By Senator Patrick Leahy
The recent defeat of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, otherwise known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, is a very welcome development. Led by a reclusive, cult-like figure who apparently saw no evil in forcibly recruiting and brainwashing young children to become suicide bombers, the LTTE long ago forfeited any legitimate claim to representing the interests of the Tamil population. This resounding victory offers the possibility–after 30 long years of conflict, including ruthless acts of terrorism by the LTTE and other atrocities against civilians by both sides–of lasting peace for all inhabitants of that small island nation.
I first became interested in Sri Lanka when a good friend, James Spain, was the U.S. Ambassador there. He often told me of the beauty of the country and its people, and it has been painful to observe the suffering that has befallen them. That suffering was further exacerbated by the tsunami which crashed ashore in December 2004, causing immense destruction and loss of life. A member of my staff was in Sri Lanka at that time, but far enough inland to escape harm.
I have strongly supported humanitarian aid for Sri Lanka, and 2 years ago, as chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I included additional funding for economic development in the north eastern region of the island after the LTTE were forced to retreat from that area. I look forward to being able to support additional reconstruction aid, so the northern communities that have been trapped in poverty and devastated by the conflict can recover. But for that to occur, several things need to happen.
The war claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers, LTTE combatants, and civilians. The tremendous loss and grief suffered by the families of both sides needs to be acknowledged in order for reconciliation to occur.
The government should immediately account for all persons detained in the conflict. It should provide access by international humanitarian organizations and the media to affected areas and to populations of internally displaced persons who remain confined in camps, which should be administered by civilian authorities. These people should be allowed to leave the camps as soon as possible so they can start to rebuild their lives.
As soon as possible, the government needs to begin implementing policies for the devolution of power to provincial councils in the north and east as provided for in Sri Lanka’s Constitution. This and other steps are needed to demonstrate that all Sri Lankans can live without fear and participate freely in the political process. It must address the longstanding, legitimate grievances of the Tamil population so they can finally enjoy the equal rights and opportunities to which they, like other Sri Lankan citizens, are entitled.
There is also the issue of accountability for violations of the laws of war. The LTTE had a long history of flagrant violations of human rights, including kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and deliberately targeting civilians. The Sri Lankan military engaged in similar crimes. Although the Sri Lankan Government prevented access for journalists to the war zone in order to avoid scrutiny of the military’s conduct, video footage was smuggled out. And as the smoke has lifted from the battlefield there are reports that thousands of Tamil civilians who were trapped in the so-called safe zone perished in the last months of the war. There is abundant evidence that they were deliberately targeted with relentless shelling and aerial bombardments, despite repeated appeals by the international community that they be spared. There are also growing fears of retaliatory attacks against those who criticized such tactics.
The recent decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council rejecting calls, including by Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, for an international investigation of these violations is unfortunate but not surprising. Several of the Council’s members routinely arbitrarily imprison and torture political opponents in their own countries. The Sri Lankan Government, which seeks international aid to rebuild, insists that what occurred there is an “internal” matter and that for outsiders to call for an independent investigation and justice for the victims is an “infringement of sovereignty.” To the contrary, the denial of basic rights and freedoms is a legitimate concern of people everywhere, whenever it occurs.
It is now incumbent on the Sri Lankan authorities to demonstrate that the rule of law is respected, that sweeping security measures that have been used to silence journalists, doctors, lawyers and other citizens who have criticized government policies are revised or repealed, that the government takes seriously its duty to defend the rights of all Sri Lankans irrespective of religious affiliation or ethnicity, and that those responsible for crimes against humanity or other violations of human rights are held accountable.
Thankfully, a long, bloody chapter of Sri Lanka’s history has ended. But it is the next chapter that will determine whether justice and lasting peace can be achieved. If the Sri Lankan Government seizes this opportunity to unite the Sri Lankan people in support of an inclusive effort to address the causes of the conflict, the United States will be a strong partner in that effort.