Sri Lanka: The 'White Vans' never went away

By Ralph de Silva

Torture and rape of Tamils by the Sri Lankan security forces is continuing according to the United Nations. On Friday (8) the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued her annual report on Sri Lanka which said the lack of progress on human rights clearly showed the country should remain on the agenda of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The wide-ranging report examines problems around the return of land in conflict areas, emblematic court cases, legislative reform and the failure to establish most of the promised transitional justice mechanisms. The UN High Commissioner also expresses concern about the appointment of Sri Lanka’s new Chief of Army Staff, Shavendra Silva given the allegations documented by the UN Panel of Experts and the OISL report against troops under his command in the final phase of the war. It is rare for a UN report to comment on an individual like this but the report also stresses the importance of Sri Lanka’s 2015 commitment to vet and screen public and security officials.

In particular the human rights office of the UN recommends that the UN system as a whole applies stringent vetting procedures to Sri Lankan police and military personnel going for peacekeeping operations, military exchanges and training programmes. This is a clear red flag for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations which had to repatriate a Sri Lankan peacekeeper last year from Mali because of the risk that he could have been involved in the alleged violations of international law documented by the UN’s own investigation.

Abduction & illegal detention

Perhaps most significant is that the UN firmly corroborates reports of continued “white van” abductions in 2016-2018 in the north of the island, based on a preliminary assessment investigation which the JDS understands involved two UN staff working for several months meeting victims abroad. As a result, OHCHR says it finds reasonable grounds that the accounts of abduction, illegal detention, torture and rape, including of men, are credible. The report also points out that the risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes goes unchecked. And it speaks of continued harassment or surveillance of human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations which it says are incompatible with the reconciliation agenda.

This comes in the face of denial from Colombo regarding ongoing torture, especially allegations of torture by the Sri Lankan military. Some politicians had suggested such accounts of torture, including even those victims with very visible torture scars on their backs from being burned with a hot metal rod, were fake.

However on Wednesday the Supreme Court in Britain allowed an appeal by a Tamil man called KV, whom it had been suggested faked his scars by allowing someone else to torture him, probably under anaesthetic.  The UK’s most eminent Judges unanimously ruled that such an occurrence was likely to be “extremely rare” and “inherently unlikely” and the ruling was hailed as a victory for placing proper value on independent expert forensic medical evidence when examining torture.

Ongoing torture

What the UN report does not indicate is the scale of the ongoing abductions by the military and police. The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) has reported that its lawyers documented 76 cases of security force torture between 2015 and 2017, while the UK’s biggest rehabilitation charity, Freedom from Torture, says it documented 16 cases in the same time period. These two organisations alone have collected evidence of at least 100 victims abroad who were violated while the coalition government was in power but this may be the tip of the iceberg.

The UN report also makes it clear that an amnesty cannot be considered for alleged perpetrators of international crimes in Sri Lanka and is not currently in the draft Truth Commission legislation. The report reiterates the position of the former High Commissioner for Human Rights that a hybrid court is needed to achieve accountability - something Sri Lanka ruled out after agreeing to Resolution 30/1 which provided for such a hybrid. The UN points out that claims that Sri Lanka can deal with its past through a domestic process ring hollow given there has been no attempt even to set one up. In a damning remark the report says “since 2015, virtually no progress has been made in investigating or prosecuting domestically the large number of allegations of war crimes or crimes against humanity collected by OHCHR in its investigation, and particularly those relating to military operations at the end of the war”.

One of the recommendations of the High Commissioner is that Member States should prosecute Sri Lankans accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity under universal jurisdiction. The ITJP has called on countries to arrest Shavendra Silva under universal jurisdiction if he travels abroad.☐



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.