27 February 2009The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka continues to deepen as tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped between the LTTE, in the final stages of its military defeat, and the advancing security forces. The safety of civilians is of paramount importance: too many have lost their lives while others continue to suffer from the devastation and displacement of war. An entire generation of youth has been decimated by the war effort on both sides. The LTTE has sacrificed vast numbers of Tamil youth as cannon fodder, many of whom were forcibly recruited for a war they did not choose. And the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has lured thousands of Sinhala youth from economically marginalized villages to fight its so-called “patriotic war”, concealing the high casualties that have been suffered by their families. Generations of youth, from all communities in Sri Lanka, have paid with their lives for successive governments’ lack of vision and leadership. Indeed, the war ultimately stems from the unwillingness and inability of political leaders to work towards a political solution, to abandon Sinhala majoritarianism, and to address the grievances and aspirations of minorities in Sri Lanka.
For Immediate Release: SLDF Calls for Immediate Measures to Address Humanitarian Crisis: Peace and Justice are Dependent on Democratization and a Political Solution
The Humanitarian Situation
The severe humanitarian situation requires the attention of multiple actors to apply pressure on both parties and to provide immediate assistance and monitoring on the ground. Furthermore, civilians’ predicament should not be taken advantage of by any narrow political concerns. The safe evacuation of trapped civilians; the care and supervision of IDP camps; the surrender or capture of LTTE cadres and their subsequent rehabilitation; the longterm rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs; and, the longterm compensation for general victims of the war from all communities are all issues that need attention and action.
The LTTE should immediately allow the free movement of civilians. The LTTE has callously used civilians for its own purposes over the last few decades, and this disregard for their welfare is most evident now, when it holds civilians hostage and shoots at those attempting to flee. Pressure should be brought to bear on the LTTE to immediately end the practice of forced recruitment and firing from or near civilians; indeed, some of these practices are war crimes.
The LTTE has made a belated offer of a ceasefire. It has unilaterally broken several previous ceasefires, thereby undermining attempts at negotiations with successive governments. A ceasefire must prioritize saving the lives of the trapped civilians and also combatants on both sides of the divide. While the LTTE’s good faith commitment to a ceasefire may be suspect, a pause in the exchange of fire between the warring parties will be useful for saving the trapped civilian population. Moreover, any cessation of hostilities should be coupled with pressure on the LTTE to permit the UNHCR, UNICEF and ICRC to enter LTTE-controlled areas so that they may ascertain the number of civilians, examine the conditions in which they are living, estimate the care and supplies needed for their maintenance, evacuate those who are in need of medical attention, and enable those who want to exercise their right to freedom of movement to do so.
The Government of Sri Lanka
The security forces have indiscriminately killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians, targeting places such as hospitals, schools, and places of worship. There is disturbing evidence that war crimes have been committed with impunity by the security forces.
Those civilians that fled LTTE-controlled territories are now being held in government controlled “welfare camps”, where civilians are indefinitely interned with no freedom of movement, access to health care, and other basic supplies. There is a history of human rights abuses in such “welfare camps”. In order to ensure the rights of such civilians and in the interest of timely resettlement, these camps should immediately be brought under the supervision of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition, the GOSL should conduct security screenings of interned civilians as expeditiously as possible with a view towards their resettlement, and in the presence of the ICRC.
The GOSL must promptly begin planning for resettlement, and must heed the wishes of the civilian population who have suffered huge loss and trauma these past months. These civilians should be resettled in their former places of residence or allowed to join their relatives in other areas if they so wish. Moreover, the GOSL must prioritise the rebuilding of homes and the reconstitution of civilains’livelihoods. Finally, it is imperative that the GOSL not use resettlement to manipulate the demographic balance of areas through maintaining and prolonging displacement, or through resettling people in places against their wishes. The GOSL should adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in both its treatment, and eventual resettlement, of those displaced by war.
