Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Interview with Dr. Coomaraswamy

by Namini Wijedasa, Lanka Monthly Digest, July, 2006

I also feel this position has two roles. One is as a special representative on children and armed conflict. This is an important issue. It has seized the conscience of the Security Council and it is, therefore, important that we push forward with the agenda set out by Olara Otunnu. We must do everything to bring an end to the six violations against children: child soldiers, killing and maiming, abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access.

Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Deshamanya Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy – in her first exclusive interview in Sri Lanka – in conversation with Namini Wijedasa.

Q: What is the significance of your appointment for Sri Lanka? How does it raise the country’s profile in the international arena?

A: I think it would be wrong to think of this appointment in national terms. It was an appointment to an international civil service that is supposed to transcend national considerations. In fact, on my first day of work, I signed a pledge that requires that I not be influenced by any government or group of individuals in my work and that I must keep the interest of the United Nations (UN) above all such interests. It is not only Sri Lanka that has pledges. I am, however, touched by the response of fellow Sri Lankans – and I hope I will honour their faith in me.

Q: You have been at the receiving end of stinging criticism from some members of the Tamil community for your position on various issues. Some even campaigned unsuccessfully to prevent your appointment to the post you now hold. How do you feel about this?

A: I think they are misguided. However, if one takes a stand, there will be consequences – and one has to face them.

Q: The pro-LTTE lobby seems to question any Tamil intellectual who doesn’t toe the LTTE line. Do you feel victimised by this?

A: They have never threatened me personally, only criticised me extensively. The LTTE must transform and accept the value of dissent and the freedom of holding contrary opinions. But as for me, at the moment, I see myself as an international civil servant – and that identity supersedes both my Tamil and Sri Lankan identities when it comes to a discussion of political issues.

Q: How can we achieve a lasting peace in Sri Lanka?

A: I believe the solution for Sri Lanka is the Oslo formulation – a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka. However, we have to persuade the Sinhalese people that this will be in their interest and will not lead to secession. We also have to persuade the Tamils that the powers devolved will be meaningful and that they will have a right to determine matters in areas where they are a majority. In the meantime, we must not forget the Muslims. Their right to participation and protection must also be part of any structure set up for the solution of the ethnic conflict.

Q: What would you say are the challenges to peace?

A: Distrust. I think anyone analysing the situation from a rational, objective point of view can draw up a solution. However, there is so much distrust, hatred and emotion that it is difficult to move forward. Lately, for some reason, the forces of hatred have taken control of our political discourse on all sides. It is important that we move forward towards a language and an attitude that help us in the struggle for reconciliation.

Q: In your opinion, what role does the international community play in Sri Lanka’s peace process?

A: Sri Lanka is a sovereign state and with regard to political processes, as opposed to human-rights issues, the international community can only be present with the consent of the Sri Lankan government. Nevertheless, I feel it is in enlightened self-interest to invite the international community.

There is such deep distrust between the two parties to the conflict that Sri Lanka needs an honest broker. I think we should ask the international community to help us in negotiating a final settlement and in providing humanitarian assistance to our people.

Q: Do you feel that international intervention or involvement has shaped Sri Lanka’s peace process in any way? Has this been positive or negative?

A: I believe international involvement has been positive in general. There have, perhaps, been some mistakes; but in the long run, the voice of the international community has been the objective, detached voice that we in Sri Lanka need to hear if we are to turn the tide.

Q: The crisis in Sri Lanka’s peace process has worsened. In April, a suicide bomb seriously injured the Army Commander and the government declared national security to be a priority. Do you see any reason to be optimistic?

A: Well, optimism is difficult in the short term. However, no matter what happens, at some point – perhaps out of weariness – I am confident we will negotiate that final contract – the political solution that is needed for the people to live in dignity in Sri Lanka. I think it will be within a united Sri Lanka, but with a different political arrangement. If we are wise, this will come sooner rather than later.

If we continue to bait each other, engage in violent oneupmanship and generally move away from the spirit of reconciliation, it will take much longer. We must ensure, however, that there is not only a political solution to the ethnic problem, but that democracy and tolerance are also strengthened. I think the international community has a duty to ensure that.

Q: In the past few months, we have seen many targeted attacks against both Tamil and Sinhalese civilians. What are your reactions to this?

A: I think the targeting of civilians is a terrible aspect of war. The only way to prevent that is to ensure that there is no war. Even in times of peace, civilians can be targeted. We have to strengthen the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and, perhaps, set up a separate mechanism for human-rights monitoring as well.

