A Common Cause

4 minute read
Krista Mahr

On Aug. 1, a throng of heavily armed men in helmets and camouflage vests charged a crowd in Weliweriya, a town northeast of Colombo. Demonstrators had gathered on the streets to demand clean drinking water. Instead, they were met with a volley of live rounds from security forces. At least three civilians were killed and several injured. By the next morning, one eyewitness told a local paper, the military had rinsed the blood off the streets.

Washing such incidents from Sri Lanka’s international reputation won’t be as easy. The island nation has come under scrutiny as it readies to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in the capital, Colombo, in November. It’s the first time an Asian country has hosted the biennial meeting in over two decades, but many inside and outside the Commonwealth argue that Sri Lanka is the wrong country for the distinction. The U.N. and human-rights groups have repeatedly called for an independent investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by both sides during the last gasps of the government’s 26-year war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

On Oct. 7, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he would not attend because the “Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values.” Leaders in the U.K., India and Australia have come under pressure at home to also boycott the meeting. True, skipping the summit sends the strongest message to Colombo. But the leaders who show up have a rare opportunity to speak on the sidelines to their host — and the international press — about the alleged human-rights abuses, the growing culture of official impunity and the continuing marginalization of Tamils.

The list of alleged abuses is long. In 2011 a U.N.-appointed panel of experts found that as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the government’s final offensive against the Tigers. The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted strong back-to-back resolutions in 2012 and 2013 urging Colombo to launch an independent investigation, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa has yet to order one. The north, an area once largely controlled by the Tigers and where most residents belong to the ethnic Tamil minority, has become heavily militarized, despite the LTTE’s comprehensive defeat. Critics of Rajapaksa’s regime, including several journalists, have been threatened, abducted and killed. In 2012 the U.N. reported there were 5,676 cases of unresolved disappearances in Sri Lanka, second only to Iraq. “I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka … is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay after a recent visit.

The Rajapaksa government says the West overlooks that Sri Lanka ended a ruthless insurgency. Since 2009, Colombo has moved tens of thousands of displaced civilians back to their homes, and fixed up war-torn swaths of the country with new roads, bridges, homes, hospitals and schools. This summer, ahead of Pillay’s visit and CHOGM, the administration said it would adopt 53 new recommendations from a reconciliation commission. Rajapaksa has ordered a fresh probe into wartime disappearances, though government critics point out that recommendations from similar past inquiries have not been made public or been implemented. And no security personnel have been prosecuted for human-rights violations under Rajapaksa, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Local elections have been held in the north; the winner was the opposition Tamil National Alliance in a landslide victory — a clear rebuke to Colombo. Despite reports of military meddling ahead of the vote, which the government denies, the fact that the polls went ahead — and the results have thus far been respected — is seen as progress in the long animosity between Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, who control the country.

All that is good, but without addressing what happened at the war’s end, and society’s other ruptures, the nation can’t heal. This is where CHOGM can put pressure on Rajapaksa. “The British government will come with a clear message that Sri Lanka needs to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement,” British High Commissioner John Rankin told reporters in Colombo. Says Alan Keenan of the ICG: “The international community can keep the government from selling a false narrative.” Maybe then, the whole truth will one day emerge.

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