Sri Lanka: a buried legacy of human rights abuse?

Sri Lanka. As an island of rich cultural magnetism and spectacular natural beauty, it is no surprise that this country thrives as a tourist destination. In recent years, the government has begun to welcome in visitors to its stunning, once off-limits northern shores and beaches for the first time.

But these areas of astounding beauty hide a terrible, overlooked legacy of war crimes and human rights abuses – for which no one has yet been held accountable.

Not even 5 years has passed since the horrific final months of a 26 year civil war, which raged in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. The war came to a bloody and controversial end on these beaches in 2009: victory for the Rajapaksa regime, but a disaster for the innocent people trapped in the government’s final campaign.

On an international scale the human rights atrocities perpetrated in the final months of the conflict have been greatly ignored. No inquiry as yet exists into the government’s conscious decision to use military weapons against its own people, in order to destroy the LTTE forces. An abundance of evidence in the form of witness accounts, photographs and videos verify the unlawful acts committed by the Sri Lankan Government – yet nothing has been done.

The UN estimates around 40 to 70 thousand innocent civilians died at the hands of the Sri Lankan military; innocent people caught in the crossfire between the two groups. This grave issue must be taken seriously by the international community in order to bring the Rajapaksa regime to justice.

Background

Since independence from Britain, political tensions have perpetuated between the rival groups. The Tamil minority, who constitute just 15% of the population, have suffered greatly at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. In return, The Tamil Tigers too have caused great damage to Sri Lankan’s after they formed as a political group in 1983, comprising the main opposition to the government.

The tactics used by the Sri Lankan military in the final months of the war violated an array of human rights laws and codes to which the Sri Lankan government should subscribe to, in line with Commonwealth values. However, in addition to war crimes perpetrated by the government, the violation of human rights laws throughout the civil war by the Tigers should also be brought to justice. In their use of guerrilla warfare, terror, suicide bombers, child soldiers and forcible conscription they too have much to account for. Correspondingly, there has been no independent investigation into the war crimes committed by either side during the Sri Lankan civil war since the end of the conflict in 2009.

Final stages of Civil War

In 2008 government raids on Tamil Tiger forces escalated. President Rajapaksa, elected in 2005, initiated the authorities devastating final campaign. The removal of UN workers located in the Tiger strongholds in the north followed, arguably to remove any potential witnesses to the horror that was to come.

The next 138 days saw the military unleash cruel and violent tactics in a bid to destroy the Tiger forces. After capturing the capital, 350,000 citizens began their escape from the onslaught of government explosions that were drawing a steadily closing noose around the remaining Tiger areas.

Trapped – No fire Zone                                                                                                                                         

In a calculated move, the government advised all citizens to move to a ‘safe’ no fire zone; an area which was supposedly to remain free of government attacks. However, as government assaults increased, it became clear to civilians that they were not safe.

 Innocent civilians were dying as a result of these deliberate government shelling’s: but the government denies they ever harmed civilians.

Channel 4’s harrowing documentary ‘No Fire Zone’ records the horror. Appalling imagery of people torn apart, drenched in blood and surrounded by scattered debris fill the screen. Shocking, distressing images and sounds of terrified people are captured on film; scenes of ordinary innocent people, mothers, fathers, children and the elderly in a state of crisis and panic.

Government accountable

And why did the Sri Lankan government create a no fire zone within range of military weapons? Attacking an area of crowded civilians is a known war crime – clearly their intention was to round civilians up and destroy the Tamil forces with a relentless campaign, directly targeting hospitals and areas of safety.

In the final weeks of the conflict, the No Fire Zone was made even smaller and attacks intensified. With the surrender and execution of Tamil Tiger leaders, the war ended, but the legacy of war crime and death shrouds the governments’ victory. Disturbing evidence exists, verifying the torture, murder and rape of prisoners.

Sri Lanka’s future – justice for victims or further denial?

The international community did not at the time condemn the Sri Lankan government, even though it was clear that gross violations of human rights conduct occurred.

The Government has begun targeting the Tamil community now that the tigers have been defeated. Reports of violence towards Tamils are frequent. President Rajapaksa’s regime has taken on an increasingly authoritarian style; he has never faced any legal national or international consequences for the crimes of the civil war.

Reference: Amnesty International Sri Lanka Campaign
Reference: Amnesty International Sri Lanka Campaign

In November 2013, Sri Lanka hosted the Commonwealth Summit (CHOGM) and now holds the organizational chair for the next two years. The irony of such a position shines bright in the light of allegations of human rights violation and crimes against humanity. The Commonwealth has failed to uphold standards adhering to human rights and freedom of expression; but this neglect must not resonate through the international community too.

It is essential that an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s Civil war is established at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session this March. The atrocities committed not even a decade ago must not remain buried in the past; justice must be provided to those who fell victim to such unlawful violence.

For further Information:

Watch the harrowing channel 4 documentary ‘No Fire Zone’ at

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/no-fire-zone/4od

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