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Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Imbroglio

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 06, 2007

    The visit of Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the subsequent resignation of four prominent civil right activists including Human Rights Watch award winner Sunila Abeysekera from an advisory committee of the Ministry of Human Rights, have highlighted the alarming state of human rights in Sri Lanka. In fact, the account given by Louise Arbour during her final media briefing on October 13 at Colombo underscored the lack of seriousness on the part of the Sri Lankan government in strengthening the human rights protection mechanism and eliminating the culture of impunity in the island nation. Arbour noted that “there is a large number of reported killings, abductions and disappearances which remain unresolved” and that “this is particularly worrying in a country that has had a long, traumatic experience of unresolved disappearances and no shortage of recommendations from past Commissions of Inquiry on how to safeguard against such violations.”

    Indeed, ever since the truce brokered by Norway began to unravel in December 2005, the human rights condition and humanitarian crisis have worsened in Sri Lanka. In particular, the militaristic measures initiated by the Rajapaksa government during the last year have created disastrous consequences for civilians, especially for the minorities. The LTTE and Karuna group too show no intention of desisting from their atrocities. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire between government and rebel forces. Thousands of people have been killed, abducted or made to disappear and many more have been displaced in nearly two years of undeclared war.

    The minority Tamils—both Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils—and Muslims have suffered the most. According to the Law and Society Trust, a Colombo based-rights group, nearly 396 persons disappeared in the first half of 2007. The disappearance of the Vice-Chancellor of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka, S. Raveedranath, in Batticaloa District has been the most high-profile abduction case reported in nearly two years. Equally, conservative estimates put the death of civilians since August 2006 at 3,000. Also, according to the UNHCR’s Global Appeal 2007, the safety of over 500,000 displaced persons is highly jeopardized by the ongoing hostility in the country. In fact, it has called for an emergency response from the international community to provide unhindered access to food, employment and health care facilities.

    Though the Rajapaksa government has given repeated assurances about its commitment to the rights of civilians, the seriousness of the human rights crisis in the island has surfaced again and again. Louise Arbour’s statement has reinforced the need for an active international role in the face of the government’s uncaring attitude to the human rights situation in the country. While both government and rebel forces are responsible for the alarming human rights situation, mounting military encounters, impunity afforded to predators, and the government’s indifference to the activities of the Karuna group have irked the international community. A number of international human rights groups, the government constituted International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) and civil rights activists have all constantly expressed lack of confidence and trust in the ability of existing institutions to provide adequate safeguards against the most serious human rights abuses.

    In this context, with the recent LTTE attack on Anuradhapura and the Rajapaksa government’s determination to dislodge the Tigers from the north, the situation may worsen further. Though the government has an advantage over the LTTE in winning the support of the international community, what it actually needs to do is to adopt an approach that provides a balance between countering the rebels and protecting the human rights of common people. If the human rights and humanitarian situation on the island were to deteriorate further, then the Rajapaksa government is likely to invite greater displeasure of an already upset international community.

    There is an urgent need for an independent human rights monitoring and protection mission to help deter abuses, investigate rights violations that occur, and create an environment at the local level that would allow for greater civilian protection in the wake of full fledged war. Failure by the government to protect civilians would necessitate international intervention. As it is, civil society groups appear to be convinced that the situation on the island is bleak enough to warrant a more active international role.

    Even if the Sri Lankan government is opposed to the deployment of international human rights monitors, perhaps it can continue its dialogue with the UN and other human rights organisations in order to devise a human rights protection mechanism that will increase its credibility and effectiveness. Louise Arbour’s visit should be used as an opportunity to make such a new beginning.