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."

You May Like

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs