News / Asia

Q&A with John Sifton: Abuse Allegations in the Sri Lankan Military

FILE - Sri Lankan military personnel march during the country's 66th Independence Day celebrations in the central town of Kegalle, about 40 kms from the capital Colombo.
FILE - Sri Lankan military personnel march during the country's 66th Independence Day celebrations in the central town of Kegalle, about 40 kms from the capital Colombo.
Frances Alonzo
Startling new abuse allegations have popped up again against the Sri Lankan military. However, what makes these allegations different is that there is mobile phone video of women recruits suffering abuse at the hands of more senior soldiers. The Sri Lankan military has accepted the authenticity of the video and says an investigation is to be carried out by the country's military police. 
John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Advisor with Human Rights Watch, explained to VOA's Frances Alonzo that abuse allegations by the Sri Lankan military are not new, but there is hope that the admission by the government may lead to more accountability within the ranks of the military.
SIFTON: The allegations came to light in late April. The Sri Lankan military has pledged to investigate them. But, this is indicative of the fact that the Sri Lankan military has a terrible record of sexual violence against the general population. And if this is how they treat their own recruits, one can only imagine how bad the abuses are against ordinary Tamil civilians and Sri Lankan civilians. There was a very big report that came out recently about sexual violence by the military. Quite simply put, the Sri Lankan military has a terrible record. 
ALONZO: So what happens now? What recourse do these women have?
SIFTON: There is going to be an investigation according to the Sri Lankan Army. But this will be a military police and military justice investigation. And it obviously doesn’t have the same amount of transparency that we would like to see in a civilian setting.  Generally speaking, of course, the Sri Lankan military and the Sri Lankan government don’t have a great record of transparency or accountability for abuses. These allegations have not been made in a vacuum.  Incredibly serious violations of sexual abuse have been made against the Sri Lankan military last month, last year, the year before, in context of the final conflict against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. And there is a whole slew of allegations against them that have yet to be investigated properly.  So the fact that they are investigating or say they are investigating this recent case is an exception to the rule.
ALONZO: Who will hold them accountable? What is that check and balance for the military? Is there one?
SIFTON: There is a military justice system and one can hope that perhaps the fact that there was a video of these attacks and that it is unambiguous that they occurred and that they have been admitted that perhaps some members of the military will be held accountable. But the problem is really on a systemic level. Regardless of who committed these specific abuses, a bigger question is, will any high level officials in the Sri Lankan military ever be held accountable for the fact that they allow their forces to engage in abuses as a matter of course, as a systemic issue, and fail to hold them accountable. People who allow an entire military structure to enjoy almost complete impunity in terms of rape, sexual abuse, and other abuses against Tamil civilians, they should be held accountable for that as well, not just for the actual physical acts of soldiers, but for their dereliction of duty and their failures hold their own forces accountable.
ALONZO: What you are describing is a little demoralizing. It just seems as though they can come across and say “Yes, the video exists. Yes, we admit it. Yes, we are investigating.” And that’s the end of it.
SIFTON: Unfortunately, this is all too common with Sri Lanka. I mean, there was a study published in March by the South African human rights lawyer and UN advisor, Yasmin Sooka, who was also on a UN committee that is investigated crimes by Sri Lanka during the civil war. And it alleged a whole set of incredibly terrible sexual abuse cases of ethnic minority Tamils. I mean it was really disgusting stuff.  This is all after the civil war that raged until 2009. And to quote directly from her report, she says quote, “the highest levels” of Sri Lanka’s government were complicit in the crimes. Unfortunately this is all too common with the Sri Lankan military.  They rack up these terrible allegations against them and they show almost no interest in holding anybody accountable.
ALONZO: So now, in your view, through your experience, what will happen now? What’s next?
SIFTON: Unfortunately, nothing will happen if the norm carries on. The fact that there was video footage and they’ve pledged to investigate, suggest that perhaps a few low level soldiers will be held accountable. But almost certainly there won’t be any higher level accountability.  But with that said, governments from the United Kingdom, to the United States, to Australia - all governments that have regular dealings with Sri Lanka are beginning to realize that this is a country with a government that has no interest in holding its own agents accountable for human rights abuses and it’s starting to have an impact on the country’s bilateral relationships across the board.  They are suffering from military to military assistance issues, I mean there are all kinds of things the Sri Lankan government is starting to realize they are not going to enjoy because of their horrible human rights record. And we can hope that because of that pressure and their increasing isolation in the international community that they will start to think, “Wow, we really need to crack down on this impunity. We can’t just have a military that runs wild and does whatever it wants to do."

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