Urgent need for visible rights reform

By Meenakshi Ganguly

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent Walk the Talk on the Indian news channel NDTV was illuminating. He claimed that the now-defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had planned to take over all of Sri Lanka — not just the areas claimed for an independent Tamil nation — but that LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran “wanted the whole country, ”

Hardly anyone will dispute that the Tamil Tigers was responsible for numerous atrocities over the decades that it was in operation. There were the massacres of civilians, assassinations by its suicide squads, forced recruitment of children for combat, and extortion, particularly from the Tamil diaspora community.

Nor, does anyone seriously dispute that the LTTE prevented civilians from escaping the battle zone during the final military stand-off in 2009, forcing them instead to flee the advancing Sri Lankan government forces into an alarmingly shrinking space to act as shields for Tamil Tiger combatants.

However, President Rajapaksa and his high-ranking brothers have long chosen to dismiss and deny the many serious violations committed by the military, particularly in the conflict’s final months. When it became clear that his generals’ claim that only a few thousand civilians were caught in the fighting was a ruthless obfuscation to hide the human cost, the government did an about-face and began insisting that it undertook a “humanitarian” effort to “rescue” nearly 300,000 civilians.

Despite disturbing video footage released by Channel 4 supported by compelling eyewitness accounts that civilians compressed into a tiny area were repeatedly shelled and bombed, Rajapaksa asserted, “No, but we never fired like how they do in bombing Afghanistan. We never did that.” He also denied that hospitals were shelled – which Human Rights Watch reported on in detail — insisting “it was a complete propaganda,” and that he had seen pictures to the contrary. And despite the 2011 report of a United Nations Panel of Experts that found credible allegations of war crimes and said that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the war primarily by indiscriminate shelling from government forces, the president declared: “LTTE shot some of them when they tried to escape. Other than that I don’t think any civilians were killed.” So how many? asked  interviewer Shekhar Gupta. The president responded: “I would say less than 100.”

The UN Human Rights Council in March 2012 called upon Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes and implement recommendations made by the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. It is hardly surprising, considering Rajapaksa’s claims, that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that very little was done in response over the past year. This March, the Human Rights Council voted again, expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s efforts, and called for further action. Because of the absence of progress, human rights activists believe that there should be an independent, international investigation into the allegations of human rights abuses by both sides to the conflict.

It is crucial that the international community keep up the pressure. The Sri Lankan government has misled its people, insisting that the criticism is inspired, even sponsored, by the now defunct LTTE. It has accused other governments of interfering in its domestic matters, or threatening the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. And worse, it has intimidated, labeled as traitors, Sri Lanka’s civil society activists and journalists (including those from this newspaper[M1] ), to silence their voices and keep Sri Lankans unaware of the rights violations that were, and continue to be, heaped upon their fellow citizens.

Sri Lanka is the designated host of the November 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Member states should no longer imagine that through quiet diplomacy alone Sri Lanka can be encouraged in the right direction. Four years is a long time for the government, if so inclined, to have ensured steps towards accountability. Instead, the “rescued” Tamil population in the country’s north and east continue to live under constant military scrutiny. Arbitrary arrests continue, while relatives still await news of their loved ones who disappeared after surrendering in 2009. Human rights activists and journalists continue to be at risk. In February 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting ongoing rape and other torture of suspected LTTE supporters in detention: the Sri Lankan authorities dismissed these testimonies as “sob stories” to support asylum pleas, refusing to acknowledge that medical reports backed their detailed allegations.

In the lead-up to Commonwealth meeting, it is crucial that member states call upon Sri Lanka to support an international investigation into allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses. They should communicate to Sri Lanka the urgent need for visible rights reform.  If all that fails, they should either change the venue or downgrade the level at which their officials will attend. Since President Rajapaksa likes symbolism, his fellow heads-of-state might want to deny him the privilege of photo opportunities. Perhaps, then, he will realize that his friends are serious, and will not support his government’s efforts to brush aside the serious allegations of the recent past and the newly emerging abuses of the present.   (Colombo Gazette)

(Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch)