Renewed fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) overshadowed other developments and generated serious abuses. Intensified battles for control of key territory in the northern part of the island claimed scores of civilian lives and displaced some 250,000 people, bringing the estimated number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) nationwide to more than one million. Emergency government powers, in place almost continuously since 1983 and enhanced from May to September by additional regulations, granted broad powers to security personnel to arrest and detain suspects, restricted freedom of association, and authorized media censorship. The LTTE was implicated in a series of suicide bombings that killed and injured hundreds of civilians. It continued to recruit and deploy child soldiers and to physically attack and intimidate critics in the Tamil community.

Although the government continued to press for constitutional changes aimed at a political resolution to the conflict, it failed to secure necessary parliamentary support. Political violence outside the war-zones increased in the run-up to parliamentary elections in October.

Human Rights Developments

On November 2, 1999, the LTTE launched operation "Unceasing Waves" to reclaim northern territory lost to government forces over the preceding four years. On November 22, artillery shells hit a Catholic shrine in the northern Vanni region that had long sheltered IDPs, killing forty-two and injuring sixty more. Each side blamed the other for the attack.

Intensified fighting in April 2000 near Jaffna town trapped thousands of civilians in conflict zones for several tense weeks. The LTTE called on the civilians to move south into the Vanni or into other parts of the Jaffna peninsula that they controlled. The army said civilians should stay in government-controlled territory closer to the town, moving north if necessary. By the end of July, a lull in fighting allowed many civilians to move to safer areas, and permitted the delivery of badly-needed medical supplies into the Vanni. On July 22, the two sides allowed International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers to evacuate residents of the Kaithady Elders' Home near Jaffna, where they had been trapped since May. Some thirty residents reportedly died during the two-month period, many as a result of shelling.

Civilian deaths and injuries on the Jaffna peninsula were reported in the hundreds, but casualty figures could not be confirmed because relief agencies and journalists were barred from the hardest hit areas. There and in eastern Sri Lanka, many conflict-related deaths were the result of errant shells and gunshots. On May 24, four adults and two children were killed in a village near Batticaloa when a shell fell on their house during a LTTE offensive against a nearby Sri Lankan army base. On August 10, army shelling injured three civilians, including a ten-year-old girl, near Muttur, in Trincomalee district. On September 12, mortar fire aimed at the LTTE damaged houses and injured four civilians in Kalkudah village, north of Batticaloa. Land mines and unexploded ordinance also continued to take a civilian toll. Four such injuries were treated by doctors in Mallavi in May; one victim was a ten-year-old child who lost both hands and eyes in the blast. Sri Lanka had still not signed the international treaty banning land mines due, the government said, to security concerns arising from the conflict with the LTTE.

Before the escalation in fighting in April, government-run welfare camps housed some 170,000 IDPs island-wide; some 600,000 other IDPs relied on friends or relatives for shelter. Although most received some government assistance, about 100,000 people in Sri Lanka's north and east were thought to be struggling for survival unassisted. By mid-September, another 250,000 people, almost all of them residents of Jaffna district, had reportedly been displaced.

Displaced persons and other Tamil civilians in the north and east also faced discrimination, restrictions on their freedom of movement, arbitrary arrest, and custodial abuse at the hands of government forces. Due to government restrictions, Tamil civilians were often unable to reach work sites to earn a living, attend schools, or seek urgent medical care. In eastern Sri Lanka, army and police units continued to impose forced labor, demanding that IDPs and other civilians work without pay building sentry posts, cutting wood, and cleaning military camps. In mid-July, villagers north of Batticaloa were reportedly forced to construct a sand bulwark around an army camp; some were beaten for refusing to comply.

Mass arrests of Tamils occurred after violent incidents attributed to the LTTE and were often accompanied by reports of "disappearances" and torture in custody. In one two-week period in January, more than five thousand people were detained for questioning in search operations in Colombo neighborhoods. The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, a government-appointed agency, said in July that it had been unable to trace seventeen people detained by security forces in Vavuniya since the beginning of the year, while Amnesty International reported a rash of "disappearances" in Vavuniya in August. A Vavuniya district judge in September criticized local doctors for failing to report torture-related injuries, and threatened legal action against practitioners who submitted false reports denying custodial abuse by the army or police.

