Tamil interests ignored

By J. S. Tissainayagam

Ian Martin, former secretary general of Amnesty International, who headed human rights missions to conflict zones across the globe - East Timor, Bosnia and Haiti among others - was in Sri Lanka from March 26 to April 3 commissioned by the London-based International Working Group (IWG).

His report, Human Rights in Sri Lanka after the ceasefire: Report of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka notes that only Article 2.1 in the Ceasefire Agreement (signed between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE) refers to how human rights would be respected in the ceasefire. “The parties shall in accordance with international law abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population ... including torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment.”

This had led civil society groups to complain, “Other internationally accepted human rights standards are not reflected in the Ceasefire Agreement and argued that further commitments, and arrangements for monitoring their implementation should be made a matter of priority.”

Martin’s report focuses on the LTTE - its abductions for ransom, extortion of money from the Muslims and conscription of child soldiers. This is clear because the report is oriented towards highlighting such violations and discussing their prevention.

If it were local civil society groups that requested for the IWG mission because of inadequate human rights monitoring after the ceasefire agreement was signed, and if Martin’s report focuses mostly on the LTTE’s violations, it may be said with a degree of certainty that it were the allegations against the LTTE that prompted civil society groups to request Martin’s report.

This move by civil society groups is no different to international media coverage of the conscription and abduction charges against the LTTE. The same media organisations however, were apparently not interested in doing in-depth stories of Tamil children in the Wanni when they were afforded ample opportunity to do so after covering Velupillai Prabhakaran’s press conference last month.

Considering how blatantly foreign countries, especially the United States, civil society groups including NGOs, and the media have tried to exploit the child conscription and abduction issues, Martin’s report appears more objective. But not very much so.

Even while Martin was in Sri Lanka, there were human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military. But they find absolutely no place in the report. Tamil fishermen were repeatedly harassed and intimidated by the navy in Jaffna and prevented from going to sea. Similarly, residents of Muttur were body checked every time they passed Mahindapura army camp. The MP of the area even complained about such harassment to the SLMM. A few weeks before, a soldier shot a motorcyclist at Black Bridge in Batticaloa, while in Kiran, the army intimidated civilians from commemorating Annai Poopathy day.

Despite Article 2.1 expressly forbidding harassment and intimidation, these acts by the security forces find no mention in Martin’s report.

What is worse, Martin refers to the ‘past’ allegations of human rights abuses of the security forces and even goes on to say that attention has been focused on the LTTE’s misdemeanours because there have been “few” allegations of “fresh abuses” against government forces.

This attempt at a cover-up or negligence (the latter very unlikely) smacks only of bias. ‘Few’ or not, this brutality was blatant violation of the rights of Tamils living in the northeast. While they may be minor in scale compared to abduction and conscription, these acts of violence show that the Ceasefire Agreement has not succeeded in dismantling the apparatus of state terror, which the Tamils expected the agreement to do.

While ignoring the military violations in the northeast, Martin waxes eloquent about LTTE abuses in the east. He says the LTTE’s presence in the ‘cleared’ areas had led to the military’s “uncertainty” regarding its post-Agreement role, rendered to the Muslims “fearful of the new dispensation,” made former armed cadres of the Tamil groups uncertain of their “future political role” and Tamils “apprehensive of growing LTTE control.”

While Martin fails to mention the on-going harassment of the military and thereby give concrete examples of the abuse, he is careful however to state that a proper monitoring mechanism should be in place to prevent any “violations (of human rights) by government forces re-emerging”. Second, he states the government should address the “continuing consequences” of past human rights violation, “in particular, review of cases of persons detained (whether convicted or un-convicted) under PTA” and award compensation.

It is strange that Martin should not have mentioned there are human rights organisations in Sri Lanka (one at least which he interviewed while in the country) that vehemently protest that PTA violates international human rights standards and want it repealed completely. Even Amnesty International, of which Martin was secretary general, has castigated the PTA.

But all Martin mentions are about PTA detainees, not about repealing the law. The only silver lining is that he states even cases of those convicted should be reviewed, thereby perhaps hinting that PTA is bad in law. But that is no substitute for a firm commitment towards repealing the Act in toto. It is interesting to note in this context that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is on record the government will not repeal the PTA.

Continuing violations by the Tigers have convinced Martin that the LTTE should have more commitment to human rights. Therefore, he proposes to link making the LTTE agree to such commitments, to its demands for de-proscription. In other words, use the demand for such guarantees as a bargaining chip for de-proscription.

The LTTE has stated ad nauseam that it will not compromise on de-proscription, nor agree to any qualification to it. De-proscription to the Tigers is to legitimise them and put them on par with their counterpart - the Sri Lanka government. It remains to be seen whether they will use it as a bargaining chip as Martin hopes they would.

And Martin’s plan will work only if the government de-proscribes the LTTE. While there is nothing to say it will not, the path to de-proscription will not be a cakewalk either.

The better way to make the Tigers commit themselves to human rights guarantees would have been for the government too to be persuaded to commit itself to reviewing PTA legislation and perhaps even ratifying instruments in international humanitarian law (IHL) governing non-international conflict. Successive governments were able to victimise civilian populations in the northeast because the state is yet to place its signature on accepting the laws of war.

In what might become the most controversial point in his report, Martin states that donors who have pledged assistance to reconstruct the northeast would expect the interim administration run by the LTTE remain accountable for the funds and guarantee the independent functioning of NGOs.

The LTTE has however stated all funding for the development of the northeast should go through the interim council. It has also been very critical of international NGOs working in the ‘un-cleared’ areas for abusing funds earmarked for humanitarian relief and development. The Tigers say they insist on controlling the money because NGOs are dishonest.

If Martin could only point out a foolproof way of monitoring NGO activity and recommend how NGOs could be forced to be transparent without the deals being a secret between donor and implementing agency, it would be easier for NGOs to function without outside interference.

Martin goes on to say why the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) is not cut out to fulfil the function of a human rights monitor and another organisation is needed to do the job. Among the inadequacies of the SLMM are that it is better geared to monitor military violations than human rights ones.

In his discussions with Martin, Premier Wickremesinghe had spoken about a committee comprising all parties in parliament monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire. The body is to work closely with civil society organisations. Stating it was important that a human rights monitoring group should have international monitoring personnel in it to be effective, Martin recommends that either the parliamentary committee or the National Human Rights Commission could invite such personnel.

Martin states either an intergovernmental body such as the UN or the Commonwealth, or an international NGO such as Peace Brigades International (PBI), could bring the international component into the monitoring organisation.

One does not know how the LTTE will perceive these recommendations. Martin fears that those sympathetic to the Tigers, feel human rights commitments might undermine the interim administration to be run by the LTTE. He goes on to assure them accepting these arrangements would not lead to such an eventuality.

While not being in a position to say what the LTTE’s response will be, it could be said the arrangements Martin recommends will affect Tamils. While Tamils would definitely welcome arrangements that protect them from the LTTE, they will not be too sure about a report that handles the state with kid gloves.

To Martin, the human rights guarantees to be included in the Ceasefire Agreement are for short-term benefit - seeing the LTTE is kept in check. But to the Tamils it is also the killing apparatus of the state that the Ceasefire Agreement should remove. They would like to see that their security is guaranteed in the long-term, which would require repealing the PTA and agreeing to humanitarian guarantees under IHL.

Any report on the present state of human rights should also raise such issues. Since Human Rights in Sri Lanka after the ceasefire: Report of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka does not, it will be of limited value to Tamils.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [5 May 2002]