My following piece appears in today’s ABC The Drum:
In late September, the government of Sri Lanka released 1,800 former Tamil Tiger fighters.
Colombo claimed they had been rehabilitated as President Mahinda Rajapaksa told them at a ceremony in the capital:
“I hope you will work for peace and ethnic harmony in this nation of ours. We must not dwell on the bitter past, but look to a prosperous future.”
Many other former fighters remain incommunicado, housed in secret camps away from international inspection or human rights protection.
This is occurring in “democratic” Sri Lanka, a nation still deeply divided along racial and political lines.
The over two years since the official end of the country’s brutal civil war has seen an attempted re-branding exercise by the Rajapaksa regime, including the encouragement of a vibrant tourist sector.
Despite the fact that the government murdered at least 40,000 Tamil civilians during the last period of the war (a figure confirmed by then UN spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss), the international community has been reluctant to hold officials to account.
A thorough UN-led investigation found overwhelming evidence of war crimes committed by both sides during the conflict and Ban Ki-Moon recently submitted this report to the UN Human Rights Council for investigation. The move was condemned by Colombo.
After a 10-month investigation, the UN found that “most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling”. Furthermore, it made accusations that Sri Lankan troops had shelled civilians in the “no-fire zone” and targeted hospitals in its desire to crush the Tamil Tigers.
A recently released WikiLeaks cable revealed that when Ban Ki-Moon visited the country in 2009 he witnessed “complete destruction” when he flew over the former “no-fire zone”. He described the conditions of Manik Farm refugee camp as worse than anything he had ever seen before.
This background is essential to understand as we approach the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), being held in Perth in late October. Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa will be attending and Sri Lanka is scheduled to host CHOGM in 2013. Serious questions are now being asked by human rights groups in Australia and globally, Tamil organisations and some brave politicians; why is Sri Lanka being indulged at the expense of justice for its countless victims?
In September a letter was sent to the Commonwealth foreign ministers that was signed by the world’s leading human rights groups.
It read in part:
“We are gravely concerned about the ongoing discussions on holding the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka. At the 2009 CHOGM, Sri Lanka’s candidature for hosting the meeting was deferred from 2011 to2013 because of concerns about human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government. While war-time abuses have ended, the situation in Sri Lanka continues to be characterised by serious human rights violations, including assault on democratic institutions, such as the media and trade unions. The Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General to advise him on the status of allegations of war crimes during the last weeks of the conflict in Sri Lanka has concluded that serious abuses were committed by the government and by the LTTE, and warrant an international investigation.”
The statement called on Sri Lanka to implement numerous changes before it would be awarded hosting honours in 2013. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is keen to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and the Commonwealth itself, never known to be overly pro-active against human rights abusers, is being asked to not consider Colombo’s application.
Federal Greens MP Lee Rhiannon has been one of the most consistent Australian politicians keeping the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka in the public arena. Although her party failed to convince the Labor and Liberal parties to support a Senate motion to suspend Sri Lanka from the Councils of the Commonwealth, she pledged to continue pressuring the Federal Government to convince Colombo to establish an independent war crimes commission.
Rhiannon hosted a roundtable of experts in the Federal Parliament in September that called for Sri Lanka’s suspension of the Commonwealth. She said:
“With CHOGM shortly to be held in Perth, the Australian government needs to add its voice and ensure that all Commonwealth nations uphold principles of human rights and the rule of law.”
Unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Canberra, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe (a man with a troubling past) rejected the roundtable’s recommendation, issuing the following Orwellian statement:
The [Sri Lanka] government had to take military action to defeat the terrorists to save the civilians.
In other words, we had to destroy the population in order to save it.
Intriguingly, conservative Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, one of the world’s strongest backers of Israel, recently announced that he intended “to make clear to my fellow leaders at the Commonwealth that if we do not see progress in Sri Lanka in terms of human rights”¦ I will not as prime minister be attending that Commonwealth summit [in 2013].”. Harper also strongly backed calls for an independent investigation of alleged war crimes during the war.
The British Tory government, at times critical of Colombo’s behaviour, is currently embroiled in a scandal involving the Defence Secretary Liam Fox. He is accused of both being far too close to the Sri Lankan government and backing its war against the Tamils.
Although Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has also called for an investigation, the Labor government remains desperate for Colombo to assist its flailing asylum seeker policy. Canberra has praised the Rajapaksa regime for stopping boats of Tamils fleeing the nation, a move rightly slammed by John Dowd, president of the International Commission of Jurists.
“It is likely these asylum seekers will be treated harshly when all they have done is exercise a legal right,” Dowd said. “People who are desperate to get away from Sri Lanka know that it is a dangerous enterprise coming by sea. We Australians praise ourselves as great humanitarians – this is hardly an example of compassion.”
Australia’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Kathy Klugman, recently told the state’s Sunday Times newspaper that, “close to 100 Sri Lankans have been returned from Australia in the past few years”. The fate of returned Tamils at the hands of government thugs is often brutal, according to investigations by human rights organisation.
Klugman was also recently publicly attacked for handing out certificates to alleged Tamil rebels after the alleged “rehabilitation” program, legitimising a program that is both secretive and unproven. Rehabilitation can take many forms post conflict.
For the Australian Government, in the midst of a refugee drama it has no idea how to manage politically or legally, war crimes in Sri Lanka is far less important than stopping refugee boats.
The status of Sri Lanka in the 21st century is of a political elite triumphantly thriving on racial supremacy ideology.
The recent discovery of gas deposits in its waters will only strengthen the fears that a resource curse will benefit the Sinhalese majority against the Tamil minority.
The international community has a moral and legal responsibility to hold Sri Lanka to account. Failing this basic task will merely encourage other states engaged in a “war on terror”, from America to Israel and Yemen to Afghanistan, to act with impunity against civilians.
CHOGM is the perfect opportunity to challenge Rajapaksa over his government’s wilful murder of Tamils under the guise of defeating terrorism. It is arguable whether he should even be allowed into the country but if he arrives in Perth he should be made to realise that he has the blood of innocents on his hands.
Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist who sits on the advisory council of the UK-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.