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Thursday, July 25, 2024

The message on internal accountability is clear

As one Commissioner mused several months back in a different context; “we were told by weeping mothers of children being literally grabbed from their arms and dashed on the ground with remnants of their heads being scattered around by enraged soldiers who had come upon a suspected subversive or JVP infiltrated village in the deep South.

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Many Sri Lankans may have missed, (or would not simply have bothered to see), the grainy but terribly agonizing photograph of an infant amputee in the second no-fire zone, pictured in the report of the Advisory Panel appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Grievous stories from the North and South

Mutilated children and emaciated adults weeping over dead bodies testify to the unimaginable horrors that civilians had to undergo during the last phrases of the war in the North in 2009. We do not, of course, need the United Nations to tell us this. One (or as cynics may argue, the single) positive result of the hearings before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was similar such testimony.

But some predominant fallacies arising in the context of the above discussion need to be dealt with. One common assumption is that such brutal happenings were, in Sri Lanka’s literally blood soaked history, limited to the North and the East and to a particular minority.

Yet a reading of the Final Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of persons in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces (Sessional paper No V-1997) would be instructive in this regard. Absent the photographs, the pages of this report tell us of equally grievous stories of Sinhalese children killed or maimed by Sinhalese soldiers.

As one Commissioner mused several months back in a different context; “we were told by weeping mothers of children being literally grabbed from their arms and dashed on the ground with remnants of their heads being scattered around by enraged soldiers who had come upon a suspected subversive or JVP infiltrated village in the deep South.’

Working on the commonality of justice

So through lack of awareness, lack of concern or simply because it suits a particular argument, it is sought to be maintained that brutality systematically directed at innocents has been an issue for the minorities alone, I strongly beg to disagree. It is true however that such brutality has been particularly pronounced in relation to the minorities and justified through a clearly racist mindset on the part of some. But that does not detract from specific historical truths that need to be acknowledged.

As an activist campaigner working in the South on these issues observed some years back, one of the main obstacles in their work was the refusal of other groups working on similar issues in the North and East to recognise the common issues inherent in their efforts. One rare example of a people’s movement which broke away from this pedestrian and shortsighted trend was the Mothers of the Disappeared which, in the eighties, brought suffering mothers from the South and the North (broadly speaking) together to enforce the accountability of the state for their loss.

It was, in that sense, quite different to the learning or interactive experiences, (as valuable as they are), currently seen where people from the majority and minority communities are encouraged to share and understand different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. However, this movement of the mothers thrived only in the eighties before it was politically infiltrated by politicians, including the incumbent President, for their own gain in bringing down the then United National Party administration. With a new government in place, the impetus was weakened and the cry for common justice was largely lost in the years thereafter.

Outside concern evidenced not only regarding the North

The second fallacy is the lament on the part of otherwise reasonably sane people here that the world and non governmental organizations, whether local or international, have only been concerned about human rights violations that occur in the North and East. This is far from the case. In the eighties, the struggle to have the enforced disappearances of largely Sinhalese youth recognised by the international community was led by Amnesty International (AI), a fact about which President Mahinda Rajapaksa is only too aware since he was one of the primary human rights campaigners at that time.

The role played by AI was acknowledged by government appointed Commissions which cite extensively from AI reports. This positive involvement was informed by the sensitive and highly cautious approaches followed by AI campaigners at that time.

The likelihood of a campaign being initiated which had the potential to be immensely counterproductive was quite slim. Admittedly this was not quite the case in later years as seen in 2007 when, coinciding with the World Cup games, people in Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, India, Nepal and UK were urged to sign white cricket balls urging the Government and the LTTE to invite independent human rights monitors. Viewed as a move aimed at demoralizing the country’s multi-ethnic cricket team, this infuriated many who were far from being government supporters and achieved nothing in terms of advocacy. But apart from misjudgments of this nature, the sweeping assumption that concern regarding human rights violations has been evidenced from outside only in relation to the North and East is simply not correct.

Avoidance of being trapped in a victim mentality
These are matters about which we should remind ourselves from time to time, to avoid being trapped in a victim mentality which proceeds on the quite mistaken assumption that the developed world and its agents in the international and local non governmental sector, not to mention the United Nations and the European Union (EU), are out to get Sri Lanka. This may be a convenient myth for the government’s propagandists to perpetuate to cover up their own deficiencies and lack of skilful dealings with foreign governments. However, it does not happen to be the truth.

From what we have seen of the reactions to the Advisory Panel report from across the world, ranging from the EU to Japan, the Government of Sri Lanka has been passed a clear message. Look after your own people, not by words, by vainglorious rhetoric or by building roads and hotels but by concrete action focusing on the Rule of Law and by giving the people their legal and constitutional rights.

This is as much as many Sri Lankan citizens have been telling their Government after all. Why should we shy away from or be coy about in any way whatsoever in calling for accountability in this regard?


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