The Drum: War over but peace remains elusive

May 24, 2010

By the time the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May last year a make-shift hospital in the town of Mullivaykkal had been completely paralysed. It was the second hospital to fall victim to a barrage of heavy artillery during an offensive by Sri Lankan security forces in the area. By late April there was no means of sterilisation, no anesthetic, no gloves, no blood for transfusions, an overwhelming stench coming from the bodies of the dead and hundreds of patients lying on the sand, or on tarps if they were lucky.

The International Crisis Group released a report last week detailing the deliberate shelling of these hospitals and other alleged war crimes. According to the report, the targeting of hospitals and other areas where civilians were known to be gathering were not isolated incidents but part of “the government’s overall military strategy in the Vanni” – along with the obstruction and undersupply of food.

Food distribution centres also came under attack. On April 8, a large group of civilians, including children, came under heavy artillery fire whilst lining up to recieve milk in a ‘No Fire Zone’. Hundreds were injured and many were killed. The security forces were allegedly aware of the time and location of the distribution centre.

The Sri Lankan Goverment maintained it had a strict ‘zero civilian casualty’ policy.

Tamil civilians found themselves in an impossible situation when the 30-year civil war reached its peak. If they tried to escape the conflict zone they risked being shot by LTTE cadres – who showed a flagrant disregard for the welfare of the Tamil people caught up in the fighting – and if they stayed, they risked coming under attack by heavy artillery, forced conscription and starvation.

The Crisis Group estimated tens of thousands of non-combatant Tamil men, women and children were killed in the five months to May 2009 and has called for a UN-mandated investigation to prosecute those on both sides who may have committed crimes against humanity. The group also recommended an internationally led reconciliation process for Tamils and Sinhalese.

It is feared a failure to do so will allow resentments to fester and potentially destroy the fragile peace.

“Sri Lanka’s peace will remain fragile so long as the many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by senior government and LTTE leaders are not subject to impartial investigation,” the report stated. “The truth of what happened during the course of the war must be established if Tamils and Sinhalese are to live as equal citizens.”

The conflict zone was effectively locked down during the worst of the hostilities – this meant there was a dearth of information reaching the outside world. However, in January 2009 shocking footage leaked out depicting the execution of bound and blindfolded Tamil men by Sri Lankan soldiers. It was chilling to watch and indicative of the culture of impunity that prevailed.

Whether or not it was the lack of news or the repeated denials of wrongdoing by the Sri Lankan Government which led to international silence on the issue, one thing is definite – the international community stood by while all this unfolded with nary a peep.

The UN Human Rights Council voted down a proposal to investigate war crimes after the fighting ended and later passed a resolution praising the Sri Lankan Government’s conduct. As a result the United Nations’ credibility has been significantly undermined.

The Crisis Group claims that “much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening” and “encouraged the government’s tough response while failing to press for political reforms to address Tamil grievences or for any improvement in human rights”.

After the war hundreds of thousands of Tamils were interned for months before being allowed to return home. Tens of thousands of Tamil people are still in detention and according to the report, the Sri Lankan government and military “have cultivated a strong, xenophobic version of Sinhala nationalism”.

In April, the Australian government announced it was suspending the processing of Sri Lankan asylum seekers for three months – partly due to a UNHCR review of “evolving circumstances” in the country. However, the UNHCR’s country of origin research report released soon after the announced suspension reports human rights abuses, wide-ranging discrimination against Tamil people and dire conditions for displaced people returning home.

Until Sri Lankan asylum seeker’s safety can be assured the Australian government should be processing new asylum seeker applications and giving refuge to those found to be in need. So far this year, 20 Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been repatriated from Australia after their applications for protection were rejected. Last year 63 Sri Lankans were returned.

Many have been detained upon arrival and an atmosphere of suspicion prevails against anyone who left by unorthodox means, whether they’re Sinhalese or Tamil.

Phil Glendenning from the Edmund Rice Center recently returned from Sri Lanka. He tracked down 11 people who had been deported after failing to gain refugee status in Australia and all of them had been arrested at the airport.

“Some of them had been bashed, assaulted,” he told ABC News this week. “One man has permanent hearing damage, another has had sight damaged.”

Glendenning argues that Australia has breached international law by returning people to danger. “Under Australian refugee law, it is a breach of the law to return people to danger, to re-foul people and we believe that has happened,” he said.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has said that reconciliation is necessary before lasting peace can be achieved in Sri Lanka. “This is not a 20 to 30 year old conflict that you can win by military force alone. There’s got to be a political solution,” he told Virginia Trioli in May last year. “I think that’s one of the things that they will now be looking at very carefully and closely. But it’s also one of the things which the international community, in my view, has to press upon them.”

Whatever the Government’s decision on the nature of the security situation in Sri Lanka for Tamil citizens, I do hope it’s not influenced by the empathy-deficient calls to ‘send them home’ from a large portion of the Australian public.

In the meantime, the international community, including Australia, needs to do all it can to help Sri Lanka move toward lasting peace.