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Sri Lanka - The World Has Moved On

Sri Lanka - The World Has Moved On

by Bruce Clark

As with other dramatic and often bloody developments that capture the world’s major media players, (and thereby our own attention), from time to time, the short-lived but intense focus on events in the tiny island state of Sri Lanka has subsided. We should not expect the media to continue to supply us with further developments ,following the violent end to a bloody civil war which has racked the country since the anti-Tamil riots of 1983 and led to many thousands of deaths.

Unfortunately, it is the way of the world ; an event, be it natural disaster, or escalating armed conflict, captures our attention for a few brief days and then, the worlds attention hurries on to the next big thing. The suffering in Dafur or the tensions in Fiji will not have ended, but there is a law of diminishing returns for the media, and new sensational developments are rarely far away. We are ,therefore, conditioned not to take a deep or sustained interest in the problems of the world, it seems.

Although the war, for now at least has been won by the Sri Lankan government’s forces, the nature of the peace to follow is by no means certain. The underlying problems that led to conflict remain and whether an accommodation between the two ethnic groups can be reached is problematic, to say the least.

The issue of possible war crimes has not been addressed. Although Sri Lanka avoided censure by the Human Rights Council , this does not put to rest legitimate concerns about persistent claims of indiscriminate shelling by the Sri lankan army, leading to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in the final period of the conflict. Concerns expressed by the British and French foreign Ministers, who travelled to Sri Lanka, were dismissed by the Sri Lankan government, as were those of other governments and the fact that the media was prohibited from witnessing the fighting does nothing to dispel doubts about the government’s actions.

The UN puts deaths at about 8,000 in the final phase of fighting, during which time there were repeated calls for government forces to do more to avoid civilian death. An investigation by the Times puts deaths at about 20,000 with evidence that safe zones designated for non-combatants were also bombed. The Sri Lankan government naturally denies this, but there is surely a prima facie case that the Sri Lankan government did not live up to its commitment under international law to take all reasonable steps to avoid civilian casualties. There have been calls by the UN and human rights groups for an independent investigation into possible war crimes by both sides, but the Sri Lankan government is dismissive of these.

There is no doubt that both sides in the conflict have committed serious abuses of human rights and humanitarian law right up until the end of the conflict - the LTTE is accused, for instance, of using civilians as shields and shooting at their own people as they attempted to escape the battle zone - but all the cards are with the government now and Tamil communities around the world are rightly worried about the fate of the approximately 280,000 Tamils now in internment camps. They must indeed be termed internment camps, as they are fenced with barbed wire and the refugees of war are not free to leave, even the very young and the very old.

The government argues that these measures are necessary for the welfare of the refugees and to screen them for fighters from the LTTE, but Amnesty International has reported persistent and credible reports of illegal abductions from the camps by the military and para-military forces aligned with the government. Indeed claims by a Sri Lankan human rights group, INFORM that 20 to 30 young persons were daily being taken from the camps have been reported in the Colombo Times (June 16) and, although the UN and other humanitarian organizations are operating in the camps with the cooperation of the government, UN supervision of the screening process for LTTE fighters has been rejected and journalists are once again restricted from reporting.

The determination of the Sri Lankan government to restrict the access of independent observers and journalists to the camps, as was the policy during the final phase of the war, is of real concern. Unfortunately, its record on human rights is far from reassuring. As Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director states, “ …the reality is that they have been haunted by injustice and impunity for years.” A recent report by Amnesty International entitled “Twenty Years of Make Believe” claims that Commissions of Inquiry set up from time to time have been largely ineffective in dealing with human rights abuses, including abductions, disappearances, extra-judicial killings and wide-spread torture by the police and armed forces. It accuses successive governments of failing to show any real commitment to curbing such practices and talks of the impunity of those who commit these abuses.

These conclusions are echoed by Human Rights Watch in its “Recurring Nightmares” report, in which it highlights the military’s reliance “on extrajudicial means, such as “disappearances” and summary executions in its operations”. The reported numbers of these enforced disappearances and unlawful killings, distressingly, run into the tens of thousands.

It must be said that the LTTE is also condemned for its practices - including abductions , massacres, assassination, the use of child soldiers and ruthless repression of dissenting voices in their own LTTE-controlled areas –but for the moment at least, they are a spent force, and the overriding concern should now be for those victims who have already suffered the ravages of war and are now interned in camps , uncertain as to their fate.

Unfortunately there are calls for the armed struggle to be renewed and those among the Tamil diaspora who finance such efforts from their own safety will have to take some responsibility for the suffering of those left behind which will inevitably follow. On the other hand, the BBC reported only on the 24th of June that, following the victory of the Singhalese governments victory, there is as little tolerance as ever for those journalists who dare to draw attention to human rights abuses, and that independent journalists feel “threatened and intimidated” in an environment in which criticism of the government can be viewed as tantamount to betrayal.

This does not augur well for the much-needed reconciliation and compromise needed by the two communities to achieve a lasting peace, but we must hope that reasonable and non-violent voices on both sides of the ethnic divide will come together and make themselves heard. This may be one area in which the international community could possibly assist, but, as at any level of the political game, the self-interest of international players often overrides real concern for international law and human rights standards.

The world must not turn away from these innocent victims of war who now reside in the internment camps in northern Sri Lanka, but sadly, as in so many similar cases, it no doubt will. The media and its cameras move on to the next sensational development in world affairs, which will keep us all riveted for a few days at best, providing a temporary but stimulating topic of conversation, but all too soon forgotten.


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