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Sri Lanka: History Belongs to the Victor

In English, Reconciliation means settlement, resolution, compromise, reunion, bringing together. [1]

Mahinda Rajapaksa's military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has given the President unprecedented political power to shape Sri Lanka's post conflict future.

On 15th July 2009, at the NAM Summit in Egypt, President Rajapaksa informed the international community that the Sri Lankan government would resolve its longstanding conflict through a process of reconciliation. [2]

How any future reconciliation process may work is a matter of conjecture. But there are serious questions over the credibility of this process.  

In front of the international community the Sri Lankan government is attempting to portray a one sided version of the conflict. The government's attempts are often extraordinarily clumsy and easy to discredit, even without alternative information.  

For example, Sri Lanka's Government consistently denies killing civilians and has blamed the LTTE for any deaths. At the same time the Sri Lankan government does not deny using heavy artillery which is inherently indiscriminate, not least when fired into densely populated civilian areas.    

The pursuit of this subjective view of the conflict explains the administration's active pursuit of the LTTE to punish them for their crimes (which they certainly have committed) but at the same time and against all the evidence, denies any state human rights violations.

It explains why the government is willing to continue to attack the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and subvert its own institutions. And it explains the government's need to intern about 300,000 Tamils in appalling conditions. Seen from an intern camp this looks an awful lot like victor's justice and a re-writing of history.  

What is also disturbing is that the government's vitriolic attacks on its international critics appear to have delivered results: despite some protest, many in the international community, including surprisingly the influential BBC, appear ready to accept the official version of events. [3] This in turn has allowed bodies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the space to begin funding Sri Lanka. The IMF grant lends legitimacy to the government's projection of events and whatever may come next.  

With Rajapaksa's undoubted popularity and his removal of dissent, the rest of the international community is very likely to follow suit in the medium term. But anyone, not least India, with an interest in long term stability, should be concerned. State absolution comes at a price:  logically, the aim of meaningful national reconciliation with the Tamil minority cannot be achieved in parallel.  

Finally, the government has treated the UN and its concern over the conduct of Sri Lankan troops with little more than contempt. The government has moved to obstruct any independent investigation. Until such investigations are allowed, the UN must continue to be concerned. Aside from the issue of Sri Lankan contempt for the institution of the United Nations, a question arises: in the light of these unresolved concerns can the UN credibly continue to deploy Sri Lankan forces in peacekeeping missions? 

I. Humanitarian crisis 

‘This game of hiding the truth is also closely tied to the continued detention of 300,000 displaced individuals, who are being held behind barbed wire and as yet are unable to speak with outsiders about their harrowing experiences in the war zone – experiences with both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army.' [4]  

According to the United Nations, there were 281,621 people detained in 30 camps in the four northern districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee as of 17 July 2009. The camps are guarded by the military. The detainees are not allowed to talk to the outsiders. 

Camp conditions are deplorable. On 17 July 2009, the government of Sri Lanka claimed that 163 persons have died between 15 May and 14 July 2009. The international media have alleged that up to 1,400 have died. [5]  

In July 2009, doctors wrote to the President complaining about facilities and the shortage of medical staff. [6] Aid workers on the ground have expressed concern that some of the facilities being erected in the camps appear increasingly permanent.  

Over the months, feeding the IDPs will remain a challenge. There are significant shortfalls in funds. According to Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP), the influx of IDPs between October 2008 and mid-May 2009 caused funding requirements to rise to US$270 million from an earlier estimate of $155 million. The CHAP mid-year review released on 21 July 2009 revealed that $97 million had been received leaving a funding gap of $173 million. [7]  

Denial of humanitarian crisis: 

"While we build new courts, ten people live in one tent in these camps. They could stand straight only in the centre of these tents. Their necks will break if they move to a side of the tent. IDPs are seen waiting in queues, extending for 100 yards to take their turn to use a toilet where there is only one pot hole at the end of it. They live outside the protection of the law of the country. I am saying this in public, and ready to face any consequences. We are doing a great wrong to these people." [8] - Sri Lanka's Chief Justice. 

