SRI LANKA: The letter by six former Ambassadors to the President of Sri Lanka

A letter has been written by six US ambassadors in their personal capacities to expressing their concern over the deterioration of the situation in the country and urged him to take steps to re-establish accountability and the rule of law, by ensuring investigations into assassinations and human rights abuses.

The letter, according to the authors, was prompted by the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge ‘But there have been many previous incidents in which the rights of individuals and the media have been violated.’ In previous columns by this author it has been pointed out repeatedly that investigations into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka have virtually stopped and it appears to be the policy of the government not to ensure competent and credible investigations into seemingly politically sensitive crimes. The absence of investigations has encouraged the perpetrators of these crimes and ensured impunity.

The six ambassadors who wrote this letter are Marion Creekmore (1989-92), Teresita Schaffer (1992-95), A. Peter Burleigh (1995-97), Shaun Donnelly (1997-2000), Ashley Wills (2000-03) and Jeffrey Lunstead (2003-06). The letter finally states that while Sri Lanka has gone through difficult times its democratic system has always been preserved. Neither the LTTE nor assaults by other radical forces has been able to destroy it. Then the ambassadors went on to say that: ‘It would be a tragedy if it were destroyed now, not from without, but from within.’

The full text of the letter follows:

“We are all former United States Ambassadors to Sri Lanka, but we are writing in our personal capacities. Our service in Sri Lanka stretches for over 15 years, and we have seen good times and hard times in the country. We all have great respect and affection for Sri Lanka and its people. We have known you at different points in your career, and we all acknowledge your love for your country and your desire to see it at peace.

“We have all, at different times and in different ways, made it clear that we believed the goals and tactics of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were unacceptable, and that the Government of Sri Lanka was engaged in a difficult but necessary fight against terrorism. We have all supported and argued for United States assistance to Sri Lanka in that struggle.

“It is for all of these reasons that we are now so upset by developments in Sri Lanka, the most recent of which was the murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. We fear that, even as Sri Lanka is enjoying military progress against the LTTE, the foundations of democracy in the country are under assault.

“The killing of Wickrematunge has prompted this letter, but there have been many previous incidents in which the rights of individuals and the media have been violated.

“Mr. President, we speak frankly because in our dealings with you we have always found you to have an open mind and to respect the truth. Some have suggested that these events have been carried out not by elements of the government, but by other forces hoping to embarrass the government.

“We do not find such arguments credible. We are familiar with your history as a defender of those whose rights were threatened by the government. We assume, therefore, that if government forces are carrying out these acts, they are acting without your permission and knowledge. We believe it is imperative that these actions stop, and that those who have carried them out be prosecuted.

“Fighting an unconventional war against a terrorist enemy is a difficult task, and the sad truth is that it almost always results in some brutal and illegal acts. This is as true of our country as it is of Sri Lanka. The important thing is that the country’s leadership not condone these acts, and that an atmosphere is set from the top that they will not be accepted, and that those who commit them will be held to account.

“We urge you to take steps to reestablish accountability and the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Investigations have been promised before but have been futile. At times government officials have not appeared diligent, as happened in the investigation of the killing of NGO workers assisted by the International Eminent Persons Group.

‘It is crucial that an investigation now not follow that same fruitless path. It must also be made clear to members of the security forces that discipline will be enforced and violators will be brought to justice. Only you can provide the leadership and clear direction that will make this happen. We have seen before the positive results that such leadership can have, for example, when the decision to issue receipts for all detained persons dramatically reduced the number of disappearances.

“Sri Lanka has gone through difficult times, but its democratic system has always persevered. Neither the LTTE nor assaults by other radical forces have been able to destroy it. It would be a tragedy if it were destroyed now, not from without, but from within.

“We intend to make this letter public after you have received it.”

In fact, the major threat to democracy and the rule of law in Sri Lanka has not been from without, either by the JVP in the 80s, or the LTTE but from within by those who want to undermine constitutionalism, the supremacy of the law, the independence of the judiciary and the proper functioning of public institutions for achieving personal ambitions. The usurpation of public property for personal use and the abuse of authority to destroy dissent have been the major causes that has resulted in the serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

The link between the deterioration of democracy from within and the attempted disruptive activities from without (the JVP, LTTE and others), is like the movement of tectonic plates and the onslaught of the following tsunami. Had it not been for the internal disruption caused to the systems by the very regimes that were expected to be guardians of the rule of law and democracy, the threats from without might have been managed in a different manner causing less damage to lives, property and the security of the society as a whole.

The failure to investigate the attack on Sirasa TV and the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge has brought to brought to light the absence of the political will on the part of the government to deal with serious abuses of human rights by the security forces and others. There are however, thousands of cases which involve the ordinary citizens who have suffered grave abuses but who have failed to obtain any form of investigations into their complaints.

As we prepare this column one more such incident with terrible consequence to an individual has been reported. It is the case of S.S. Padmi Peiris, the widow of Sugath Nishanta Fernando, who was a complainant in a bribery case and a torture case against several police officers in Negombo and who was assassinated in September 2008. Since the assassination of her husband she and her two young children have been subjected to death threats and have been living in hiding, moving from place to place all the time.

Many appeals have been made by her and on her behalf to all Sri Lankan authorities and also to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The dangers faced by the family was also brought to the notice of the Supreme Court before which the fundamental rights case filed by her husband and herself is still pending. Over and over again the Inspector General of Police and the Deputy Inspector General of Police of the area have been informed of the threats to her life. However, no security has been provided for her and her children. In an affidavit submitted by Padmi to the police authorities she gave details of the threats and stated that she and her children cannot return home or to any place in the Negombo area or live except in hiding even in other areas of Sri Lanka. She has detailed out her problems also by another affidavit she submitted to the Magistrate’s Court of Negombo in November 2008. Her daughter who was expected to sit for her GCE O level exams in December was unable to do so as she cannot go to school and that due to living in hiding she is suffering from confusion and depression.

In her affidavit she further states that while living in fear of their lives they do not trust the police in the Negombo area or of the closer vicinity as they believe that the threats come from the 12 police officers against whom cases are pending. She has asked for protection to be provided by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) who will be able to provide the necessary protection for the family in order for them to return to their normal lives. She has asked the Deputy Inspector General of Police of the area to provide protection in a manner that can restore their confidence so they can get on with their lives.

Here is an instance where the husband of the family had made written complaints to the Inspector General of Police, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the National Police Commission informing them of the threats he had received and asking for protection. However, no steps were taken to provide this protection. As a result he was gunned down in broad daylight.

Under these circumstances the letter by the former ambassadors should encourage civil society organisations and the international community to exert pressure on the government to ensure that criminal inquiries are conducted into all crimes and particularly those in which the alleged perpetrators are police office or security personnel.


Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-019-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,