Tamil Freedom and Continuing Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka
The UN Human Rights Council Resolution on 23rd March 2021 in Geneva is a milestone along the path to justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. It represents more than a step in the right direction and will, hopefully, send alarm bells to perpetrators of past and future war crimes, crimes against humanity and those who violate international humanitarian laws.
Now that UK and its core group have finally begun to correctthe past mistakes of the West by getting the UN resolution passed it is to be hoped that formal inquiries into war crimes against Tamils after twelve long years will start without further delay. The West and the free world must re-examine their moral consciences and their commitment to human rights anywhere in the world and ensure that short sighted decisions do not lead to further mass murders against a group that fights for its legitimate survival and freedom.
The ill- considered banning of the Tamil freedom movements by western countries during the Tony Blair (UK) - Bill Clinton (USA) era tilted the existing delicate balance of power between Tamils and Sinhalese in favour of the Sri Lankan government and, arguably, encouraged it to pursue its military campaign bolstered by foreign military support. This was aimed at subjugating and mass murdering the Tamils and ignoring both their human rights and those laws laying out the rules of war. It might be said, therefore, that the West and those other countries who supported the war conspired involuntarily with the Sri Lankan government to exterminate the Tamils in their historical land rendering them as a marginalised broken Nation in their own homeland with over 200,000 dead or missing out of a population of just over three million.
Sri Lanka's manipulations of world powers and neighbouring India were such that even the UN bowed to pressure from the Sri Lankan government back in 2008, ignoring pleas from the civilians of Vanni and abandoning them to the mercy of its armed forces. After the death of over 40,000 Tamils during the final months in May 2009, over 300,000 innocent civilians including children were subsequently detained in 'Open Prisons - concentration camps style' without adequate facilities such as medicine, sanitation, drinking water and sufficient food.
In April 2009, when the former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner visited the Vanni refugees they raised concerns about the safety of around 300,000 refugee prisoners in the concentration like camps and argued for the restoration of food and medical supplies but these were met with abuse by the then Defence Secretary and his spokesperson.
Seven years later, when the former Prime Minister David Cameron managed to visit Jaffna in 2016, he witnessed the cries of women looking for their missing loved ones in person. Sadly, they are still looking and campaigning with tears in their eyes today with the renewed hope that the new UN resolution will deliver justice, peace, and freedom. These Missing People Campaigners have recently completed a long marathon march (P2P) from Poththuvil in Batticaloa -South East Sri Lanka to Polykandy in the Northern Province defying all the obstacles and threats they faced.
Human rights violation has been going on unabated in Sri Lanka for a long time. The Sri Lankan government conducted a war without witness in 2009 when the world turned a blind eye. Before and after the war, human rights violations had been rampant even though the then President Mahinda Rajapakse claimed that their soldiers had a booklet on human rights in their pockets while they were trigger happy with the gun and mass murdering Tamils in their thousands under the pretext of liberating them from rebel controlled areas!
These soldiers bulldozed the Maveerars' (Martyrs) cemeteries and clinically cleaned the war zone under the pretext of prawn farming by a foreign country, the aim being to remove any traces of war crimes. This abhorrent act of uncivilised desecration of the cemeteries is etched in the memories of the Tamils for generations to come. On the international stage, Sri Lanka will continue to endure this eternal shame for ever for its acts.
In 1918, all German prisoners of war in England who died of Spanish flu, were buried with full military honours. The Sri Lankan government should have taken a leaf from their last colonial rulers' book to 'respect the dead'. Continuing their policy, interfering with the traditional burial of the Muslims too could be construed as a violation of human rights. In the words of Mark Anthony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 'The evil that men do lives after them; the good they do is oft interred with their bones.' In order to atone for this demolition of the cemeteries, the government should change course in respecting the dead and restore the destroyed cemeteries just as they recently allowed Muslims to bury their dead.
There have been many accusations of serious human rights violation against the government of Sri Lanka by a number of independent sources but no action has been taken. In January 2021, the UN High Commissioner for human rights expressed alarm over worrying trends in Sri Lanka since President Gotabaya Rajapakse took office in 2019. The High Commissioner Michelle Brachlet documented apparent impunity and the obstruction of justice for atrocities committed during the brutal civil wars from 1983 to 2009. In Sri Lanka at present, no army personnel have been charged with past crimes and the existing one or two cases that were already in the courts have already been dropped.
The former Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar (North West Region) late Rt Rev Rayappu Joseph gave evidence to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee(LLRC) and quantified the number of missing people as 146,179, this being the difference between the population of the district (2008) and the number of people came out of the army-controlled area at the end of the conflict (2009). However, the LLRC and other committees on this subject, as usual didn't provide any solution but, as usual, the investigation was used to run down the clock in the hope that witnesses and campaigners would die away before any international mechanism was set up.
With 255000 military and police personnel on the ground numbering one military for every six Tamils in the North East, Sri Lanka rules like a military state over Tamils with an iron fist. There is no justification for such heavy and intimidating military presence in the island after the end of the war. The successive governments of Sri Lanka, whether it is the regime of Bandaranayke's or Rajapaksa's, have always resisted outside pressures to resolve the Tamil Question citing sovereignty and using the excuse that outsiders were meddling with their internal affairs and vowed not to take any lessons from the west. If Sri Lanka continues to disregard any international pressure, the only way left is to boycott diplomatic relations and to impose sanctions. Test cricket and travel bans are good ones to start with. It was economic sanctions and the boycott of playing cricket that brought South Africa to its knees.
In the meantime, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora numbering now 1.5 million around the world from the original one million exiled, should form a united front as one group to raise the Sri Lankan human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in their respective parliaments. They should help provide Western governments with up to date information about humanitarian violations so their MPs can initiate parliamentary debates.
The appointment of an Independent International Inquiry on human rights violation in Sri Lanka is urgently needed. This should be followed by a referendum to implement the self-determination to restore of the nationhood of Tamils in North east of Sri Lanka. Parallels could be drawn between the human rights violations in the North East of SriLanka and other ethnic minorities suffering from persecution like the Uyghurs in China, the Rohingyas in Myanmar and the already protected communities in East Timor and Kosovo.
Charter of the United Nations Article 55 says:
Universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.
Tamil Writers Guild Editorial Board