Jaundiced Eyes

Monitors, by definition, must be scrupulously neutral

[Tamil Guardian Editorial 15 May 2002]

Apart from the recent incidents of harassment by the Sri Lankan armed forces, life for the Tamil people in the north and east has significantly improved this year in the absence of general conflict. The lifting of the government's decade-long economic embargo and the curtailing of air strikes and shelling through the permanent ceasefire has dramatically reduced the suffering. The international monitoring has also resulted in a general reduction in arrests, torture and extra judicial killings.

The ceasefire agreement, while designed to halt the fighting and de-escalate the conflict, includes specific clauses to protect human rights, all of which is under the jurisdiction of the internationally-staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

The frantic lobbying for increased human rights monitoring in Sri Lanka which has recently emerged from some quarters therefore raises interesting questions. The call is for widening of monitoring beyond the ceasefire to human rights generally and for the SLMM to have its brief expanded, failing which for other organisations to be allowed to have a go. Suggestions have been made that United Nations agencies working in Sri Lanka could play a role. Amnesty International, we understand, has put itself forward. The argument is that increased protection of human rights would bolster the Norwegian peace process. But matters are not as simple as that.

Notably, those suddenly calling for increased protection of human rights in the Tamil areas - and a role for themselves - are the same voices which have over the years often failed to protest the countless incidents of torture, disappearance, murder, rape and assault of Tamils by the Sri Lankan armed forces - a few neutrality-enhancing murmurs notwithstanding. Furthermore, the self-appointed defenders of our rights have, by focussing disproportionately on abuses attributed to the Liberation Tigers, helped distort international perspective of the island's ethnic conflict. In doing so, they have provided Sri Lankan governments with the moral legitimacy to secure international military and financial assistance to continue their persecution of our people.

The embargo and war driven suffering in the north and east has been witnessed first hand by the United Nations staff that have maintained an unashamed silence for over a decade, insulating the Sri Lankan government from international criticism and thereby refuting the Tamil people's assertions of persecution. Whilst they may accord themselves greater accolades, international rights groups have singularly failed to halt atrocities by the Sri Lanka armed forces. As we have argued before, it is the LTTE's military stature, not international human rights lobbying, which has brought about the present tranquillity in the north and east.

In the past few weeks, there have been several incidents of military harassment of Tamil civilians - along with the customary silence from rights watchdogs. The continued and prolonged detention without charge of thousands of Tamils has (ironically, given Amnesty's origins) not warranted comment from those more preoccupied with a handful of unsubstantiated allegations of children being used as soldiers.

Given the history of human rights advocacy in Sri Lanka, it is clear that the primary objective behind the new pressure for increased 'monitoring' is to challenge or undermine the Liberation Tigers' bid to run the interim administration for the north and east, which the forthcoming direct talks in Thailand are expected to focus on.

This is not to say the LTTE is above the need to respect and protect human rights. But those clamouring to monitor the LTTE are the same bodies who have pointedly failed or refused to protest many violations by the Sri Lanka armed force and - in some well-known cases - made denigrating the Tigers their sole focus. The SLMM, by virtue of its performance thus far, enjoys the trust of both combatants and, crucially, the Tamil people. Those now coming forward to proffering to protect our rights - by virtue of their performance thus far - most certainly do not.

Courtesy: Tamil Guardian [15 May 2002]