On October 25, a mob in Bandarawela stormed a government-run rehabilitation camp housing, among others, suspected LTTE supporters and former LTTE child soldiers, killing over twenty-five. According to initial reports, those killed ranged in age from fourteen to twenty-five. After the attack, police briefly detained more than 250 suspects from the majority Sinhalese community. At this writing, President Kumaratunga had called for two "high-level probes" into the incident, while Tamil community leaders alleged police complicity.

The LTTE committed numerous and gross abuses. Bombings of public places in the north and east, and suicide bombings in Colombo on December 18, 1999, January 5, 2000, March 10, June 7, September 15, and October 19 killed more than one hundred civilians and injured many more. Beginning in April, the LTTE engaged in increasingly aggressive recruitment drives in the Vanni, including recruitment of children as young as ten years old for combat. Schools and IDP camps were common targets for such drives. A July report by the Colombo-based University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) provided information on fifteen children recruited since April 1999, nine of whom had been killed in the fighting within a year of their recruitment. The LTTE imposed restrictions on civilians wishing to leave areas it controlled and forced all villagers in some areas to join its civilian defense units. LTTE attacks and intimidation against what it referred to as "quislings" within the Tamil community had a chilling effect on dissent. Particularly at risk were members of Tamil political parties holding positions in local government. Between January and May, three members of local administrative councils in Jaffna were killed by unidentified gunmen. The LTTE held a number of political prisoners and prisoners of war, but access to detainees and details of confinement were unavailable. On February 28, the LTTE released four soldiers they had captured more than six years earlier.

Freedom of the press was also under attack by the government. Intensified press censorship and denial of independent access to conflict areas frustrated accurate war reporting and civilian access to vital security information. On May 3, as the LTTE pushed towards Jaffna, the government issued new emergency regulations banning live television and radio coverage of the war, requiring government approval before such news could be transmitted outside the country, and empowering the authorities to detain journalists, block the distribution of newspapers,seize property, and shut down printing presses. On June 5, the government relaxed restrictions on the foreign media, but those relating to the local press remained in place.

From May 13 to July 4, government censors closed Jaffna's only local Tamil daily newspaper, Uthayan, after it reported that five civilians had died in a May 12 air force raid and that President Kumaratunga had wept during a meeting with the head of the Indian air force. On May 22, police seized the Leader Publications printing plant, blocking the publication of the independent Sunday Leader and its Sinhala-language counterpart, Irida Peramuna, for publishing reports on the war that the chief censor said "would have benefitted the enemy." At the end of June, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on Leader Publications on procedural grounds. Days later, the president invoked new emergency regulations intended to correct those procedural problems. The move reimposed restrictions on all reporting deemed by the government to be detrimental to national security, preservation of public order, or the maintenance of essential services.

In September, the government suspended key emergency regulations banning public meetings and some of the broader censorship provisions, but restrictions on military-related news remained in place. At this writing, a ban remained in effect covering "any matter pertaining to military operations in the Northern and Eastern Province . . . [and] any statement pertaining to the official conduct, morale, or the performance of the Head or of any member of the Armed Forces or the police force."

Individual journalists also came under fire. In April, Nellai Nadesan, a senior columnist for the Tamil language newspaper Veerakersari, narrowly escaped a grenade explosion at his home in Batticaloa. In June, journalists attending a media workshop in eastern Batticaloa received threats after the government-owned media accused them of links to the LTTE. In September, Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga received a two-year suspended sentence for an article he published in 1995 criticizing President Kumaratunga's performance during her first year in office. Jaffna-based journalist Maylwaganam Nimalarajan was shot and killed by a group of unidentified attackers on the night of October 19. The attack occurred at his home during curfew hours in a high security area of Jaffna, and may have been linked to his reporting on vote-rigging and intimidation during the October parliamentary elections.

