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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 105

Sri Lanka Human Rights War

By Col R Hariharan (Retd.)

Putting Tamils on notice

On June 7, 2006 Colombo police sent 376 Tamils, including 85 women, from Colombo to their in the north and east because they could not provide "valid reasons" for being in Colombo. The police action ostensibly carried out for 'security reasons,' added yet another dimension to the woes of Tamil citizens who have become the pawns in the war going on in Sri Lanka. Their 'sins' were that they were Tamils, unemployed, and citizens from the northern and eastern part of the country. And they came from areas most affected by the war that had heated up since 2005. At least some of them in the younger age group were probably fleeing from being forcibly recruited into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Luckily for these jobless, and apparently influence-less Tamils, the Supreme Court intervened and called a halt to this Orwellian measure of ensuring national security. After biting criticism from most of the countries including the EU and the US which had been supporting and in some way underwriting Sri Lanka's war against the LTTE, the Sri Lanka President's response was to call for an immediate report from the Inspector General Victor Perera. Three days later, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake expressed regret over the eviction of "jobless Tamils" and accepted the responsibility of his government for the action. "It should have never happened," he added.

Even before the 'jobless' could digest the Prime Minister's apology, the master mind of Sri Lanka's military option - the all powerful Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa came out with all the barrels blazing in support of the eviction. He told the media, "It is a good example where the whole world was misled?Everyone knows the LTTE is infiltrating?We can't arrest 300 people and detain them. What's the best option? You can tell them, if you don't have any legal business in Colombo?we don't want to detain you, you go back to your homes. In fact, this operation was much better. We could have put all of them in detention."

He did not leave it at that. He launched a frontal attack on Britain and other western countries accusing them of trying to bully Sri Lanka. "We won't be isolated. We have all the SAARC countries, the Asian countries. Britain or Western countries, EU countries, they can do whatever. We don't depend on them," the Defence Secretary added.

What do these contradictory statements mean, on a fundamentally flawed action affecting the ethnic minority in an insurgency war? Here are a few thoughts:

• Apparently, the initiative to evict the "jobless Tamils" was taken by the defence wing of the government. It is difficult to believe that on its own initiative it would take such a draconian measure. It required careful planning, painstaking action, and substantial logistics and manpower for evicting of hundreds of citizens for no valid legal reason. Evidently, the action was probably in the knowledge of the President. If it was not so, it indicates serious flaws in policy making.

• Immediately after the Prime Minister had apologised, there was a balancing act with the Chief Whip and Minister Fernandopulle contradicting the Prime Minister's stand and justifying the eviction action. The government media also orchestrated the same thoughts. Does it mean it is going to be business as usual? It appears so with the hiatus between the government's pronouncements and actions widening further.

• This Janus-faced policy of the government, more than military action, has undermined the confidence of Tamils in the government. It puts all Tamils on notice of 'good conduct' though they have no means of controlling their destiny even in their own land.

• The eviction has made it clear that 'militarists' are dictating the government policy. The police action was taken after a week's notice. However, it is surprising that the policy makers appear to have not factored in the likely adverse fallout of their action. Perhaps, they are not bothered about it.

• It has also exposed the limitations of international powers in influencing actions of the government. If they want the Sri Lanka Government to improve its conduct, they will have to think of new strategies rather than issuing statements which seem to create the opposite effect. It has also shown the government is not going to be responsive to the pleas of national and international NGOs and other non partisan fronts struggling for peace and human rights.

The LTTE which had been under great pressure at home and abroad should be thankful to the government for its eviction action. In one stroke, the government action has exposed how vulnerable the ordinary Tamil citizen is to whimsical government action. This helplessness could make some Tamils rethink of their attitudes to the creation of Tamil Eelam, the raison d'être for the existence of LTTE. One can almost hear the LTTE telling the affected Tamils, "We told you so."

The dangerous dimension

However, it would be facile to look at the issue and its impact on the Tamils only. It also reflects on the larger context of the rights of citizens. The happenings in Sri Lanka have a more dangerous dimension - the blatant violation of the citizens' rights regardless of his or her ethnicity as the price for the ongoing the war. In short, human rights are fighting a war of survival in Sri Lanka, alongside the war between the State and LTTE.

