US Caucus meets on human rights in Sri Lanka

[TamilNet, Thursday, 04 March 1999, 10:37 GMT]
The US Congressional Human Rights Caucus members briefing on "Human Rights Developments in Sri Lanka" took place on March 2 at Rayburn House. It was attended by officials from the US State department, UNHCR, Amnesty International and other non governmental organisations.

Rep F.H. Faleomavaega (D-AS) and Rep Frank Pallone, Jr (D-NJ) read 'member statements.' Rep Faleomavaega chaired the hearings during the first half of the session and Rep. Bill Luther (D-MN) chaired the hearings in the second half.

The three Congressmen are also members of the Congressional caucus on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Americans, which was set up last year to promote Sri Lanka's interests on issues concerning political developments, trade & investment and cultural relations.

The first session was attended by George A. Pickart Senior Advisor for South Asian Affairs (U.S Dept of State), Karen Koning Abuzaid (UNHCR US Co-ordinator) and Joseph Scalise (Director, World Food Program in Sri Lanka).

George Pickart was equally critical of the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers (LTTE) for widespread human rights violations. He urged a peaceful resolution of the island's conflict.

"We are open to play a constructive facilitative role in ending Sri Lanka's conflict. We will continue to remain engaged in Sri Lanka and hope our efforts will help bring an end to this tragic war" he said.

He said the Sri Lankan government had been invited to participate in the Human Rights Caucus but had declined.

"We understand that the Embassy of Sri Lanka had been invited to appear today but has declined, opting instead to submit a statement for the record. We urged the Ambassador to take advantage of this opportunity to appear in person and provide the Government's point of view, but understand that decision rests with the government," he said.

Rep. Faleomavaega, while questioning George Pickart stated that the "Hindu LTTE" was intent on "capturing the south of the island because of the natural resources there".

Pickart however disagreed, saying that the war was ethnic and not religious.

Addressing the briefing, Karen Abuzai (UNHCR) said that only 40% of the food need in the Vanni area was being delivered, but there had been a slight increase recently.

She described the work the UNHCR had undertaken with refugees and internally displaced people.

The Sri Lankan government maintains a economic embargo, including food and medicine, on the Vanni region, large parts of which are held by the Liberation Tigers (LTTE).

But, Joseph Scalise of the World Food Program defended the Sri Lankan government's record. He said conditions in the LTTE-held Vanni were better than in some areas held by the Sri Lankan government.

"There is no urgent or severe nutritional situation prevailing in the North of Sri Lanka" he said.

However, Sri Lankan opposition MPs and Tamil MPs in Sri Lanka's ruling coalition have often accused the government of severely restricting food supplies into the Vanni.

Aid workers and Sri Lankan health Ministry officials have also cited malnutrition as one of the reasons for the rapid spread of diseases and a general decline in health of Vanni residents.

Both the UNHCR and WFP officials told the briefing's attendees that a census had to be taken before a clear view of the situation could be obtained.

The briefing's second session was chaired by Rep. Bill Luther (D-MN), who is also a member of the Caucus on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Americans.

Miriam A. Young (Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace) and Stephen A. Rickard, (Amnesty International USA) were the panellists in the second session. Both urged the US government to "support peace-building initiatives originating in the NGO sector and civil society".

Human rights activists who attended the session expressed dismay with some of the comments made by the Congressmen.

As an example, they cited Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr, saying that the delay in investigating the mass graves at Chemmani in the north Jaffna peninsula was because of the Liberation Tigers.

Amnesty International has accused the Sri Lankan government of dragging its feet over investigating the graves where the bodies of Tamil civilians murdered by Sri Lankan troops are alleged to be buried.

In an internal memo circulated dated June 29 last year, the Caucus on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Americans expressed its objectives as "promoting trade and investment between the U.S and Sri Lanka, banning terrorist activity of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fostering development within the Sri Lankan American community and focusing on Sri Lanka related issues," said sources.


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