With renewed fighting taking center stage, there was little progress in obtaining justice for past human rights abuses although the identities of many perpetrators were known. Examples included the stalled "Bolgoda Lake" case, in which Special Task Force commandos were believed responsible for the 1995 murder of twenty-three Tamil youths; an army massacre of more than 180 villagers near Batticaloa in September 1990; and the 1980s crackdown on members of the left-wing insurgent group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which resulted in tens of thousands of people being extrajudicially executed or "disappeared" by the authorities. On July 18, 2000, however, a court ordered retired Major General Ananda Weerasekera and two subordinates to stand trial on charges of murder and abduction. This was the first time that a high-ranking military officer had been ordered to stand trial in connection with the JVP "disappearances."

The government continued to press for constitutional revisions that would devolve more power to regional councils, thus increasing the autonomy of the Tamil-dominated north and east. The proposed revisions also would have granted citizenship to some 86,000 Tamils of Indian origin and their children, officially categorized as "Indian Tamils," who had been stateless for some forty years. The proposal was rejected both by the LTTE, as insufficient to satisfy its separatist demands, and by Sinhala hardliners, as a dilution of the unitary state and too accommodating of Tamil interests. On August 8, further consideration of the amendments was indefinitely postponed when it became clear that other political parties, including the main opposition United National Party, would not support the bill.

Political violence escalated in the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections in October. By October 10, the nongovernmental Centre For Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) had recorded seventy-one election-related murders, at least twenty-six attempted murders, and over one thousand injuries, assaults, acts of intimidation, and other abuses.

Prominent social critics faced particular dangers from non-state actors. On January 5, Tamil lawyer and politician G.G. Ponnambalam was killed in Colombo. An outspoken supporter of Tamil separatism, Ponnambalam had acted as legal councel in many important Tamil human rights cases. A group calling itself the National Front Against Tigers claimed responsibility for his murder, warning that it should be seen as a lesson by all those who supported the LTTE.

Defending Human Rights

Nongovernmental rights activists continued to play a critical role, sometimes in difficult and dangerous circumstances. In the lead-up to parliamentary elections, human rights defenders campaigned against political violence. Trade unions and media freedom groups joined them in opposing censorship and other emergency measures.

At the end of January, two hundred participants from around the world commemorated the life and work of Neelan Tiruchelvam, a renowned Tamil human rights activist who was killed in a LTTE suicide bombing in 1999. The gathering launched the Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Fund, dedicated to the promotion of human rights, minority rights, and the resolution of ethnic conflict. In late March, Sri Lankan human rights defenders welcomed the appointment of new commissioners to Sri Lanka's National Human Rights Commission, which had been criticized in its first three years of operation as lacking in leadership and resources.

Early on the morning of June 27, a grenade was thrown into the compound of the Save the Children Fund office in Colombo. A car parked at the premises was damaged but no one was injured in the attack.

In June, the Sri Lankan Press Council rejected a complaint filed by Sherman de Rose, founder of Companions on a Journey, a gay rights organization, against the Island newspaper for printing a letter that called for convicted rapists to be sent to attack lesbians. The council ruled that the letter was published in the "interest of the community," and that De Rose had no standing because he was male. The Council maintained that "lesbianism itself is an act of sadism," and noted that homosexuality was an offense under Sri Lanka's penal code. De Rose was ordered to pay the newspaper 2,100 rupees (U.S. $28) in costs.

In September, the Alliance for Democracy in Sri Lanka, composed of nearly seventy civic groups, trade unions, religious institutions of different faiths, and NGOs, launched a nationwide "yellow ribbon" campaign to support free and fair elections. The alliance sought to persuade one million Sri Lankans to wear yellow ribbons each day until the conclusion of the parliamentary elections in October to symbolize their support.

The Role of the International Community

International attention to Sri Lanka focused on support for a political settlement to the conflict and humanitarian efforts to mitigate the worst effects of the war. Sri Lanka sought and received increased military assistance from key donors and cultivated relations with potential arms suppliers, including Israel, with which it renewed diplomatic ties in May after a break of thirty years. Norway, India, and the United States played major roles in as yet unsuccessful efforts to bring about negotiations between the warring parties. Intensification of fighting in April caused a postponement of the annual meeting of the Sri Lanka Aid Consortium, but as the war raged on many of Sri Lanka's donors released statements encouraging Norway's efforts as a facilitator for peace between the warring parties.


