The War Is Over But The Crimes Go On

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Australia has been called upon to toughen its stance on Sri Lanka when the island nation faces the United Nations next week over its alleged human rights abuses.

The US is expected to present a second resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on 4 March in Geneva, asking the Sri Lankan Government to honour its promise to the UN to initiate an independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity towards the end of the civil war in 2009.

A 2011 UN report said there was credible evidence that the Sri Lankan military was responsible for the deaths of at least 40,000 innocent Tamil civilians, and claimed the now-defunct Tamil Tigers may also have been guilty of war crimes.

A draft of the US resolution, recently made public, expresses concern at continuing reports of violations of human rights and threats to judicial independence and the rule of law — allegations the Sri Lankan Government denies.

The first resolution, adopted in March last year with the support of Australia, the UK, Canada and India among others, asked Sri Lanka to follow through on promised commitments to enforce the recommendations made by the nation’s post-war Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. These included the independent war crimes investigation and positive steps towards reconciliation with the minority Tamil population.

Although the resolution is viewed by human rights groups as an ineffective measure, Australia sees it as a means of encouragement, by engaging with the Rajapaksa regime to take gradual steps towards post-war reconciliation.

A letter signed by 133 Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist pastors and nuns in Sri Lanka has asked the UNHRC to set up an independent war crimes investigation, claiming the government is not interested in doing so.

Other organisations such as the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have urged the countries attending the UNHRC meeting, including Australia, to implement stronger action this time.

The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently said Sri Lanka had not investigated reports of atrocities, as promised, and opposition leaders were still being killed or abducted.

She also warned against a repeat of the intimidation and death threats made by the Sri Lankan Government against human rights activists who attended last year’s meeting on Sri Lanka. The BBC reported that the Minister for Public Relations, Mervyn Silva, threatened to "break the limbs" of certain journalists and human rights workers whom he called "traitors".

Much evidence points to Sri Lanka not only being contemptuous of these previous UN recommendations but viewing them as a wink and a nod to continue a policy of ethnic-cleansing and genocide against the Tamils without fear of international retribution.

It could be argued that Australia’s policy of "engagement" with Sri Lanka has contributed to this attitude. However, Foreign Minister Bob Carr insists it is a constructive move, despite many commentators seeing it as a cynical ploy to try to stop the flow of refugee boats to Australia.

The current "Sinhalisation" of the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country is being undertaken by a regime that appears convinced it is answerable to no-one. Thousands of Tamils have been forced from their homes and land in a program that has the unmistakeable smell of ethnic cleansing.

Sajeevan Shanmugam, deputy chair of the Valikaamam North civic body, told TamilNet earlier this month that Tamil houses in Kurumpasiddi had been bulldozed by the military.

The Tamil National Alliance MP Suresh Premachandran told me last week that 1000 Sinhalese families were moved into Tamil areas in the Mullaitivu region, 700 in one day. "Yet in the Jaffna area 30,000 Tamil families are yet to be re-settled after the war," he said.

TamilNet also reported that a new military base has been established at Maathakal, on land designated for re-settling Tamils. "The navy occupying Maathakal went to the extent of placing new landmines to threaten the native people away from their lands," it reported.

"The uprooted people who have been hoping to get back their property after decades of displacement have lost their hopes."

The military control of the Tamil people in their daily activities, almost four years after the war, is unrelenting. The leader of the Tamil National People’s Front, Gajen Ponnambalam, told me last week that of the 20 divisions that make up the Sri Lankan Army, 18 of them are posted in the north and east. This heavy presence is compounded by the soldiers having the legal powers of domestic police.

Sri Lanka rejected 100 of 210 "recommendations" from 99 countries when it was called before the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review last November. The rejected list included a recommendation from Australia, which asked Sri Lanka to "take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abductions and disappearances, torture and abuse by police and security forces…"

The Sri Lankan Government portrays writers and academics who criticise its policies as "traitors". Journalists For Democracy in Sri Lanka says that 39 media workers, including journalists, have been murdered or disappeared since 2004.

In the last fortnight an investigative newspaper journalist was shot after three gunmen burst into his bedroom. A bullet was removed from his neck — he survived. Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 162nd out of 179 countries in its 2013 Press Freedom Index.

The UN has already owned up to a devastating error of judgement; their decision to leave the conflict zones towards the end of the war in 2009 probably resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians.

It will make another mistake that will cost many more lives if it does not take stronger action against Sri Lanka this time around.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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