M A Sumanthiran speaking at the Australian Human Rights Centre, UNSW
Member of Sri Lankan parliament and renowned human rights lawyer M A Sumanthiran, in a talk at the Australian Human Rights Centre, UNSW, stressed the urgent need for an independent international investigation into war crimes against Tamils in 2009. He said that grave human rights violations could not be swept under the carpet in the hope that they would go away. The forum, organised by the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Australian Human Rights Centre, was titled “Sri Lanka and Australia after the war: A forum on post-war justice and the indefinite detention of refugees”.
Mr Sumanthiran said that the first draft of the UN resolution, meant to call for an independent international investigation into war crimes against the Tamils, had left some parties dissatisfied and cynical.
Mr Sumanthiran said that the army had used cluster bombs and phosphorous bombs against civilians in 2009; anecdotal evidence confirmed indiscriminate killings on both sides of the conflict. And although the president of Sri Lanka stated in public that there would be an independent investigation into war crimes, to date there was no serious attempt in that direction.
Mr Sumanthiran said that this refusal on the part of the government to act against the perpetrators of war crimes had created a culture of impunity in the North and East of Sri Lanka, regions that were reeling under the presence of a military that is a law unto itself.
Mr Sumanthiran said that the intense militarisation of the North and the East had facilitated the culture of impunity where gender-based crimes and exploitation were the order of the day. According to Mr Sumanthiran, the large number of families headed by women (49,000 young widows with no livelihood support), who had no source of income as their men had been killed in the war, forced them to make a living as comfort women for Sri Lankan soldiers. The presence of the huge contingent of armed forces in the North and the East also made it possible for the government not to keep its promise of resettling Tamils displaced by the war (going back to their former homes is not possible for many displaced Tamils as the army has occupied their lands). Mr Sumanthiran said altering the demographics of the North and East was very much on the agenda of the Rajapaksa regime. According to him, the government had no intention of keeping its commitment on the devolution of power to the Tamil provinces.
Mr Sumanthiran said that the government had prohibited singing the national anthem of Sri Lanka in both the national languages (Sinhalese and Tamil), which was past practice. He also added that the government of Sri Lanka had reported a higher rate of GNP growth in the North-East of Sri Lanka, but this shrewdly hid the fact that the growth was mostly from the salaries paid to the large numbers of soldiers stationed in these regions, and an outcome of the resultant spending in the local economy.
Mr Sumanthiran mentioned these matters to stress the need for an independent international investigation, which could lead to punishment of the guilty, and introspection within the Tamil community so that both sides could work towards a reconciliation that would help them live together. Mr Sumanthiran said that Sri Lanka had dumped the conventions and need for democracy and free speech, and in this situation it was not surprising that political cartoonists dared not lampoon the defence secretary or other powerful leaders.
Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch explained that there was a need for an independent international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka five years after the war as the government had made sure there were virtually no outside observers in the concluding stages of the war. She said that although Australia had supported UN resolutions in the past, the recent shift in foreign policy favouring the Sri Lanka government was unfortunate. She said that Australia had to decide if it was in its long-term interests to be with the Rajapaksa regime or to take a stand against war crimes.
Members of the audience, in conversation with this reporter, wondered if the Sri Lanka issue had become another platform for Western interests (human rights agencies, international institutions, academia) to stage their humanitarian and democratic credentials. In the entire discussion of Australia’s foreign policy there was no attempt to discuss the private corporate interests determining Australia’s detention and deportation policy towards refugees. Australia’s foreign policy, going by what the speakers said, was simply the decision of the current government.
One wonders if the unspoken assumptions about the fundamentally just nature of the West, which inform these discussions, could actually help promote any reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Indian Newspaper Australia