"What happened in Sri Lanka was a major Rwanda-like atrocity, in a different scale, where the West didn't care. There was plenty of early warning. This [conflict] has been going on for years and decades. Plenty of things could have been done [to prevent it]. But there was not enough interest." -N. Chomsky
A bloody civil war that gripped the island nation of Sri Lanka for over a quarter of a century came to a horrific end in 2009. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were overwhelmingly defeated by the state led Sinhalese majority government forces. The atrocities committed by the state to reach such a conclusion have been vastly underreported. Estimates of civilian deaths in the final five months of the war range between 9,000 and 75,000 (BBC, 2013). One United Nations report puts the number at 40,000; most recently they have reported that up to 70,000 civilians could have died in the final 5 months (UN, 2011, & UN, 2012). If this is true, as Frances Harrison of the Guardian states, the magnitude of the estimated civilian deaths is on ‘the scale of Syria but condensed in speed into 5-6 months whereas Syria has been going on for 18 months [to] two years.’ Former Norwegian diplomat Erik Solheim said ‘There were massive war crimes in the last phase which were probably the biggest bloodshed of the twenty first century.’
A UN panel of experts reported that the government of Sri Lanka has engaged in:
- Killing of civilians through widespread shelling
- Shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects
- Denial of humanitarian assistance
- Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both Internally Displaced People (IDP) and suspected LTTE cadres
- Human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government
An insidious and well-planned strategy by the government has meant very little independent reporting, foreign aid bodies being prevented from going into the warzone and to date, the resistance of any post-war independent investigation.
The host of CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) is the same government, the same people who are ultimately responsible. The question of accountability will not go away, particularly for the Tamil people, but also for those courageous journalists now in exile who dared to question the government.
Sadly, the end of the war has not meant the end of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government. The once Tamil controlled northern areas are now under military occupation. Many displaced Tamils are unable to return home since the government have seized their property for ‘military purposes’ or for ‘agricultural purposes’. Ongoing disappearances, rape, sexual abuse, land grabbing and beatings are stories that are still coming out of Sri Lanka leading some critics to call the post-war, but not post-conflict scenario a ‘structural genocide’. The Sri Lankan government is unsurprisingly against transparency and judicial independence, as demonstrated by the unconstitutional impeachment and removal of the Chief Justice earlier this year, further showing the abuse of power wielded by the Executive.
For many progressives, the recent Labor asylum policy announcement borne out of political pragmatism rather than compassion and morality has come as an utter disappointment. However, it raises the challenge of changing the hearts and minds of the electorate. This will occur through learning about the plight that refugees flee. Each country’s refugee has its unique and often complex story. This motion aims to shed light on the Sri Lankan Tamils’ story while also advocating for diplomatic pressure to be placed on the Sri Lankan Government.
What can we do about it?
International pressure has been shown to be an effective tool in pressuring governments to do the right thing. The Sri Lankan government may not care about the Tamils but they do care about the Commonwealth. A boycott of CHOGM would make a good start. Apartheid is a good example of an international sporting boycott that raised awareness and pressured a nation towards corrective action. A boycott of Sri Lankan cricket, I believe, would mount enough pressure both internationally and domestically on the government to accept the calls for an independent investigation into the final stages of the war.
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