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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 48, November 16, 2013

Sri Lankan War Crimes: Need for an International Inquiry

Tuesday 19 November 2013, by Ambrose Pinto

David Cameron, the Prime Minister of England, is not the first one to call for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, he will be the first one among the heads of state to visit the war-ravaged north of Sri Lanka where he will meet people directly impacted by the civil war that ended in 2009 after the genocide of roughly a lakh-and-a-half of people. Sri Lanka has refused to answer the many questions on those war crimes. They have boldly stated that what took place in the northern part of their country is their business and the international community should not poke their nose into the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. Those killed were terrorists, and killed in the national interest to end terrorism and defend the rights of citizens.

Professed and Practised Objective

It is an absurd response. There cannot be any-thing more absurd than this. While the stated objective was the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as Tamil Tigers, the first to be done away with were the journa-lists and thousands of civilians. Those who dissented and had a different opinion from the state were wiped out. Others on the margins were terrorised to toe the state’s line of thought. Citizens were subordinated with intimidation, threats, killings, murders and torture. The state had not only failed; it continues to fail.

If there are differences between linguistic, ethnic and religious groups, the responsibility of the state is to bring dissenting groups to the negotiating table and resolve conflicts and work towards reconci-liation. No state is ever autho-rised to kill its own citizens. No problems can be solved by eliminating a section of the popu-lation for their language and ethnicity. When a state fails to protect its people, the international community has a major responsibility to inter-vene in the interest of protection of life and against state terrorism.

Tamil Eelam was made Terrorist

There are not too many people who accept the argument that the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was purely a terrorist organisation. What began as an organisation to fight for socio-economic and political justice for the Tamil population ended in rebellion against state exploitation. With the might of the state acting against the people, there were not many options available for the group. When the state acts as a terrorist organisation, what are the options left for the movement? The violence of Tamil Eelam was a response to state terrorism to defend from the oppressive state.

The Sri Lankan state has dubbed the organisation as terrorist to eliminate a large section of the people. Even if an organisation is terrorist, does it justify for the state to be terrorist? Can people’s terrorism be defeated by state terrorism? It is a shame that a state makes use of such a language to justify the killings of thousands of ordinary citizens. Besides, the argument of Sri Lanka holds no water in the light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The state has no right to take away lives at all.

Plea to Heads of States not to Participate

The Commonwealth Heads of Government are meeting in Colombo at a time when Tamil groups, in solidarity with human rights groups and people of goodwill from across the globe, are asking for an investigation into that genocide and act on those responsible for it. Since the Government of Sri Lanka has refused any kind of investigation, there are civil society groups, non-governmental organisations, human rights groups and even governments calling for a boycott of the event for the revolting war crimes of the state. Canada has decided not to participate. The Prime Minister of Britain has said he would participate and at the same time ask for an international enquiry into the genocide.

The people of India along with members of the national Cabinet have rightly expressed their will that the Prime Minister should not participate in the meet and the Prime Minister has decided not to. Whatever may be the diplomatic or economic losses from not attending the meet by the Prime Minister, the political gains for human rights protection are immense. The presence of the Indian Prime Minister would have provided legitimacy to President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is the prime culprit in the war crimes. He is expected to chair the Common-wealth Ministerial Action Group.

One of the many objectives of the Common-wealth group of countries is promotion of human rights. How does it sound that the Prime Minister of India participates in a meeting which is headed by a person responsible for the genocide of his own people?

Is the President of Sri Lanka involved 

in the Crimes?

One may even ask for evidence of the involve-ment of the President in the crimes against his own people. Such asking for evidence is meaningless when the United Nations Human Rights Council has passed a US-sponsored resolution critical of the country’s record and suggested to Sri Lanka to conduct an indepen-dent and credible investigation into the alleged war crimes.

