By Ayesha Zuhair
Q: Why is it that organisations such as the ICG were mute on the atrocities committed by the LTTE, and yet are now very vocal in allegations of war-crimes against the government? Is it that only state actors have to be 'accountable' while non-state actors can get away with large-scale violations of human rights?
It is simply not true that the International Crisis Group has been mute on the atrocities of the LTTE. From our very first report the Crisis Group has consistently criticised the crimes of the LTTE. In our first report in November 2006 on "The Failure of the Peace Process", we wrote that the LTTE "continued to kill and silence opponents, recruit child soldiers and run the areas it controlled like a totalitarian regime". We strongly criticised the failure of Norway, the UNP and foreign states to do all it could to stop the LTTE's grave violations of human rights during the peace process. This criticism was repeated in our June 2007 report on "Sri Lanka's Human Rights Crisis", where we also analysed the LTTE's "deliberately provocative attacks on the military and Sinhalese civilians as well as its violent repression of Tamil dissenters and forced recruitment of both adults and children". Our May 2007 report, Sri Lanka's Muslims: Caught in the Crossfire, discussed at length the LTTE's 1990 forced expulsion of northern Muslims and massacres of Muslims in the east. Our January 2008 report directly called on the LTTE to "abandon publicly the demand for an independent Tamil state" and to "cease all attacks on civilians, suicide bombings, forced recruitment and repression of media freedom and political dissent and respect fully international human rights and humanitarian law". In March 2009 we called on the LTTE to surrender and to allow Tamil civilians trapped in the fighting to go free. In January 2010 we wrote that "the LTTE's defeat and the end of its control over Tamil political life are historic and welcome changes." Our May 2010 report on War Crimes discussed the atrocities and war crimes of the LTTE in detail. No honest reader of any of our thirteen reports on Sri Lanka can say that we have been mute on the atrocities and other crimes of the LTTE.
Q: There is a view that some rights' groups, including the ICG, are often 'misinformed' by pro-LTTE diasporic groups who left Sri Lanka under turbulent circumstances, and know little about what is actually happening on the ground. What is your response to this?
The Crisis Group reporting on Sri Lanka is not informed or influenced by any pro-LTTE groups in the diaspora or anywhere else. Indeed, we have regularly criticised both the LTTE and groups in the Tamil diaspora: our February 2010 report on "The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE" was even praised publicly by the Sri Lankan government for our criticisms of the support that many in the diaspora still give to the idea of a separate state of Tamil Eelam! Our reports are based on years of research in Sri Lanka and constant and direct contact with Sri Lankans from all ethnic communities and all regions of the island.
Q: Why did the ICG, along with HRW and AI, decide to distance itself from the LLRC? Were you not pre-judging the efforts of the Commission?
Our reasons for declining the invitation to testify before the LLRC were laid out clearly in our public letter of 14 October 2010. We still believe our decision was the correct one. When dealing with a commission of this sort, procedural fairness is fundamental. How can it be fair or impartial for those with close ties to the government and who have defended the government's military conduct in international forums - e.g., former Attorney General C.R. de Silva - to be asked to investigate and judge that same conduct? How can the government claim that a process whose mandate never mentions accountability or violations of the laws of war, be considered an accountability mechanism adequate to address the numerous well-founded allegations of war crimes detailed in the public domain? How can a process with no provision for the protection of witnesses be adequate to investigate charges of such grave violations, especially in a context where witnesses and critics of the government have been regularly threatened and killed. I don't have to remind Sri Lankans of the long history of violence against dissent from which people from all communities have suffered. Nor do I have to remind them of decades of failed commissions of inquiry. Few have ever been held accountable for any serious violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, whichever government, political party or militant group was accused. It is these structural flaws in the make-up of the LLRC and this history of impunity that made us skeptical about the LLRC. I genuinely hope that its report will be made public next month and that our skepticism will be proven wrong.
Q: The Sri Lankan Government has said that allegations of war-crimes are attempts to hinder the process of national reconciliation by inciting hatred, and the Ministry of External Affairs has called on "friendly countries" not to issue "threats but the space and support for restoration of what was lost over three decades." Is support for the reconciliation process not the need of the hour?
Support for reconciliation is indeed very important. But where is this "process of reconciliation" that you speak of? What exactly is being done to bring the communities together in a way that addresses the deep grievances that many in each community - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers - still hold? What is being done to democratise and demilitarise a society whose basic institutions have been so badly damaged by years of war and terror from all sides? Sri Lankans of all communities are happy that the war is over and that people are no longer at the mercy of terror attacks and bombing from the air and that people are no longer dying in such large numbers from war and political violence. Nonetheless, we see little being done of any note by this government to listen to its people - especially its minority communities but also Sinhalese - about the changes needed to truly reconcile the deep ethnic, class, and caste divisions throughout the country.
Q: The Sri Lankan government has undertaken several initiatives to promote reconciliation such as rehabilitation of ex-combatants, resettling the vast majority of IDPs, and providing closure to victims' families. Importantly, members of all ethnic and religious communities enjoy greater freedom than they did during the course of the war. Don't you think these are positive developments?
There have unquestionably been some positive developments, but these initiatives you mention don't go very far. Yes, most of the ex-combatants have been released - but many of them continue to be monitored and harassed by the security forces once released. And why did they need to be held in detention without any independent monitoring or access to lawyers? And what guarantees of a fair trial are there for those still detained? You speak of closure to victims' families, but does this exist for those thousands of families who still don't know the whereabouts of their missing relatives, either detained or killed in the final months of the war? Yes, most families have been released from Manik Farm - but some 60,000 people continue to live with host families, another 7000 have just learned they may never return to their land in Mullaitivu now occupied by the military, and those who have returned home have returned to a devastated landscape with few houses, few physical or financial resources and inadequate government assistance. Finally, you speak of people enjoying greater freedom now than before the war - yes, all Sri Lankans are free from the terror and political depredations of the LTTE, but can those in the north whose daily life is governed by the military and by officials from a different ethnic community really be considered free? Can those in the south whose elections are repeatedly undermined by violence, corruption, and misuse of state resources - as documented repeatedly by your own brave civil society organisations - really be called free?
Q: The ICG in its latest report states that reconciliation in Sri Lanka is "harder than ever". The LLRC is due to submit its final report shortly, and talks between the GOSL and TNA continue, albeit at a very slow pace. Furthermore, a Parliamentary Select Committee will be appointed to formulate a solution to the national question. So what makes you claim that Sri Lanka is increasingly at risk of returning to conflict?
We have detailed at great length our reasons for worry. As mentioned above, I hope to be surprised by the LLRC's report, but I'll remain sceptical until then. We also hope to be surprised by the TNA-government talks - but to date, there is no reason for optimism, especially following Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa's public statement that after the defeat of the LTTE there is no need for any constitutional reforms or devolution of power. You state that a PSC will be appointed to "formulate a solution to the national question", but it remains unclear what exactly that committee will do or why it is needed. With the government having a two-thirds majority in parliament and containing almost all the parties in the PSC, it could devise a solution on its own, through negotiations with Tamil and Muslim parties. Why does the President, at the very least, not state what he believes the basic principles of a "solution to the national question" should be? Does he agree or disagree with the defence secretary? Until this is clear, even the best committee in the world will be meaningless.