Q: The voices of extremism from within all communities in the country have grown stronger. How do you assess this?

A: I feel that insecurity breeds extremism. I think the growth of extremist voices is a sign of that insecurity. If we make people feel more secure about their future, about their place in the sun and a life with dignity, the voices will lessen.

Q: What – or who – can compel the two parties of the conflict to return to talks?

A: They have to come to the realisation that there is no military solution, so it requires another military stalemate.

Q: You are widely recognised for your role as an advocate for women’s rights. Did you ever think you would secure such a high-profile appointment to protect child rights?

A: In many ways, there are very common elements between women and children. In many cases, they are vulnerable groups in need of international protection. In many cases, those who commit violence against them are given impunity – and often, women and children’s lives are interlinked.

However, the international regime for the protection of children is far greater. One of the most innovative developments has been Security Council Resolution 1612, which provides for the naming of groups that engage in child recruitment for combat. This is an extraordinary development, with the UN Security Council taking an interest in social and human-rights issues. It is truly a rare occurrence.

Q: What are your plans for the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict?

A: At the moment, we are in the process of building a strategic vision for the office for the next two years. In many ways, it is the era of application – especially when it comes to child soldiers. International standards and frameworks have been set. Now we must apply those standards and frameworks to concrete situations. This, I think, has to be the centrepiece of any strategic vision.

I also feel this position has two roles. One is as a special representative on children and armed conflict. This is an important issue. It has seized the conscience of the Security Council and it is, therefore, important that we push forward with the agenda set out by Olara Otunnu. We must do everything to bring an end to the six violations against children: child soldiers, killing and maiming, abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access.

Q: Otunnu is, indeed, remembered for his blacklist, or list of shame, and for urging the UN to introduce stronger sanctions against state and non-state parties who are guilty of violations against children during war situations. Will you take this further?

A: It is my duty to take it further. It is important not only for children, but for all issues that deal with impunity in times of war.

Q: What concrete measures do you intend taking?

A: These are already spelt out in the Security Council resolutions. With regard to child soldiers, the concrete measures are already in place. There are national task forces that will be reporting to us, there is a Security Council Working Group that will hear our inputs, and there is the annual report on concrete situations and specific parties.

Q: In July 2005, the Security Council adopted a resolution relating to the protection of children in armed conflict. What, in your opinion, is the most important aspect of this resolution?

A: It allows for a process to name and shame parties that engage in child recruitment, and other grave violations of international law relating to children. It also carries the threat of sanctions.

Q: A new report from the Watchlist On Children And Armed Conflict says that, notwithstanding considerable force and pressure from the UN, child soldiers are multiplying in the Democratic Republic Of Congo. Despite the world’s best efforts, we have failed to end the scourge of child recruitment. Where have we gone wrong?

A: Whenever we address human-rights issues, there are two planes. The first is to understand the phenomenon, its roots and its history. The second is to eradicate it. Child soldiers are not a new phenomenon. In most of the world where there have been guerrilla struggles and where whole communities get involved in the fight or are forced to get involved in the fight, children are often expected to play their role.

What is needed is to change that pattern of behaviour globally. We have to make people understand that the damage to children is long lasting and profound. That is why it is a war crime. Changing these behaviour patterns is difficult because many of these groups also openly reject mainstream society.

Q: Many analysts feel that the UN could have done more to protect children in armed conflict. Some maintain that the UN simply skims the surface with its resolutions and that concrete measures will never be taken against offenders. Do you feel the same?

A: The Security Council is a very political place. For concrete measures to take place, one must deal with the politics. However, on the issue of children, there is a resonance in both the Security Council and the General Assembly. Somehow, this issue often gets by the politics. So, perhaps, there will be a chance of concrete UN action.

Q: What is the most important role of the UN? Has it regained credibility after the war in Iraq, where the US and the UK invaded a country in defiance of the UN?

A: I think the UN is just getting a lot of bad press. The world could not survive without organisations such as the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, UNICEF, UNHCR, etc. They do an enormous amount of work. I think the UN’s human rights and humanitarian agencies really work hard on the ground.

Why the UN gets bad press is that it seems politically impotent or biased. In that sense, it is the political process at the Security Council that is at fault. In such a context, the UN is only the sum of its parts – the nation states of which it is composed. The UN only mirrors and reflects their political positioning.

