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The Tragedy in Sri Lanka

Saturday 6 March 2010, by Rajindar Sachar

[The following article reached us quite sometime ago but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons. —Editor]

One of the most tragic happenings of the decade is the breakdown of the Sri Lankan ceasefire in 2006 and its aftermath resulting in the horrors of war crime and slaughter of the innocent Tamil population of Sri Lanka. Why did it happen and could it have been avoided? These were some of the questions posed before the Permanent People’s Tribunal (successor to the Bertrand Russel Tribunal) which had been requested by the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka, and held its sittings from January 14 to 16 at Dublin; and the PPP sought to answer them.

The Tribunal was presided over by Francois Houtrt, Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic Recession. This writer was one of the ten members of this panel.

As is well known, there have been since over a decade warlike encounters between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); the latter were virtually running their own administration with unbearable losses to both sides. At last due to intervention by the USA, European Union, a ceasefire agreement was signed between GOSL and LTTE in 2002 which was being overseen by the Norwegians.

I can personally vouch for the comparatively relaxed and hopeful atmosphere that prevailed when our delegation of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties on invitation from some human rights groups in Sri Lanka visited it in 2003. The confidence was such that Balasingham, the spokesman for Prabhakaran, the LTTE chief, on one of his visits, because of the time
factor constraint had no hesitation in using a government helicopter to meet Prabhakaran before the start of one of the rounds of peace talks. However, on January 2, 2008 the GOSL officially declared its withdrawal from the CFA; of course both parties blamed each other for this eventuality.

Various reasons were advanced for the failure of the CFA like the delayed response of the GOSL to begin reconstruction and rehabilitation work in the war ravaged areas and also failing to ensure the social and economic well-being of the people thus eroding mutual confidence. Especially after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Tamils were led to feel neglected, marginalised and discriminated against, thus increasing their distrust. The European Union’s decision to ban the LTTE in 2006 even before the war started has also been seen as a grave error that destroyed the parity of status conducive for the contribution of the peace process. In addition, the USA has been accused of being instrumental in undermining the post-tsunami Operational Management structure which was put in place as a unified mechanism to carry out joint rehabilitation and relief work in the tsunami affected areas by insisting that it would not direct money to any joint fund other than the government treasury.

But the most crucial reason for the breakdown of ceasefire was the attitude of the US Government which insisted on excluding the LTTE from the advance talks in Washington. The conduct of the European Union in so early withdrawing from the talks was explained by impartial witnesses as being due to strong pressure put by the USA which, because of its own war in Iraq and Afghanistan, wanted the logistic support of the GOSL that obviously it could not hope to get if the LTTE continued to be associated with the ceasefire talks.

The Tribunal found that the Lankan Army dropped cluster ammunitions by war planes. There was frequent use of heavy military against the LTTE forces in civilian areas on public buildings and schools which constitutes a violation of the Geneva Convention. The British and French media indicated that during the third week of fighting some 20,000 Tamils had been killed.

Sexual abuse and the rape of women was yet another atrocity clearly proved against the government military and would amount to crime against humanity, and the Geneva Convention.

The Tribunal rejected the claim that all these war crimes should be allowed as the best means to defeat the most dangerous enemy. This kind of new security paradigm is totally unacceptable. The State cannot be allowed to transgress international norms of the Geneva Convention and Rome Statute whatever the provocation and challenge to the authorities by its own citizens—such is the mandate of Human Rights law which is universally accepted.

The Tribunal regretted that after repeated pleas, and in spite of the appalling conditions experienced by Tamils, the UN Human Rights Council and UN Security Council failed to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate those responsible for the atrocities committed.

The Tribunal has emphasised that if normal conditions are to be restored in Sri Lanka, the government must establish, as a matter of urgency, an independent and authoritative Truth and Justice Commission to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the parties in conflict.

The Sri Lankan Government must also implement a political power-sharing solution that gives the Tamil people a proactive and legitimate role in the administration and management of the northeast, while upholding their rights to equal citizenship, participation and representation at all levels, and ensuring a free, fair and peaceful electoral process in regard to parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2010 and allow free and unlimited access to humanitarian organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, human rights defenders and the media, in refugee camps.

The Tribunal also urged the international community and the United Nations to appoint a UN Special Rapporteur for Sri Lanka to investigate and identify responsibilities for human rights violations and for war crimes committed by all parties in conflict.

I feel that in the matter of restoration of peace in Sri Lanka, the Tamil diaspora can play an important role. It is well known that the Tamil diaspora in Europe and America was greatly sympathetic to the LTTE demand for Eelam—in this its active help was stupendous.

It has, during the present tragedy, tried to do its best for rehabilitating the victims, but lack of support by the GOSL has greatly hindered its activities. It is legitimately not only deeply hurt but also furious at the indignities and brutalities suffered by their brethren/sisters—the same sentiments that every Indian in the country shares.

But in this anger, nothing should be done to bring Tamils in Sri Lanka again on the path of violent confrontation—of course, much will depend on how the GOSL treats the Lankan Tamils and whether it genuinely tries to give a humane touch of understanding to the strong sentiments of Tamils in Sri Lanka and allows them an equitable, honourable position in power-sharing so that both of them can jointly make Sri Lanka, a beautiful country with bountiful nature, free of conflict and move on to a joint quest for happy, united living without any discrimination of religion or language, each being considered on the same level.

The author, a retired Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, is the Chairperson of the Prime Minister’s high-level Committee on the Status of Muslims and the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing. A former President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he is a tireless champion of human rights. He can be contacted at e-mail: rsachar1@vsnl.net / rsachar23@bol.net.in

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