engagement that severely restrict the shelling, bombardment, or other use of firepower against civilian-occupied areas such as villages.”

Over the years, the DRH & HL of the Sri Lanka Army, together with the ICRC, has conducted extensive human rights programmes. At a seminar on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law for the army’s Battalion Commanders, held in Colombo on December 4, 2007, Army Commander, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka highlighted to the officers, “The Sri Lanka Army being a professional Army is committed to respect human rights and the fundamental freedoms of every citizen of Sri Lanka, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, It is the responsibility of every member of the Sri Lanka Army to guarantee the protection of each and every law-abiding citizen of Sri Lanka and ensure that no violation of fundamental rights takes place on this soil.”

Stressing the concept of accountability, he reminded them of their “duty toward the state in upholding the government policy of achieving lasting peace which could only be achieved by ensuring the protection of human rights of every law abiding citizen of Sri Lanka.” He added that the seminar would arm the officers with valuable knowledge that would help soldiers to “carry out their duties lawfully and in accordance with relevant domestic laws and laws acclaimed internationally.”

The US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Ambassador Robert O. Blake, who was the chief guest at the seminar, said, “The United States, like Sri Lanka, is engaged in a sustained struggle against terrorism. We recognize that the people of Sri Lanka continue to face the threat of terrorism from the Tamil Tigers. The United States has been a steadfast supporter of Sri Lanka’s efforts to stop the flow of arms and financing to the LTTE, by providing law enforcement assistance, and by providing training and equipment to help the Sri Lankan military defend itself.”

Nevertheless, he pointed out that, “Experience around the world has shown it is virtually impossible to defeat a terrorist insurgency by military means alone. Effective counter-terrorism requires sound economic development policies to provide jobs and economic opportunity. It requires a political strategy that embraces democracy, freedom of speech, independent media and a marketplace of ideas.” Ambassador Blake also said, “It requires respect for human dignity and a rejection of an ideology of hate that targets innocent civilians,” stressing the importance of having laws and institutions set up that could investigate and respond to transgressions in battle behavior of soldiers. “The successful empowerment of such institutions and the full implementation of such laws are measures of a strong and well-regulated military and a strong and healthy democracy,” he said.

The Ambassador added, “That’s why the United States and Sri Lanka agreed earlier this year that it would be very useful to bring together military justice experts from Sri Lanka and the United States to exchange information, perspectives and best practices. As a result, military law professionals from the U.S. Pacific Command, in partnership with the American Embassy in Colombo, hosted a Military Law Exchange Program with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense to exchange ideas on ways to improve transparency, accountability and human rights in military justice. We are now planning follow-on activities to see how we can work together to strengthen your military justice institutions and improve accountability within the military.”

Meanwhile, in April 2007, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence re-circulated to the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as to the Inspector General of Police, directions on Protecting Fundamental Rights of Persons Arrested and/or Detained issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Heads of Armed Forces and the Police on 07 July 2006.

This directive instructs Heads of the Armed Forces and IGP on measures to be adopted to enable the HRC of Sri Lanka to exercise and perform its powers, functions and duties and for the purpose of ensuring that fundamental rights of persons arrested or detained are respected and such persons are treated humanely. Programmes are already on to provide in-depth training to officers and other ranks, on these instructions and to augment processes to ensure they are strictly adhered to. During 2001-2005, the Sri Lanka Army has conducted over 2000 lectures on international humanitarian law and human rights for more than 80% of its personnel, in collaboration with ICRC and other international partners.

Sri Lanka’s security forces, thus, are professional fighting forces, armed with knowledge on handling their challenging tasks with utmost consideration to safeguarding human rights. Yet, as with other professional armies in the world, from time to time, there can be aberrations of conduct from troops under pressure, in the face of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks by an implacable enemy. Such aberrations of conduct, however, are not condoned or tolerated by the government of Sri Lanka, which takes action to bring the offenders to justice when credible evidence is available, contrary to the general perception.

Embassy of Sri Lanka
Washington DC

12 December 2007


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