Q: What is the big picture of child rights in Sri Lanka? How do we measure up? Good, can do much better or abysmal?

A: On these issues, it is better not to compare. Either we become complacent by saying we are better than other countries, or we become defensive. It is best to say that there are many issues with regard to child rights in Sri Lanka, from child soldiers to child trafficking.

Q: What is your most pressing area of concern regarding child rights in Sri Lanka?

A: If the right to life is the most precious of all rights, then the most pressing issue is child soldiers. The international community has also recognised this as the preeminent concern. The International Criminal Court makes child recruitment a war crime and the Security Council, in an unprecedented move, has begun listing parties that violate these concerns with the possibility of sanctions.

Q: What is your opinion of the LTTE and child recruitment?

A: The LTTE must realise that child recruitment is one of the gravest violations of international law. Not only has the International Criminal Court begun to prosecute individuals for child recruitment as a war crime and a crime against humanity, it is the only human-rights issue on which the Security Council has acted – monitoring and reviewing the situation, and threatening sanctions.

Child recruitment destroys children. According to research, they lose the capacity to tell right from wrong. They suffer terrible trauma and, if peace comes, they become delinquent. The LTTE must realise this and ensure that no more children will be recruited – and that the ones who are recruited are released.

Q: UNICEF’s halfway homes for child soldiers in Sri Lanka have been a failure, even by their own admission. Can you think of a workable system to decommission child soldiers?

A: Well, decommissioning is mostly successful if it is linked to a successful peace process. If we do not have a successful peace process, then there must be a system of independent monitoring. I think an action plan involving all three parties – the government, the international community and the LTTE – with targets and time lines, has to be negotiated. But it is difficult if there is no peace process.

Q: Can international pressure have any bearing on the behaviour of non-state parties such as the LTTE, which has continued to recruit children to its ranks? Even Otunnu’s celebrated list of shame seems to have had no effect.

A: I think international pressure can work. It has to be targeted and highlighted. I feel there has been some improvement, but definitely not enough with regard to the LTTE. It may have recruited less in the past few months, but it is not releasing any of the children it has recruited.

Q: What do you think of civil-society action in Sri Lanka – whether it be in regard to child, human or women’s rights?

A: We have an active and vibrant civil society. However, it is mostly small institutions led by charismatic individuals. If real change is to take place, we still have to rely on political parties, trade unions, religious organisations and other traditional institutions. We should spend more time with them and have them take up some of these causes.

Q: In 1996, you delivered the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Lecture on ‘LTTE Women: Is This Liberation?’ What are your current views on female LTTE cadre, particularly their use as suicide bombers?

A: I wrote that piece because I am a believer in non-violence and I do not believe that women engaging in violence is an answer to anything. But that is my own personal opinion.

Q: You successfully headed Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) for several years and have indepth knowledge about the country’s situation. How do you rate the HRC’s achievements during your tenure?

A: There were relative successes, but I also feel a great deal more needs to be done. Some of our successes were the introduction of the zero-tolerance policy on torture, which has had an impact, as well as surprise visits to custodial institutions and visits to the Eastern Province, after we highlighted some of the human-rights issues there.

Our Disaster Relief Monitoring Unit, set up after the tsunami, did considerable work and we initiated a database on disappearances. We started the committee for the protection of migrant workers and held a national conference on the rights of people with disabilities. These were only some of the initiatives we took. However, there still remain problems of delays in the caseload. Many of these cases relate to promotions and transfers in the public service.

Q: The term of the HRC commissioners expired in April 2006 and new members must be appointed by the Constitutional Council, which itself is not functioning. Against the backdrop of the fragile situation in the country, is there a danger of delays in this process?

A: There is a tremendous problem with this. The commission has 200 staff members – and at the moment, they are leaderless. In addition, the commission cannot summon people or make recommendations. So the thousands of cases before the commission would have come to a standstill. Something has to be done. The Constitutional Council must be appointed.

Q: There has been a massive outcry about torture in police custody. How would you assess the extent of this practice in Sri Lanka?

A: Torture is widespread and endemic because there isn’t enough training of police personnel in investigative skills – and so, torture is the first method of interrogation. However, things have improved somewhat, according to NGOs working on the ground.

Q: Are you worried that if the HRC is not activated soon, the police will return to business as usual?

A: Yes. One of the HRC’s main reasons for existence after the terrible violence of the 1980s was to prevent torture. Unless the HRC is activated, a main safeguard against torture will be removed.

