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Top US Senator calls for immediate ceasefire

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 4 February 2009 07:45 No Comment]

In a statement issued Tuesday, U.S. Judiciary Committee Chairman and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said that "it is imperative that the government and the LTTE agree to an immediate ceasefire to avoid further loss of life, permit access to UN monitors and humanitarian organizations, and permit civilians to leave for areas of safety. The Obama administration, the British, Indian and other concerned governments, should be publicly urging the same," and added that "over the longer term, if lasting peace is to come to Sri Lanka, the government must effectively address, in negotiations which include all the main Tamil and Muslim parties, the core issues that have fueled the conflict including laws and policies that unfairly discriminate against Sri Lanka’s minorities."


Full text of Senator Patrick Leahy’s statement follows:

 

STATEMENT OF SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY ON THE SITUATION IN SRI LANKA
February 3, 2009

 

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka that has waxed and waned for decades costing the lives of tens of thousands of people, has exploded into a full scale war and it is civilians who are bearing the brunt of the carnage.
The origins of the conflict arise from decades of the Sinhalese majority’s systematic discrimination against the Tamil minority, and its denial of the Tamils’ meaningful participation in the political process. The Sri Lankan army is almost exclusively Sinhalese. Successive Sinhalese-dominated governments have failed to effectively address these longstanding injustices. Over the years, peaceful demonstrations by Tamils have been met with violence by Sinhalese extremists, which has in turn fostered violent extremism on the Tamil side.

In recent weeks, as the Sri Lankan army has seized control of most of the northern strongholds of the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE as they are otherwise known, the situation has gone from dire to the verge of catastrophe for the estimated 250,000 vulnerable civilians who are trapped in a so-called “safe zone.”

The LTTE has a history of suicide bombings and other indiscriminate attacks against civilians, using civilians as shields, and preventing civilians under their control from escaping to government areas. Several hundred local staff of the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations are reportedly trapped because the LTTE refuses to allow them to leave. The LTTE has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.

For its part, the Sri Lankan army insists it is targeting the LTTE, not civilians. But the army has also acted in ways that have blurred any meaningful distinction between itself and the LTTE. It has reportedly shelled areas populated by civilians, including hospitals, causing hundreds of casualties, summarily executed suspected LTTE sympathizers, and detained those who have fled LTTE areas, including women and children, in militarized camps where they are exposed to great hardship and danger.

The United Nations says a compound sheltering UN national staff inside the safety zone was shelled on January 24 and 25, killing at least nine civilians and wounding more than 20. On January 26, another artillery attack reportedly narrowly missed UN local staff working in the safety zone, but caused dozens of civilian deaths. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that “[h]undreds of patients need emergency treatment and evacuation to [a] hospital in the government-controlled area.”

In the past two days, another hospital was reportedly shelled multiple times, resulting in more civilian deaths and injuries.

Human Rights Watch reports that since last September, when the Sri Lankan government ordered the withdrawal of most UN and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, as well as journalists, from the conflicted area, a grave humanitarian crisis has developed with acute shortages of food, shelter, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies.

The Sri Lankan government has a duty to respect the rights and protect the safety of all Sri Lankan citizens, whatever their ethnic origin or political views. Instead, the government has embarked on a strategy to defeat the LTTE militarily and in doing so has shown disregard for the laws of war. Rather than protecting the Tamil people, the government has often contributed to their suffering. Its strategy has been to cordon off the area and blame everything, including its own violations, on the LTTE.

Since 1984, successive peace talks have failed, as both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have reneged on their agreements, and the government has failed to provide the vision and leadership necessary to build a multi-ethnic consensus. Both sides’ extreme ethnic nationalist agendas have caused widespread human suffering. Both sides are accountable.

I have no sympathy for the LTTE, which has brought misery upon the Tamil people it professes to represent. But while the LTTE has been severely weakened, it is unlikely to disappear, and the cycle of violence may continue.

It is imperative that the government and the LTTE agree to an immediate ceasefire to avoid further loss of life, permit access to UN monitors and humanitarian organizations, and permit civilians to leave for areas of safety. The Obama administration, the British, Indian and other concerned governments, should be publicly urging the same.

Over the longer term, if lasting peace is to come to Sri Lanka, the government must effectively address, in negotiations which include all the main Tamil and Muslim parties, the core issues that have fueled the conflict including laws and policies that unfairly discriminate against Sri Lanka’s minorities.
There is a related issue that needs to be mentioned, and that is the imprisonment for the past ten months of J.S. Tissainayagam, a journalist, and N. Jashiharan, a publisher, and his wife, V. Valamathy. They were arrested for articles critical of the government, and are being held in violation of their right to freedom of expression. Another of Sri Lankan’s most respected journalists, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was gunned down in broad daylight a few weeks ago. According to Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “[t]he killing of . . . Wickrematunge . . . was the latest blow to the free expression of dissent in Sri Lanka. The searing article he wrote prophesying his own murder is an extraordinary indictment of a system corrupted by more than two decades of bloody internal conflict.” The High Commissioner noted that there have not been any prosecutions of political killings, disappearances and other violations committed in recent years. That in itself speaks volumes about the Sri Lankan government’s credibility.

For many years, the United States and Sri Lanka have enjoyed good relations. A close friend of mine, James Spain, was our Ambassador there years ago. He often told me of his deep affection for the Sri Lankan people, and of the country’s extraordinary natural beauty.

When the tsunami crashed ashore in December 2004, a member of my staff was on the island. The American people responded generously to help Sri Lanka rebuild.

It has therefore been difficult for me to watch the conflict intensify, the LTTE abuse civilians and fail to live up to its commitments, and the government threaten to expel foreign diplomats, aid agencies and journalists, and refuse appeals to permit independent observers and aid workers access to areas where Tamil civilians are trapped. And as reputable, courageous journalists have been arrested on transparently political charges or assassinated.

The Sri Lanka government will one day want the respect and support of the United States. The same can be said of the LTTE, if and when it renounces violence and becomes a legitimate political party. How they respond to today’s humanitarian appeals will weigh heavily on how the United States responds when that day comes.

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