The Sri Lankan Government had commi-ssioned its own investigation. The report of the commission titled “Lessons Learnt and Reconci-liation Commission (LLRC)” was a fraud that had cleared the military of allegations that it had deliberately attacked civilians. The violation by troops was stated to be few and at the individual level. When the criminals of the state conduct an enquiry one does not expect anything more from the report.

Amnesty International has called for an inde-pendent and international investigation into the conflict. A large amount of videos and photo-graphs have clearly furnished proof that the President was a party to the crimes. All said and done it was he who was presiding over the state when the genocide took place, under his direction and guidance.

Hate towards Tamils Continues

What worries the international community is the continuing violations of rights of the Tamil population. There are enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, ethnic and religious discrimination and threats to journalists and civil society activists. Though the Sri Lankan Government has done some commendable work in building the infrastructure destroyed by state terrorism, nothing much has been done in the areas of justice and reconciliation. The culture of hate still persists.

A delegation of two Members of Parliament—one from Australia, Senator Lee Rhiannon, and Jan Logie from New Zealand—at the conclusion of their fact finding visit to Sri Lanka on November 10, 2013 have found that the ongoing abuses of human and legal rights are so serious that they had suggested that the Commonwealth meeting scheduled should not proceed and that the Sri Lanka Government should not be given the chair of CHOGM for the next two years.

In their joint statement they had said: “If CHOGM goes ahead and if Sri Lanka is given the Chair of this organisation the Common-wealth will have failed the people of Sri Lanka and damaged its own high standing with the international community. Elected officials and members of civil society in Sri Lanka have provided us with examples of massive illegal land confiscation by the armed forces; people being gaoled and detained with regular disregard for legal rights; violence, often involving rape, of women and children with no police investigation of these crimes; and ongoing intimidation of media workers.

“We visited areas where the army is occupying people’s land. The homes of the displaced people are now tin shacks serviced by dirt pot holed roads. Many people have been living like this for more than two decades. Large numbers of women regularly suffer sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. One lawyer described to us the evidence collected about these crimes. In one case they have text messages from Major General Mahinda Hathurusingha to the ‘comfort women’ he frequently abuses. The level of hardship for women and their dependents is shocking. More than 40,000 households in the north and east of the country are now female headed and few of them receive any government assistance if they cannot find work. Politicians described to us incidents in the past week where young party workers have been intimidated and detained. One worker we met who had just been released from gaol after ten months was never charged.

“The harassment of media workers and media owners continues. In Jaffna we saw the bullet holes in the printing presses, the computers and walls of one media outlet. Journalists and paper distributors have been attacked. Clearly this is an unsafe country for journalists to work as those who commit these crimes have not been investigated or charged. We were left with the impression that the government is becoming increasingly repressive towards those committed to a critical independent examination of events in Sri Lanka.

“If CHOGM events proceed in Sri Lanka the Commonwealths heads need to ensure that their handshakes, talks and communiques with President Rajapaksa are not used by this regime to claim legitimacy for their current operations. CHOGM’s presence in Sri Lanka risks becoming an award for a regime accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This international body should not allow itself to become a propaganda tool for the Rajapaksa regime.

“The Commonwealth played a key role in challenging apartheid in South Africa and oppression in Fiji. CHOGM should continue to stand by its own values and principles by working for improved human rights protection and justice in Sri Lanka. The Australian Greens and Green party of New Zealand will continue to work for an independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all sides in the conflicts in Sri Lanka, and for CHOGM to stand with all the people of Sri Lanka not with a regime accused of war crimes.” (http://lee-rhiannon.greensmps.org.au/content/media-releases/joint-statement-sri-lanka-sri-lanka-should-not-host-chogm

Will the protests of international community come to the aid of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka? Will all the protests and pleas reach the ears of the heads of states of the Commonwealth who will be gathering in Sri Lanka so that         they are able to compel Sri Lanka to do some-thing on the human rights concerns? The least the countries must demand is an international investigation into the crimes followed by rehabi-litation and justice to the ethnic Tamils.

Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal, St. Aloysius Degree College, Bengaluru.

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