Q: How do you assess the status of women in Sri Lanka?

A: We have some of the best physical quality-of-life indices – for instance, maternal mortality rates, education, health and so on. But we also have specific problems including discrimination at the highest managerial levels, violence against women, personal laws and poor political representation.

Q: Apart from the conflict, what are Sri Lanka’s most serious issues? How can the nation turn around and become a successful state?

A: For Sri Lanka, and for the rest of the Third World, the most important issue is that of equity. Globalisation has its positive side, but it has created a great gulf between the haves and the have-nots. This terrible divide is widening, incre-asing frustration and anger. It is important that we realise this, and try and take the part of equitable development. This means being sensitive to class, caste, gender, ethnic distinctions, and protecting vulnerable groups such as children and internally displaced persons.

Q: What are Sri Lanka’s saving graces? What have we done right?

A: Our saving grace is our resilience. We have gone through terrible times, but we are a resilient people. I also think that democracy has been an important part of our post-colonial history. We must protect it – not only in the south, but in all parts of the country.

Q: How would you assess the LTTE’s respect for, or observance of, human rights?

A: When I was Chairperson of the HRC, we found the allegations with regard to LTTE violations were impunity for alleged political killings, the recruitment of child soldiers, preventing the freedom of association of groups and printing presses as well as extortion. The Muslim community also felt it was discriminated against.

Q: How would you assess the government’s respect for or observance of human rights?

[This is where Dr. Coomaraswamy has a chance to show her evenhandedness towards both sides of the conflict. We will pass over the part about the government acting 'better' than the LTTE, because she has been based in the South and so probably has less access to information and has a tendency to frame problems in Southern terms, i.e. quality education in one's own language is not considered a 'right.'

What is troublesome is that allegations against the LTTE are 'violations,' while the security forces 'act recklessly.' These LTTE violations are given as blanket facts, such as restricting 'freedom of association,' while she refers to a handful of specific cases when refering to the security forces. The 100 Tamils killed and 255 disappeared reported by her own Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission in Jaffna do not merit mention, for instance. This is more than 'reckless behavior.' Shall we be magnanimous and suggest that Dr. Coomaraswamy's remarks were edited by the Colombo source of her remarks? -- Editor]

A: Well, during the ceasefire, it was better than that of the LTTE – but towards the end of last year, there were some alarming events. The security forces were again acting recklessly.

There were allegations with regard to a rape case against the navy, the killing of five students in Trincomalee and tolerance for Tamil paramilitary action such as the killing of Joseph Pararajasingham. There were also cases of torture and extrajudicial killings in the south, primarily aimed at organised crime.

Q: Do you see a transformation of the LTTE for the better?

A: We can only say that there is plenty of room for improvement with regard to human rights.

Q: Do you see a positive transformation of the Sri Lankan state?

A: I feel that the majority of Sinhalese people and a majority of Sinhalese parliamentarians are ready for some type of political solution that will involve the transformation of the Sri Lankan state.

Q: In your opinion, what is the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka?

A: I think there was a well-founded fear of persecution in the past. I think the riots of the 1950s and the 1980s made them physically insecure. I feel the Sinhala Only Act was discriminatory and that they have a right to ask for a sharing of power. However, their situation is similar to the struggle of many minorities around the world, and the choice of armed struggle as the primary means of fighting for their rights has backfired and destroyed the fabric of that society.

Q: What is the situation of Muslims and other minorities in Sri Lanka?

A: The Muslims living in the north and east have the identical grievances against the LTTE that the Tamils used to have against the Sinhalese. The failure of the Tamil political leadership to realise this is one of the great weaknesses of the Tamil nationalist cause.

Q: The armed forces and police have often been accused of paying scant regard to human rights. Do you agree?

A: I think in times of war, armies do not always respect human rights. Though one would expect them to behave, one can only hope that there is no war – and then there will be no abuses.

When I was Chairperson of the HRC, I found that torture had become endemic to the police and its first resort with regard to investigation – especially at the local level. Luckily, due to pressure from within the police force and the international community, this is changing. We’re now seeing changes.

Q: You are the only woman in Sri Lanka to receive the title of ‘Deshamanya’. How do you feel about this? At the same time, what does this say about the position of women in Sri Lanka?

A: It is quite unacceptable that I am the only one. I thank President Chandrika Kumaratunga for the award, but I hope many more will be so appointed.

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