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No freedom from fear

india Updated: Jan 17, 2013 22:21 IST
G Ananthapadmanabhan
G Ananthapadmanabhan
Hindustan Times
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In Sri Lanka, those responsible for human rights violations have got off scot-free.

The article by Lalith Weeratunga, Permanent Secretary to the Sri Lankan President, titled Don’t let them down (January 6) is a reflection of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to deny and refuse to be held accountable for war crimes in the past and ongoing human rights violations.

There is no dispute that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed atrocities in the course of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. But there is substantial evidence that the Lankan forces did so as well. Thousands of alleged victims of enforced disappearance and abduction by both Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE remain unaccounted for.

Under international law, Sri Lanka has an obligation to carry out prompt and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations. But it has repeatedly failed to do so. For example, the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) have not been fully followed. The government has so far agreed to limited implementation of only 92 of the 285 recommendations of the LLRC. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government has left it to the very security agencies associated with many of the human rights violations to investigate themselves. As a result, the horrific crimes remain un-investigated and un-punished, while arbitrary detention and torture persist.

The lack of an independent and impartial investigation into these crimes sends out the message that in States like Sri Lanka crimes committed in the name of countering terrorism are being ignored.

Weeratunga speaks of “the Herculean task now afoot to repair the lives and dreams of millions who suffered the most egregious ravages”, including in the course of armed conflict. He is right about the need to restore the lives of the survivors. But his government’s commitment is highly questionable. Many Tamils and other ordinary Sri Lankans have repeatedly told us that they cannot demand justice for human rights violations or otherwise peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression and association without fear of government reprisal.

Weeratunga’s claims that the Sri Lankan military has withdrawn from civilian life in Sri Lanka are simply not true. In Jaffna, in November 2012, soldiers entered a women’s hostel on the Jaffna University campus to prevent the commemoration of Heroes Day — a day originally set aside by the LTTE to commemorate fallen cadres. They threatened and assaulted students who were lighting lamps. When students said that this was a violation of their right to freedom of expression, their peaceful protest was violently suppressed, and student leaders from the university were removed from Jaffna and detained without charge in a rehabilitation camp. The army also reportedly stopped Jaffna residents from lighting lamps to celebrate Karthigai Deepam, which fell on the same day.

Thousands of displaced civilians have still not been able to return home because their villages remain occupied by the military. When the writer speaks of ordinary Sri Lankans, who is he is talking about? The ordinary Sri Lankans who have spoken to Amnesty International say that they want their government to uphold their human rights. Their government needs to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators of war crimes and other human rights violations to justice, make genuine efforts at reconciliation and put an end to the culture of impunity in the country. It is only then that all of Sri Lanka can move forward, together.

G Ananthapadmanabhan is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed by the author are personal.