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Let’s help Sri Lanka win the peace

[The Globe and Mail, Thursday, 17 September 2009 09:31 No Comment]

It is now nearly four months since Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared the country “liberated” from the Tamil Tiger rebels after a 26-year war. He said then that he wanted to settle most of the displaced Tamil civilians within 180 days but, today, with 60 days to go, nearly 280,000 are still being – in the words of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – “effectively detained under conditions of internment.”

Humanitarian agencies’ access to these camps remains restricted, the high commissioner said, “and the mandates of relief agencies are increasingly coming under threat.” UN staff have even been attacked. One person who was able to visit the camps was Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said, “I have travelled round the world and visited similar places, but these are by far the most appalling scenes I have seen.”

In mid-August, these camps were flooded by downpours that, according to The New York Times, “sent rivers of muck cascading between tightly packed rows of flimsy shelters, overflowed latrines and sent hundreds of families scurrying for higher ground.” When the full monsoon comes in a few weeks, no one knows how many will die from waterborne diseases, including cholera and typhoid.

Moreover, there is no public list of those being held in the camps, and many families do not know whether their loved ones are alive or dead.

The brutal methods used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the conflict are beyond dispute. But while the war was going on, the government claimed to draw a distinction between Tamil Tiger fighters and the law-abiding Tamil population, whose genuine political grievances it would address once the “terrorists” had been defeated.

So far, nothing like that has happened. Although the government has screened out those it believes were Tamil Tiger cadres and sent them to separate camps (where there is no international presence at all), it repeatedly extends its own deadline for releasing the civilians who are still in the main camps.

People who question this inside Sri Lanka are accused of being traitors in the pay of “the LTTE diaspora,” while outsiders are accused of using humanitarian concerns as an excuse for neo-imperialist intervention. Sri Lankan journalists who criticized the government have been arrested, beaten, jailed and, in some cases, murdered. Some foreign journalists and UN officials have been kicked out; Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not allowed in.

In the last weeks of fighting, an estimated 20,000 civilians were killed. Government forces are accused of shelling Tamil civilians; the Tamil Tigers are accused of using civilians as human shields, forcibly recruiting them and shooting those who tried to flee. There are rumours of mass graves and television reports of extra-judicial killing, but no independent observer has been allowed into the war zones to investigate.

Friends of Sri Lanka the world over do not understand why Mr. Rajapaksa chose Myanmar as the first country to visit after winning the “war on terror.” They were concerned to read, on the government’s own website, that one reason for this choice was that “the [Myanmar] generals are increasingly finding it difficult to contain insurgent groups in the country’s northern frontier and are willing to learn some fresh lessons from President Mahindra Rajapaksa on how to defeat the enemy.”

That is not what the international community in general, and Commonwealth friends such as Canada in particular, wish to learn from Sri Lanka. Rather, they are expecting the country to be faithful to its democratic tradition and act on Mr. Rajapaksa’s promises that the rights of minorities will be respected, that the displaced will be helped to return home and that prisoners will be treated humanely.

Sadly, the government’s willingness to ignore universal principles of human rights and humanitarian law (which Sri Lanka agreed to uphold when it signed and ratified many treaties and conventions) has met with very little international resistance. Even the United States, which has urged the rapid release of all civilians and deplored the government’s slow timetable on political reform, is encouraging U.S. investors to “make Sri Lanka your next business stop.”

The Sri Lankan government has won the war. It must now win the peace, and the world, including Canada, must help.

“Tough friends” must now say clearly that further economic and political support will depend on the following conditions being fulfilled:

1. The United Nations, the Red Cross and voluntary agencies must be given full and unhindered access to care for and protect civilians detained in Sri Lankan camps, then help them return to wherever in their country they choose to live.

2. A list of all those still alive and in custody should be published, so families can stop searching for loved ones who are dead.

3. Any who continue to be detained as alleged Tamil Tiger combatants must be treated in accordance with the provisions of international law, and urgently given access to legal representation.

4. Accountability processes must be established to ensure that international aid is not diverted to purposes other than those for which it was given.

5. The Sri Lankan government should invite regional and international specialists in conflict reconciliation to help rebuild lives and communities.

6. Sri Lanka should request or accept a full UN investigation into war crimes committed by all parties during the 26-year civil war.

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