Human rights in most of the countries in South Asia are only secondary to political compulsions of those in power. In Pakistan it is the military-backed President who is spearheading the fight against human rights. In India, politicians of all hues in power, violate them for their own gains. But in Sri Lanka there is a qualitative difference. Curiously both the Sri Lanka State and the LTTE appear to be arrayed on the same side against human rights.

Both appear bent upon crushing one of the fundamental human rights ? the right to differ. And Tamils ? regardless of their beliefs and aspirations ? are the major segment affected by this seemingly unending assault on human rights from all sides. But other ethnic communities are equally vulnerable.

Even more surprising is that both the State and the LTTE are claiming to be fighting for human rights. Sri Lanka's war is publicised as a "humanitarian mission to free the people from the clutches of LTTE". For LTTE, human rights appear to apply to only those who are its camp followers or fit in its agenda. In any case, LTTE has been trampling upon the rights of those who don't toe its line for a long time. So unlike the State, nobody expects LTTE to uphold human rights. Thus the State as a legitimate government "elected by the people" has no choice but to ensure its citizens enjoy their rights. After all, that is what the present conflict is all about the legitimate rights of all citizens.

Who are the victims of this war? There were public personalities and even a parliament member killed in high security zones, with no trace of their killers. At least there is some consolation that the police have registered such cases and some people are supposed to be looking into them. But there are others who have become human flotsam carried away as the conflict continues. These include nameless citizens killed in crossfire, scores of people kidnapped or taken away in "unidentified white vans" and never seem to return home, the 70 odd businessmen kidnapped for ransom from the heart of Colombo, and nearly 170,000 people who fled their homes and lost their properties and means of livelihood and are living on doles. Lastly, there are thousands of kids who should be in schools, 'body snatched' to become child soldiers. Now it has touched the poor, jobless Tamil 'loitering' in Colombo trying to get away from the war.

The wielders of power have shown in a number of instances that such high handedness need not be limited to Tamils. When a few politicians, public personalities and media men demanded better accountability from the government, they were arrested and kept in custody on charges that did not warrant such severity. Free media has been threatened, and at least in one case it was pressurised to shut down operations. NGOs have been put under notice and their workers have been killed mysteriously.

Government response

Sri Lanka's response had been caustic to complaints on human rights issues from both national and international bodies though Sri Lanka is not the only state to come under such scrutiny and criticism. As a democratic country, one would expect the Sri Lanka State to respond to such accusations with the seriousness they deserve.

Usually the state human rights commission receives the complaints of violations and advises follow up action. While this structural framework is in position in Sri Lanka its performance has satisfied nobody. The Human Rights Commission and other commissions appointed by the President on specific issues have been ineffectual because of structural and functional limitations placed upon them.

This has been eloquently brought out in the statement of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) on June 11, 2007. The IIGEP under the chairmanship of Justice PN Bhagwati was constituted by the President to impart credibility to the work of the Commission of Inquiry into 16 cases of human rights violations and killings. The IIGEP has expressed its concern that the current measures taken by the government and the Commission to address issues such as the independence of the Commission, timeliness and witness protection were not adequate and did not satisfy international norms and standards.

But more than all these, when such violations are raised, the rulers appear to see only a conspiracy to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka using the human rights issue. This is amazing considering that Sri Lanka in 2002 had a fund of international goodwill and gave the impression that it was serious about improving its human rights record. Unfortunately, the statements from senior bureaucrats and ministers of the government have only undermined this fund of goodwill. Even President Rajapaksa has considered the allegations about violation of human rights and the breakdown of the economy were "aimed at covering up the defeats of the LTTE and weakening the operations of the security forces."

There is clearly an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia against Tamils being built up. This raises the question, is this is turning the war against LTTE into a war against Tamils? If this were not so, how do we explain serial killings and abductions, running into hundreds, in the heart of high security zones, where most of the victims are Tamils?

