Island in crisis
The absence of State effort to put in place human rights mechanisms has aggravated the war in Sri Lanka. For matters to improve, Colombo must rein in State-linked violations
Situations of armed conflict lead to grave human rights abuses. In Sri Lanka, the absence of human rights mechanisms and protection has led to the escalation of an undeclared war. The Norway-facilitated Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has collapsed. Many argue that the seminal failure of the Norwegian peace process was the lack of an adequate human rights agreement and corresponding monitoring.
The LTTE took advantage of the CFA during the early years of the peace process, including its provisions to do political work in government-controlled territory, to carry out political killings and child recruitment with impunity. The killings that were initially limited to the LTTE’s Tamil opponents spilled over to target military personnel and eventually even the Foreign Minister on August 12, 2005. A year later to the day, human rights and peace activist Kethesh Loganathan, then deputy head of the government peace secretariat, was gunned down the by the LTTE.
While the LTTE’s human rights abuses and its intransigence are nothing new, what is worrying is the rapid descent of the Sri Lankan security forces to their despicable practices of the early 1990s. The Karuna faction, a breakaway faction of the LTTE now working closely with the security forces, has made matters worse. Sri Lanka has witnessed an orgy of abuses by multiple actors. Grave abuses contained in the last decade, such as disappearances, abductions, rape and torture, are back to haunt us with a vengeance.
If the State wants to, it can contain the abuses by checking the security forces and reining in the Karuna faction. The latter in its present form is a failure of the Norwegians, who froze a two-party peace process and created conditions for the LTTE to obliterate its breakaway faction. This allowed the Sri Lankan establishment to take it under its wing. The undeclared war — over 4,000 dead, over 250,000 internally displaced and another 16,000 finding refuge in India last year — has proved costly for the Tamil community in the North and East.
Furthermore, Tamils in the heart of Colombo have also been subject to arbitrary detentions, disappearances, extortion and humiliation by State-linked forces. While LTTE threats forced the new Vice Chancellor of Jaffna University, Jeevan Hoole, to flee the country, the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Raveendran, has disappeared after alleged abduction by State-linked forces from a high security zone in Colombo. The attacks on the Vice Chancellors are a grim foreboding for the Tamil community, which placed a premium on academic excellence.
The extension of abuse in Colombo would have been the ultimate shame for any other government. But in Sri Lanka, even the abduction and extortion of the Tamil business elite and the assassination of a member of Parliament, Raviraj, in broad daylight seems to have set a norm. The government, effectively now an oligarchy leaning towards militarists and Sinhala chauvinists, appears not to care. The cry that one expects more from a democratic government than a fascist group such as the LTTE seems to be falling on deaf ears. And the international community is increasingly finding it embarrassing and annoying to pretend that business is as usual in Colombo.
It is in this disturbing climate that the fourth session of the UN Human Rights Council begins proceedings in Geneva on March 12, 2007. Will the council, to which Sri Lanka was elected, take note of the island nation’s dismal record and act?
Will India take the necessary step of leading a multilateral diplomatic initiative to pressure Sri Lanka to address its human rights situation and move on a political solution? The engagement at the UN forums last year was propelled by the interventions of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston, calling for a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka.
Colombo, to deflect attention from such monitoring, has appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. It needs to deliver by showing a pattern of State complicity in at least some of their 15 mandated cases of grave human rights abuses. This does not in any way reject the need for UN human rights monitoring.
If the government musters the political will, it can immediately rein in the State-linked violations and create an environment for a political solution. However, that may depend on Sri Lankans concerned about human rights taking a firm stand coupled with international pressure led by India.
Ahilan Kadirgamar is a human rights activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum