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Human rights abuses continue in Sri Lanka as the Government launches another Commission of Inquiry

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The latest rounds of attacks in Sri Lanka on 8 November 2006had resulted in the deaths of at least 23 civilians, according to the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission. After undertaking an emergency mission to the areas, INFORM a Sri Lankan member organization of FORUM-ASIA, raised concerns about security and emergency assistance to affected civilians. Here are more details of the current events in Sri Lanka and list of reports, statements, letters to authorities and articles on continuing conflict.Thousands of Tamil civilians have fled refugee camps in eastern Sri Lanka after Sri Lankan army bombed a school that was reported as housing around 1,000 internally displaced persons, in the Vakarai area in Batticaloa District, on 8 November.

The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), formed to monitor the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, has confirmed the deaths of at least 23 people, with the likelihood of many more. “Our monitors saw there were no military installations in the camp area” added SLMM spokeswoman Helen Olafsdottir.

After undertaking an emergency mission to the areas, INFORM a Sri Lankan member organization of FORUM-ASIA, raised concerns about security and emergency assistance to affected civilians. National Peace Council, an independent Sri Lankan think tank also expressed serious concern about the latest rounds of attacks on civilians.

The international community, including the United Nations Secretary General, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, the Special Advisor on Sri Lanka to the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Amnesty International, Asian Human Rights Commission as well as the Norwegian Minister of International Development condemned and expressed concern about the blatant and appalling disregard for civilian lives and urged those involved to comply with international humanitarian law.

On the following day, 9th November, there was a demonstration in the capital Colombo, against the attack on civilians. Amongst the demonstrators was Tamil parliamentarian Nadarajah Raviraj. The next day, Mr. Raviraj, who had been involved in a number of peace activities, was assassinated.

This week’s brutal atrocities come just after unsuccessful peace-talks in Geneva between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), where both parties had vowed to cease military aggression. But the weeks events makes it clear that ensuring protection for civilian lives is furthest from the mind of the government.

On the same day as that attack on civilians, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) delegation visiting a LTTE controlled area in the north to undertake a feasibility study of opening an alternative road to the closed A9 highway narrowly escaped artillery fire of the Army.

As the A9 highway to the north remains closed, food shortages and drastic increases in prices, restrictions on fishing, curtailment of services such as electricity, communication and public transport, restrictions on civilian activities through curfew as well as killings and abductions continue to be reported on a daily basis from the Jaffna peninsular, which continues to be cut off from the rest of the island except through occasional flights and ships.

The attacks on civilians came just days after President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the creation of a “hybrid” commission to investigate the recent, overwhelming cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The president has said that he will also appoint a group of group of International Independnet Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) to supplement the government commission.

Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomed the Commission, but warned that the national system may not be equipped for an effective inquiry, especially since former commissions were generally ineffective. Ms. Arbour’s call for a “broader international mechanism to monitor and prevent human rights violations in the longer term” seems to be ignored by the government.

The government continues to keep under wrap the Terms of Reference of the Commission and the IIGEP. Neither has it disclosed the basis on which the 15 cases to be investigate by the Commission had been selected. In this context of secrecy and historical context of previous commissions that have largely failed to ensure justice to victims and hold perpetrators accountable, there can be little confidence placed on this new commission, even though some members are credible civil society activists. The ability of the International Observers to make their findings public is a positive feature – but their role seems severely restricted – they are only expected to “observe” and they can only advice the Commission when their advice is “sought”.

It is clear that the government is using the Commission of Inquiry and the International Observers as a red herring to side step the urgent need for broad international human rights monitoring. Until fully fledged international human rights monitoring mission is assigned to Sri Lanka, and the domestic mechanisms are brought up to international standards, Sri Lankans can only expect more attacks on civilians, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and political assassinations and continuing impunity.