It is well established that many of the cadres in the LTTE were forcibly recruited. The government should take great care to set up facilities and dedicate resources to rehabilitate LTTE cadres who surrender to the Army. These cadres should be treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, and all efforts should be taken to rehabilitate them to lead meaningful lives within mainstream society.
Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu
Given the plight of civilians, there is understandable distress in both the Tamil diaspora and Tamil Nadu. Many in the Tamil diaspora have relatives who are trapped in the LTTE controlled areas or who have been displaced. Those truly concerned about civilian lives and welfare must emphasize the distinction between civilian safety and the LTTE’s future survival. It is irresponsible to use civilian suffering to legitimize the LTTE or indeed to strengthen the LTTE. Tamils outside Sri Lanka should use their influence to pressure the LTTE to allow free movement of civilians and grant them safe passage out of the areas under their control. Moreover, if the Tamil diaspora is serious about peace in Sri Lanka, it should push for the demilitarization of all armed actors, and work constructively towards an inclusive political process to bring about a far reaching political settlement that will address the aspirations of minorities within a united Sri Lanka.
UN and other International Actors
SLDF calls on the UN and its institutions to intensify their pressure on the GOSL to allow all IDP camps and other rehabilitation efforts to come under the auspices of the UNHCR with support from the ICRC. Given the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, we demand that greater attention be paid to this crisis at all appropriate UN forums, including the Human Rights Council and Security Council.
The Rajapakse Government and Political Concerns
The acute crisis facing Tamil civilians in the Vanni and their distress has justifiably gained international attention. The government’s single minded pursuit of a military victory regardless has led to callous disregard for the safety of civilian life. However, the heart of the problem remains the absence of any meaningful progress towards achieving a political solution. The Rajapakse government has given Sinhala Buddhist nationalism a fresh lease of life by giving chauvinist forces primacy in the glorification of the war effort. Military personalities have been allowed to make political statements and this has contributed to the polarization of all communities, including not only the Sinhala and Tamil communities, but also the Muslims and Up-Country Tamils. The Rajapkse regime, including the top military brass, have become the spokespeople for Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the country.
The Rajapakse regime is in the process of entrenching an authoritarian oligarchy which has capitalized on the political dividends of its military gains, and used that to suppress dissent in the South. This has reached new levels resulting in a systematic and brutal bid to eliminate the free media and silence anyone else who seeks to criticize the war effort, raise human rights concerns, challenge its authoritarianism, or expose the heightened levels of corruption in government.
The Way Forward through Democratization and a Political Solution
The issue of democratization in Sri Lanka is inextricably linked to achieving a lasting and sustainable political solution to the problems faced by the minorities. It is imperative that the GOSL is pressured into initiating an inclusive political process and address its problematic relationship with the minorities. A long-term political solution should build on the devolution debate that has endured over the last two decades and should seek to bring about far reaching devolution of power to the regions and power-sharing at the centre. Such a political solution should go beyond the 13th Amendment, guaranteeing substantial devolution that gives adequate financial and executive muscle to the local bodies with clearly demarcated powers to the minorities while integrating their concerns at the centre.
This question of a political solution is also a problem of democratization in Sri Lanka. Linked to this are the problems of the concentration of powers in the executive presidency, politicization of the bureaucracy and the judiciary, and more generally, the very structure of the unitary state. The refusal to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, by not convening the Constitutional Council responsible for the institutions of democratic governance, is a symptom of the malaise of authoritarianism in the country. Democratization would also necessarily mean the demilitarization of all actors; that is both the complete disarmament of all armed actors and the downsizing of the security forces.
At this urgent hour, with a deepening humanitarian catastrophe, the humanitarian concerns should be addressed with the immediacy that they require. However, there is a political background to the situation that has evolved and only a political solution and democratization can reverse the deteriorating political climate in the country. The people of Sri Lanka have suffered much as a result of the protracted war and its problematic history, and deserve a just and inclusive political process. If the Rajapakse regime is unwilling to change its course, it should be challenged by all actors concerned about peace and justice in Sri Lanka.