However, fortunately fair minded citizens from diverse ethnic communities, despite heavy odds and invisible pressures, have been strident in their demand for restoration of human rights to all citizens. For instance, Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the main opposition party - the United National Party- was forthright in his criticism of the eviction exercise. Speaking in parliament on the subject of eviction of Tamils, he said Jews and Black Africans faced similar persecution at the hands of Germans and Whites respectively.

Misuse of emergency powers

The government appears to be faltering on three counts that have a bearing on human rights violations: misuse of special powers by state machinery, reluctance to take violators of human rights to task, and failure to evolve a credible mechanism to curb human rights violations.

No doubt the State is locked in a seemingly endless war with an intransigent foe ? LTTE. There is no dispute that fighting LTTE involves not only conventional operations at the battlefront but also crushing its attempts at sabotage, subversion and espionage. Sri Lanka, like many other states fighting a war against a section of its own people, has armed itself with special powers to curtail civil rights of its citizens. But its safeguards against the misuse of such powers are either weak or non functional. India's long experience in fighting militancy has shown that summary powers granted to law enforcers under special legal dispensation are very often misused. There are a number of reasons for this. These include promotion of the agenda of political leaders, corruption among bureaucracy and law enforcers, and cover up of security hierarchy's incompetence. All the three factors appear to be present in Sri Lanka.

Responsibility of other nations

These happenings are known to all the countries who are underwriting the peace process. That includes the four Co-Chairs ? the EU, Japan, Norway, and the U.S ? and India. In fact the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour's report "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2006" released on April 5, 2007 had by and large summed up their views on human rights situation in Sri Lanka:

As a result of the escalating hostilities between the government and LTTE and numerous violations of the cease-fire agreement by both sides, overall respect for human rights declined in the affected areas. There were numerous, credible reports that armed paramilitary groups, suspected of being linked to the government and security forces, participated in armed attacks during the year.

Human rights monitors also reported arbitrary arrests and detention by security forces, poor prison conditions, denial of fair and public trials, corruption and lack of transparency, infringement of religious freedom and freedom of movement, and discrimination against minorities. Trafficking in persons also remained a serious issue affecting women, children and men for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. The LTTE engaged in politically motivated killings, suicide attacks, disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, interference with privacy, denial of freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association, and recruitment of child soldiers. Since the August 2005 killing of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, the government has regularly renewed emergency regulations that permitted arrests without warrants and unaccountable detentions. In December parliament toughened these regulations to give security forces even broader arrest and detention powers. These regulations restrict the media's ability to report on the conflict. The new rule also establishes an appeals process for detainees but gives civil servants, rather than judges, the right to adjudicate the cases.

Their growing impatience with the state of affairs in Sri Lanka on many counts, including deteriorating human rights, had been manifest in their public statements. However, Britain appears to have taken the initiative to started acting, rather than issuing statements and holding back room parleys. It appears to be mustering support for an EU resolution in the UN Human Rights Council that had been pending for sometime now. In a note to British members of European Parliament, Britain has said there was "a growing case for introducing international human rights monitors in Sri Lanka." But will that solve the question? As Darfur experience has shown, UN monitoring might not help beyond embarrassing the Sri Lanka Government and imposing a bit of caution.

Regardless of the answer, the countries underwriting the peace process, and also in some ways the current war, have to act to ensure that they do not become a party to the charade that is going on now in Sri Lanka. India has a responsibility that is even bigger. It has to shake off its internal power balancing preoccupations and do more than discussing whether weapons supplied to Sri Lanka are offensive or defensive. India, which has close ties with Sri Lanka, needs to handle issues with greater consideration and tact to help the country emerge from the bloody impasse with a win-win solution on the basis of equity for all communities . And that requires more interest and involvement not only from India but also other countries involved in peace and war in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, they will be as much responsible for what is happening in Sri Lanka as the State or the LTTE. That will be doing their bit for the war to flourish, dumping human rights by the way side, and not promoting peace.

Col. R Hariharan, an intelligence specialist on South Asia, is a retired Military Intelligence officer. He served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.

-Asian Tribune

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