Accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is important, more so in the post-war scenario.
Landing in Colombo on March 1, 2012 was like landing in a war zone, a big media war at least. Huge banners and hoardings called upon Sri Lankans to defeat the U.S.-UNHRC resolution on war crimes against Sri Lanka. Ministers, politicians and ex-servicemen were leading processions across south Sri Lanka demanding these: “Defeat Geneva conspiracy,” and “Let's not lose victory achieved by heroic forces.”
In contrast, there was an eerie silence in Jaffna. The streets verged on being empty; those who could be seen seemed anxious to complete their work and get back home.
The ubiquitous presence of armed security forces, weapons drawn, fingers on the trigger was fearsome.
Every 100 metres on the Jaffna highway there was a security picket; every three kilometres, an army post; every 10 km, an army camp. The army was everywhere, running roadside shops, hotels and hospitality businesses. Even funerals or marriages or social functions in Tamil areas needed army permission in advance.
To attend a conference
I was travelling to Jaffna to participate in a historic meeting. On March 3, 2012, first time in 25 years, 17 Sinhalese origin lawyers from Sri Lanka's Supreme Courts joined 51 Tamil origin lawyers of Jaffna to participate in a Conference on “Challenges to Democracy and the Obligation of Lawyers to Face Them.” Jointly hosted by the Lawyers for Democracy (LfD) and the Jaffna Bar Association, I was the sole non-Sri Lankan. The Sinhalese origin lawyers were forthright and frank: “We stand by you and the Tamil people in your demand for autonomy and rights. Talk of democracy is farcical when the Army occupies the North and East.” One senior advocate put it bluntly: “Militarisation puts rulers and their supporters above the law.”
Many of the Sinhala origin lawyers themselves face grave danger; they have been targeted as “traitors” by the regime. It required courage to say what they were expressing. Initially the Tamil lawyers were quiet and watching; but gradually as they realised that the Sinhala lawyers were genuine they slowly started thawing.
The meeting was about “Challenges to Democracy.” The Tamil lawyers asked: “What can democracy mean when we have no voice with the population reduced from 13 to eight per cent? Can there be reconciliation, when the Sinhala majority celebrates “triumph” over Tamils? How can there be peace when hundreds have disappeared AFTER the war and thousands of Tamil youth are still in camps?” The lawyers also raised the issue of alleged rapes by security forces. “The south papers write that these are imaginary. A hoax? Publicly raising these issues is life threatening. Unless there is accountability and removal of impunity, these issues will remain buried.”
In Jaffna, there are mainly women and girls; young men are conspicuous by their absence. Some died during the war or disappeared from the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps or have left the north. Officially, 2,000 youth are in detention even two-and-a-half years after the war ended, without any charges or prosecutions.
The Jaffna meeting was being held in the background of a resolution against Sri Lanka on war crimes to be taken up by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 23, 2012. At that time, the indication from India was that it would not not support any “country specific” resolution.
The role of the Indian government was debated with much distress. As one Sinhala origin lawyer pointed out, “All human rights violations are specific offences; perpetrators and victims are specific.” He said, “The real reason is India's fear of independent international investigation of violations in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and the northeast.” Another senior Sinhala lawyer said with sadness, “India has forsaken the Mahatma; the land of ‘ahimsa and satya' now openly colludes with Tamil butchers.”
Accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed until May 18, 2009 is important; more so in the post-war scenario. Continued militarisation, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and threats to freedom of speech and expression, displacement of Tamils due to military occupation, ad-hoc High Security Zones (HSZs), role of military in civilian administration, Sinhalisation and forcing the national anthem in Sinhalese on Tamils, sexual abuse and gender crimes and an endless list of threats to life exists, not just in the North, but increasingly, in the South too.
Discovering common bonds
This meeting was special and historic. Sinhalese and Tamils started to talk and listen thereby overcoming historical barriers of hostility, suspicion and fear becoming stronger. It was a touching moment when people discovered common bonds of concerns and commitment, to create a just, equitable and democratic society.
The ground situation of the Tamils in North and East Sri Lanka is grim and anything but normal. It exposes the total lie of the Sri Lankan government of restoration of normalcy. Sinhalisation or state policy of settling Sinhala families in Tamil areas is changing demography. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) itself recommended immediate de-militarisation, investigation of disappearances and meaningful devolution as necessary steps for reconciliation and a return to peace. It appears the Sri Lankan government has no intention to do so.
It will take more than a UNHRC resolution to tackle the serious democratic issues of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Passage of the resolution is however a necessary first symbolic step. India needs to support the resolution. But India and the international community need to do a lot more to restore confidence among the Tamils about their “just” place in a “democratic Sri Lanka.”
(The writer is National Secretary, People's Union for Civil Liberties.)