Despite the evidence, the government continues to insist that there is no humanitarian crisis. On 3rd August, in response to an offer of help from the South African government by its Deputy Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim in resolving what he termed as a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, Defense Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella refuted the claims saying that "no such crisis situation" existed. [9]  

Human rights violations, justice and reconciliation: 

The government of Sri Lanka justifies internment on the pretext of LTTE infiltration. The government claims that there are about 8,000 LTTE cadres in the camps. [10]  

On 22 July 2009, the Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management, Mahinda Samarasinghe stated in the Parliament that "the freedom of movement of some of these IDPs has been restricted. We are not happy to do so nor are we totally inconsiderate of their rights. We are well aware that some cadres of the LTTE have infiltrated the ranks of the IDPs and, until and unless those cadres are filtered out, we have no option but to keep them within the welfare centres and relief villages." [11]  

There is no doubt that the camps are playing host to LTTE cadres. The government wants to ensure that the LTTE cadres are punished for the appalling crimes they committed against the civilian population.   

Any concept of justice is less clear: thousands (precise numbers unknown due to the lack of monitoring) of ethnic Tamils are being detained as suspected LTTE cadres. Sri Lanka has a well established record on its treatment of LTTE suspects. It is clear that they are being held incommunicado and being subjected to torture and other human rights violations.   

II. Human Rights Monitoring and Reconciliation 

In one sense the government is, of course, right: the perpetrators of war crimes should be punished and the LTTE did commit appalling and systematic war crimes during the conflict. But the crimes of the LTTE have been inconveniently paralleled by the state's agents who carried out torture, summary execution and disappearance during the war; and who continue to be responsible for the repression of legitimate dissent amongst human rights defenders and journalists.  

The active pursuit of one side's war criminals and the denial of any state wrongdoing establishes clear grounds for concern that ethnicity is being used as the basis for justice rather than the rule of law. How this can serve reconciliation is difficult to see. 

III. Future prospects 

On 29 June 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa constituted the All Party Committee of Development and Reconciliation (APCDR) under his chairmanship to undertake the devolution and reconciliation process. 

President Rajapaksa appears to have lost interest in the work of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) that he established in June 2006 to recommend devolution. The Presidential Secretariat asked the Peace Secretariat to discontinue the activities of the APRC by the end of July 2009.  President Rajapaksa appears to have ended the mandate of the APRC because in its final report (yet to be released) it advocates the implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution .  

Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to Geneva, H.E. Dayan Jayatilake who staunchly opposed the LTTE and prevented any international censure at the UN Human Rights Council too has been removed for writing in favour of the 13th Amendment.  

There are further fears that President Rajapaksa may seek an amendment of the 13th Amendment to strip the provincial councils of Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka of police powers and issues relating to land. There are also unsubstantiated rumours that the President is planning to implant Sinhalese in Northern and Eastern provinces on a pretext of promoting communal harmony and ethnic co-existence.  

If the war was against the LTTE and not the Tamil minority then these actions are unlikely to serve the cause of reconciliation. 



[1] . Wikipedia

[2] . Reconciliation process a priority of govt: Rajapaksa, The Hindu, 17 July 2009
[3] . Despite Sri Lanka's well documented record of human rights, when discussing human rights, the BBC has appeared content to offer only representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Human Rights as independent sources. It is unclear why in the absence of independent information he has so regularly omitted reference to Sri Lanka's well established record on human rights. The BBC may fear the removal of their reporting status but the value of their current reporting seems at best, of questionable value.

[4] . Rajan Hoole, ‘Doctoring the evidence', Himal Magazine, August 2009, http://www.himalmag.com/Doctoring-the-evidence_nw3217.html

[5] . 163 civilians die at Sri Lanka's relief camps, The Times of India, 17 July 2009

[6] . Deadly diseases erupt in refugee camps in northern Sri Lanka, Xinhua News, 19 July 2009

[7] . Sri Lanka: UN calls for clear IDP resettlement plan, Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 21 Jul 2009

[8] . 'IDPs not protected by law' – CJ, BBC Sinhala, 4 June 2009
[9] . Roel Raymond, ‘No humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka – Keheliya', Daily Mail Sri Lanka online, 3rd August 2009, http://www.dailymirror.lk/DM_BLOG/Sections/frmNewsDetailView.aspx?ARTID=56794

[10] . Sri Lanka AG informs the Courts on IDPs, The Colombo Page, 28 July 2009
[11] . Relief Villages improve in keeping with global norms and standards - Human Rights Minister, Newsline, 24 July 2009, available at: http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca200907/20090724relief_
villages_improve_global_norms_human_rights_minister.htm

 

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