Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dear Friends,

It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the Asia Sentinel has published several of my articles. I attach two of them here for your reading pleasure:

President Rajapakse seeks to deflect criticism by pointing the finger at other countries

Stewart Sloan 13 June 2008

In January 2007, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, under pressure from human rights activists around the world, did what politicians always do when they want to pass the buck. He created a body with the cumbersome name of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights.

Known simply as the Commission, it was doomed from the very start, as numerous commissions of inquiry have been over decades in Sri Lanka, to investigate human rights abuses. None of them ever produced anything.

Rajapakse had the sense to realize that there was a credibility problem with this latest one, so to convince people of his good intentions he set up the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (the IIGEP). The IIGEP was a group made up of jurists from around the world, each a leading figure in his field. This group was given the job of overseeing the commission, making sure that it was doing what it was supposed to be doing and that everything was open, above-board and transparent.

The problems started almost immediately. None of the victims or their families wanted to give evidence before the commission for fear of possible retaliation by the perpetrators they might identify. The IIGEP raised the question of witness protection in one of their first interim statements. This annoyed the president immensely. No one had given them permission to issue reports, interim or otherwise. The government, through the Attorney General's Department, denied the validity of the IIGEP statement and that set the ball rolling for the jurists’ eventual departure, in April 2008.

Why did all this come about? There has been an international outcry about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka for decades. Rajapakse’s regime is not the first to ignore calls for accountability and an end to what appears to be state-sanctioned impunity. But what made it different for this regime was calls by the United Nations for a UN Monitoring Mission to be set up in the country. The response from the regime was that Sri Lanka was quite capable of handling its own human rights violations, thank you very much.

However, with the departure of the IIGEP and its damning condemnation of the commission, which included the statement that Sri Lanka didn’t appear to have the political will to investigate human rights abuses, the president’s claim that Sri Lanka could do the job appeared to be less than accurate.

Thus calls for a UN monitoring mission continue, as does the regime’s refusal to consider it. International condemnation by persons none other than Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and other notables continued and eventually led to Sri Lanka being forced out of the United Nations Human Rights Council, an organization the country had belonged to since its inception. And yet Sri Lanka continues to claim that it is capable of handling its own human rights problems.

There is of course the question of sovereignty. No country wants an independent international organisation peering into day-to-day goings-on and it does not help that several western countries are not so squeaky clean either. And, while no argument can excuse human rights abuses taking place with impunity, Sri Lanka’s statement that the international NGOs should take a look at the US, Great Britain and Australia before condemning Sri Lanka is perhaps valid. It simply does not help the international argument for human rights monitoring when a country like Pakistan allows the Americans to carry out renditions of Pakistani citizens, especially when very few voices are raised against it. Certainly the US, Great Britain and Australia have plenty to answer for in the past. The message is quite clear: clean up your own back yard before pointing the finger at us.

But the regime of President Rajapakse is missing one essential point. It does not matter who is carrying out renditions with impunity, it does not matter who is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of the war of terror, the fact is that human rights abuses and the protection of offending state agents is wrong and must be stopped. Whether this is done with the help of international monitors or by the Sri Lankan state itself does not matter. What matters is that it must be done, and done quickly.

Stewart Sloan is a Hong Kong-based human rights activist.

Civilians Become Cannon Fodder in Sri Lanka


Stewart Sloan

09 June 2008

More bombings take the lives of the innocent in a war without end

Murderous attacks on civilians in Sri Lanka appear to be on the increase with several bombings in the last few days in and around Colombo, the capital. The latest attack came last Friday and killed at least 21 people who were travelling on a bus. Twice that many were injured, the numbers including woman and children alike. The bomb itself was a claymore set on the side of the road and detonated by remote control as the bus passed by. The force of the explosion knocked the bus on its side.

Just a few days earlier another bombing injured 18 people travelling on a train. It was the second such bombing within a fortnight and in the previous incident nine people were killed and more than 80 were wounded.

So far an estimated 70,000 people have been killed since 1983 in one of the world’s longest-lasting and deadliest armed conflicts, although relations between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority had been tense since the British granted the island independence in 1948. Since 2006, in defiance of cease-fire agreements, as many as 200,000 people have been made refugees in their own country as the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fight for the creation of a separate Tamil state in the northeastern region of the country.

At one point, during the height of the conflict, as many as 1 million of the country’s 21 million people were refugees. Despite the signing of cease-fire in 2002, the conflict has continued at varying levels almost without cease. An estimated 4,000 people have died since it evolved again into open conflict in 2005. As many as 200,000 Tamils have simply left and sought refuge in the west and several hundred thousand more have moved to India, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The latest bombing, like the others, is suspected to have been the work of the LTTE. However, the question of who carried out the bombings is not the issue. The issue is that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces are killing and injuring innocent civilians in the name of the conflict and in violation of international law.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has made several recent statements in which he has said that victory is at hand in this 25-year-old conflict, which has claimed the lives of both military personnel and civilians. Unlike his predecessors, Rajapakse has refused to even consider the possibility of holding peace talks with the LTTE. And while both sides are claiming to be the victims of atrocities committed by the other, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict.

Reports of civilians being caught up in Sri Lankan Army air raids and shelling are either denied by the government or said to be exaggerated. However, the use of claymore land mines is not the exclusive right of the LTTE, who have complained frequently about the army using them against civilians in attempts to hit their soldiers.

Terrorism in any name is still terrorism; whether it is the army carrying out operations in which civilians are killed or injured or the LTTE hitting back at the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka has already stated categorically that the government will have nothing to do with UN human rights monitors in the country but this should not prevent the UN from making the effort to bring both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict to the negotiating table to prevent further needless death.

Earlier Friday another land mine was defused in Dehiwala. The 5 kg Claymore would certainly have caused more bloodshed and mayhem and no doubt, death and injury to more innocent civilians.

It is time to for both parties, the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to return to the negotiating table now. In the meantime, the bombing continues.

Stewart Sloan is a Hong Kong-based human rights activist.

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