In January, the Norwegian government announced that it would play an intermediary role in efforts to bring about an end to the seventeen-year war in Sri Lanka. Norwegian delegates met with government and LTTE representatives in separate meetings outside the country. Norway also sent senior officials to Colombo several times during the year for discussions on the escalation of fighting.


On May 8, the Indian government indicated for the first time that it would be willing to mediate in the crisis if asked by both sides. On May 23, Indian officials rejected suggestions in the press that the government of India was considering military intervention in Sri Lanka, amidst reports of an increased Indian naval presence off the Kerala coast. Meanwhile, India continued to play host to more than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees, including about 65,000 in government-run camps in Tamil Nadu. Small numbers of refugees continued to arrive in India by boat during the year, but the Indian navy intercepted many vessels, preventing would-be refugees from landing on Indian soil and seized Indian fishing boats used to transport refugees. India offered to increase humanitarian assistance.

United States

The United States encouraged efforts by Norway and India to promote a negotiated settlement to the Sri Lankan conflict but continued to label the LTTE a "foreign terrorist organization," and increased anti-terrorism aid to the Sri Lankan government. On May 29, U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering met with President Kumaratunga in Colombo. He expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka, urged the parties to press ahead with efforts to negotiate a political settlement short of secession, and encouraged the Sri Lankan government to lift press censorship and other restrictions on civil liberties. In June, President Clinton forwarded to the Senate for ratification a treaty signed in September 1999 that would facilitate extradition of LTTE members to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka sought the treaty to prevent the LTTE from fund-raising or organizing political support in the U.S.

Other Major Donors

The E.U. joined Japan and most of Sri Lanka's other major donors in urging the LTTE and the government to cooperate with the Norwegian government's efforts to facilitate talks. Many donors also criticized the emergency measures imposed in May. On May 15, the E.U. emphasized the need to reestablish civil liberties, noting the responsibility of both sides to ensure the safety of the civilian population in conflict zones, and calling for negotiations. The Japanese government issued a similar appeal and warned that the emergency measures and continued censorship of the media could violate Japan's Official Development Assistance human rights guidelines.

In July, following a fact-finding visit to Sri Lanka, two British members of the European Parliament criticized the government's human rights record stating that it had not done enough to protect civilians caught in the conflict and was using press censorship to cover-up abuses. They also urged the lifting of a military policy that banned even essential supplies, including food and medicine, from reaching areas controlled by the LTTE.

United Nations

In October 1999, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Sri Lanka to follow-up on more than 12,000 cases. Its December 1999 report stated that Sri Lanka was still second only to Iraq in numbers of unresolved cases, and noted that there had been few prosecutions of alleged perpetrators within the security forces, some of whom remained on active duty or had even been promoted.

In mid-March, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy, who is herself Sri Lankan, emphasized the lack of government response to allegations of sexual violence by security personnel in Sri Lanka. She noted too, that, despite a presidential directive, little effort had been made to investigate the December 1999 gang-rape and murder by naval personnel of twenty-nine-year-old Sarathambal Saravanbavananthatkurukal near Jaffna.

UNHCR played an important role in assisting many of Sri Lanka's internally displaced in northern Sri Lanka, though its efforts to assist some of the newest IDPs were hampered by conflict-related restrictions. The agency had no presence in most of eastern Sri Lanka, and only a limited mandate for protection. In the past, the Sri Lankan government's rejection of a protection role for the agency had forced it to focus largely on humanitarian relief. In 2000, a core component of UNHCR's Sri Lanka program was seeking "access to national protection" for IDPs.

Representatives of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) made several statements expressing concern for child victims of war and denouncing the LTTE's use of child soldiers. In July, UNICEF representatives in Colombo accused the LTTE of breaking its promise not to recruit children for combat.

Nongovernmental Efforts

On May 6, the International Working Group on Sri Lanka, a coalition of aid agencies and human rights organizations, called on the international community to avert an impending humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. In mid-May, government and NGO delegates from thirty countries attending an Asia-Pacific conference on child soldiers appealed for a global ban on child soldiers. The delegates' "Kathmandu Declaration" noted that a growing number of children were being used in armed conflicts, particularly where insurgent groups were active, and said that Sri Lanka was among the worst offenders in the region.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.