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Sri Lanka’s leaders complicit in forced prostitution and child sex trafficking

The categories of war crimes for which Sri Lanka’s top civilian and military leadership are responsible expanded this week to include rape, forced prostitution and trafficking into sexual slavery, based on a Wikileaked US embassy cable of May 18, 2007.

(See the full text of the cable here, and a summary of the sex-related crimes it outlines here.)

Tamil paramilitaries ran prostitution rings for Sri Lankan troops in government-controlled parts of the Northeast, and child sex trafficking rings using their networks in India and Malaysia, and they did so with the knowledge and support of the Sri Lankan government, the US cable revealed.

Article 7, para (g), of the Rome Statute lists “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity" as crimes against humanity "when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population."

The US cable leak comes on the tenth anniversary of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which specifically addresses the impact of conflict, particularly sexual violence, on women and girls.

The below report looks at the international legal context of the sexual crimes described in the US cable, Colombo's response, and some of the past documentation of rape by the Sri Lanka's armed forces.

Government responsibility

Crucially, the US embassy not only found a “pattern of GSL complicity with paramilitary groups on multiple levels” but that the organised crime continued, amongst other rights abuses, despite the US “repeatedly” raising these issues with Sri Lanka’s top leadership, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa and senior ministers.

Indeed Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa explicitly ordered military commanders who wanted to clamp down to “not to interfere with the paramilitaries,” the then US Ambassador, Robert Blake, wrote to Washington.

“It appears that this [government] involvement goes beyond merely turning a blind eye to these [paramilitary] organizations' less savory activities. At worst, these accounts suggest that top leaders of its security establishment may be providing direction to these paramilitaries,” he said.

As such, the US Embassy cable's account makes clear the gender-based violence constitutes widespread or systematic practices that are “either part of government policy or .. condoned by a government” as described by the Rome Statute.

The two main government-backed paramilitary groups concerned are the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) led by Douglas Devanda and the Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) led by Karuna.

The EPDP and TMVP also registered as political parties in Sri Lanka, and both Devananda and Karuna have held ministerial posts in President Rajapaksa’s governments.

Rape and crimes against humanity

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor and the ad-hoc tribunals for Bosnia and Rwanda have all recognised rape in similar circumstances as war crimes and acts of genocide.

The first ICTY conviction of rape and enslavement as a crime against humanity occurred in the Kunarac, Kovac and Vukovic case for the rape of Bosniak women by Serb soldiers.

More recently, with respect to Darfur, the New York times noted: “the centerpiece of [ICC Prosecutor Luis] Moreno-Ocampo's application is the charge of rape as genocide 'causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group' and 'deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.’”

Interestingly, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo was this week criticised for failing to take seriously sexual violence against women in the ICC’s prosecutions, despite the Rome Statute's emphasis on these.

The societal impact of rape is recognised not only to be linked to prevailing cultural norms and sensitivities, but also as a key driver of organised sexual violence against a community.

For example, the ICTY has recognised the social stigma of rape in the Bosnian Muslim society as a reason for why it was used as a weapon of war.

In June 2008, the UN Security Council went a step beyond resolution 1325 and adopted resolution 1820, focusing on sexual violence in armed conflict and recognising for the first time that sexual violence is a tactic used in war and a force impacting international peace and security – and thus within the Security Council’s purview.

“Sexual violence in conflict has become the weapon of choice. The reason is as simple as it is wicked – because it is cheap, silent and effective,” the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, said last month.

She was speaking at a conference on “Women and War” organised by the United States Institute of Peace, the World Bank, several universities and the US State Department to mark the anniversary of Resolution 1325.

The US embassy cable sets out how rape, and extra-judicial killings, served to terrify and coerce the Tamil population in Sri Lanka Army(SLA)-controlled areas.

“The young women's parents are unable to complain to authorities for fear of retribution and because doing so would ruin the girls' reputation, making it impossible for them ever to marry. Families have begun arranging marriages for their daughters at a very young age in the hopes that the [paramilitaries] and [SLA] soldiers will be less likely to take them.”

US on Sri Lanka rape

The US cable is thus an important part of the context for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2009 statement at the UN (also see video here):

"Now, reading the headlines, one might think that the use of rape as a tactic of war only happens occasionally, or in a few places, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Sudan. That would be bad enough, but the reality is much worse. We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.

"In too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of this violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks.

"[T]he physical and emotional damage to individual women and their families from these attacks cannot be quantified, nor can the toll on their societies."

Interestingly, however, following Sri Lanka’s vehement response, the Ambassador at large for global women's issues at the State Department, Melanne Verveer, seemed to backtrack.

“In the most recent phase of the [Sri Lankan] conflict, from 2006 to 2009 ... we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war, as they clearly have in other conflict area around the world," she said in a letter released to media.

However, Ambassador Blake’s cable of May 18, 2007 makes clear this was simply not true.

Sri Lanka’s response

With its top leadership well aware of the sexual war crimes and its complicity in them, the government’s response to the allegations has been predictable: categorical denial and vehement protest.

In response to the recently Wikileaked US cables, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris complained of "mendacious stories" in them about claims of killings, and children being sold into slavery and girls forced into prostitution.

President Rajapaksa meanwhile accused 'terrorist' elements abroad of defaming Sri Lanka, saying: “Their latest weapon is to defame our country and throw allegations at our war heroes, accusing them of war crimes.”

Long history at home ...

Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated military has a long and well documented history of rape.

In 2001, the year before the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire came into effect, Amnesty International said it “has noted a marked rise in allegations of rape by [Sri Lankan] police, army and navy personnel,” adding:

“Among the victims of rape by the security forces are many internally displaced women, women who admit being or having been members of the LTTE and female relatives of members or suspected male members of the LTTE.

“Reports of rape in custody concern children as young as 14.”

(See Amnesty's 2002 report here).

In its 1999 annual report, Amnesty International said rape of female detainees was amongst a range of methods of torture, which is "widespread".

In a statement to the UN in 1998, the World Organisation against Torture observed:

“Sri Lankan soldiers have raped both women and young girls on a massive scale, and often with impunity, since reporting often leads to reprisals against the victims and their families.”

… and abroad

Sri Lanka’s military has also been accused of rape and sexual crimes during its peacekeeping operations abroad.

In 2008, the UN was going to charge 114 Sri Lankan soldiers on peace-keeping missions in Haiti with sexual exploitation and abuse against children.

After an investigation, the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) concluded that:

“acts of sexual exploitation and abuse (against children) were frequent and occurred usually at night, and at virtually every location where the [Sri Lankan] contingent were deployed.”

The accused Sri Lankan troops were repatriated on 'disciplinary grounds' after the Colombo government promised to investigate and punish perpetrators of rape.

As always, nothing was done.

Image courtesy Canadian Tamil Youth Alliance