It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. I want to say today that truth is also the first step towards reconciliation. It is in recognition of this principle that after the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa, the process that united the country was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In Sri Lanka too, many truths about the war were hidden and continue to remain hidden. It is time for us in Sri Lanka to uncover the truth, face up to it, and move forward towards reconciliation. The end of the war in May 2009 provided us with a great opportunity for that. Unfortunately, triumphalism and narrow, parochial self-interest has prevailed for the last four years, resulting in more damage being done to the social fabric and the institutional safeguards in our country than what they suffered even during the years of war. Violations of human rights were rife, as can be expected, whilst the war raged. But sadly, the end of the war did not turn things around.
The government, without being magnanimous in victory, continues to behave as though the State is still under siege. The natural popularity that was gained for having brought the fighting to an end is being used to further erode democratic values and to entrench a family rule. For the people too, the line between expressing gratitude and permitting an authoritarian take over remained thin, with the result, the only constitutional safeguard protecting the independence of democratic institutions was dismantled within six months of the new Parliament convening in 2010. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution not only abolished the Constitutional Council responsible for making appointments to independent offices and institutions, but also removed the two term limit on the very powerful Executive Presidency.
The recent impeachment of the Chief Justice through a process that was declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court demonstrates the extent to which rule of law has broken down in Sri Lanka. The apparent disregard for democratic ideals and the values and principles of the Commonwealth as regards Latimer House principles, which Sri Lanka is bound by, clearly demonstrates the authoritarian and dictatorial nature of the present regime. The purported appointment of the advisor to the government as the Chief Justice, again lays bare the government’s mindset. The fact that the Chief Justice was impeached hot on the heels of several devolution-friendly determinations that angered the government, again demonstrates its lack of sincerity in actually implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, let alone going beyond it to achieve meaningful devolution to which the government paid lip service until the independence day speech of the President in early February.
The government continued with the state of emergency for over two years after the end of the war, and allowed it to lapse only in order to face up to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in September 2011. However, just a day before the state of emergency lapsed, a set of new regulations was introduced under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The most obnoxious of these is the regulation that enables the security establishment to incarcerate any person under the guise of ‘rehabilitation’ without even producing him/her before a court of law, on the pretext that such person had ‘surrendered’. Many are being so incarcerated now: about 40 from Jaffna, another dozen or so from Trincomalee and a few more from Batticaloa. Four university students who were also among those arrested in Jaffna have been released.
The manner, in which the President ordered the release of two of them, while he was visiting Jaffna, demonstrates the height of arbitrariness of these arrests and detentions and removes any doubt as to the illegality of the continuing detention of the others. In addition, there are close to a thousand others who continue to be detained under the PTA, some for longer than 15 years, without proper charges or trial. One glaring example is that of an Irish national who was arrested in 2007. The State claimed that he was an international arms smuggler and kept getting more and more time before the Supreme Court, where he had challenged his arrest and detention.
After five long years, they indicted him for failure to give information to the police, the most innocuous of offences under the PTA. He pleaded guilty on legal advice, because he had spent longer than the maximum sentence for this offence and was sentenced to a token term of one month. But on the day of his release, just a few days ago, on the 12 February, he was remanded again on the application of the State which claimed that they plan to indict him again for another offence!
The human rights situation in the North and the East and indeed in all parts of the country continues to deteriorate. Not holding anyone accountable for the grave crimes committed during the last stages of the war, has its heavy price. Similar incidents are bound to recur and that is what is happening, particularly in the North and the East of the country at present. Recently 109 very young Tamil girls were said to have been recruited to the Army from the Districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. No formal procedures were followed and some of them have managed to escape and return home. Save 16 others were said to have suddenly gone down with ‘mass hysteria’ and admitted to the Kilinochchi hospital, one day and no one was allowed to meet them. All this gives rise to grave suspicions as to the actual status of these girls in the Army.
My colleague, Shritharan raised the matter in Parliament and he was promptly subjected to a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inquiry in breach of parliamentary privilege. As he raised the question of privilege, now the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) has raided his office in Kilinochchi, claims to have recovered some explosives and astonishingly, condoms and pornographic material! They have also arrested two of his staff and are holding them under the PTA. Handbills were distributed in Kilinochchi with pictures of the alleged pornography saying “This is your MP who speaks about young women being abused by the Army.”
He was also summoned to the TID office and subjected to a three-hour inquiry just last week. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a 141-page report two days ago on the sexual abuse of Tamil detainees. The 150,000 strong army presence in the Northern Province – one soldier to every five civilians – says more of what goes on in the open in the Tamil areas. This sense of impunity has been brought about solely due to the fact that, no one has had to answer yet for the serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the last stages of the war. The UN Panel of Experts recommended an independent investigation into this with international supervision.
The TNA, as the elected representatives of the Tamil people, welcomed the Panel of Experts finding that “Credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.” The official position of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is that the truth must be ascertained through an independent international investigation, which should also inquire into the on-going acts of persecution against the Tamil People even four years after the end of the war. Sadly, locally, the country has no capacity to hold any credible investigation, particularly now, with the breakdown of the independence of the judiciary. The government has also now plainly demonstrated what it is in fact capable of.
No violations occurred – Military report
A military tribunal established to inquire into these violations has concluded – hold your breath – that no violations occurred, and worse, that no person has disappeared in Sri Lanka! The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) itself has reported that from persons who braved to come and give evidence before it alone, over 3,000 had disappeared and out of this, some 1,018 had disappeared after surrendering to the security forces at the end of the war.
The government-appointed LLRC too recommended that the Channel 4 video footage that was first released should be investigated to ascertain its authenticity. Since then, there have been two more releases of such footage. The government of Sri Lanka has challenged the authenticity of this footage as well. This too then must be subject to thorough investigation. Both the charges and the counter-charges that have been made are too serious to be allowed to remain without inquiry.
The TNA today is calling upon the Government of Sri Lanka to cooperate with any UNHRC resolution which seeks the implementation of the LLRC recommendations and seeks credible measures to ascertain the truths that have been hidden. Contesting a reasonable resolution and having it voted on will only result in Sri Lanka losing the vote and facing international embarrassment.
Sri Lanka must now work with the United Nations to ascertain the truth. It is the truth that will lead to reconciliation and enable the Tamil people, together with all the people in Sri Lanka to live with equality, dignity and self-respect.
The speech made by M.A. Sumanthiran MP at the 3rd Anniversary Conference of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), held at London earlier this week