SRI LANKA: Human Rights Day Statement: Killing match in Sri Lanka intensifies

The most violent place in Asia at the moment is Sri Lanka, with the state not taking any serious steps to bring the situation under control. The state blames the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for creating the violence throughout the country, while the LTTE blames the Sri Lankan government for using military and paramilitary means of violence. There is talk of “war” on both sides, but each claim to be acting out their operations under the pretext of a defensive military campaign. Such propaganda only manifests the absence of an agent to bring the violence under control. There has been fierce local and international criticism of abductions, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, as well as other serious crimes involving gross human rights violations.  In light of this, the president has appointed a commission that consists of a number of local persons and some people from the international community who are permitted to observe the government’s work. However, this initiative has failed to build confidence within the country and has damaged the government’s credibility at home and abroad.

The violence in Sri Lanka that has engulfed the country has been aggravated by the collapse of the rule of law for a considerable time. The policing system suffers from an institutional collapse, the judiciary is faced with a serious crises and the government lacks the capacity to carry out its normal functions of protection. Meanwhile, the enforcement of strict emergency regulations will only aggravate the situation while no local or international initiatives are in place to address the problems that are plaguing the country. Hardships on civilians in the North and East in particular have increased immensely.

The president has also acted in open defiance of the Constitution and the provision of the 17th Amendment that was adopted in 2001 to deal with the crisis of the rule of law. The Constitution does not grant any power to the president to abandon the implementation of any part of the Constitution. However, the courts of Sri Lanka have interpreted that the president is entitled to absolute impunity for acts and omissions under a blanket clause, both official and personal, as granted under Article 35(1) of the Constitution. Consequently, many judges have excluded themselves from adjudication relating to acts of the president. The Supreme Court, however, did hold the president’s signature to the optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as ultra vires. In short, the courts in recent years have minimised their role in protecting the rights of the people.

Some call the present crisis a civil war, while many others consider it to be the collapse of the system of governance and the rule of law caused by many factors. A consequence of this has been the incapacity to resolve the question of minorities, particularly the Tamils, within a democratic framework.

Whatever the explanation, there is a serious crisis in the country and the prevalence of catastrophic violence is undeniable. A killing match is taking place with no side having any respect for the rules.

Broadly speaking the causes of the present conflict can be described as follows:  Sri Lanka as a whole was under the total control of Britain from 1815 to 1947.  During this time the British remodeled the entire administration and deprived the previous ruling classes of any political power.  The king himself was exiled, where he later died, bringing an end to the monarchical system of rule which the country had had up until then.  In 1947 when Sri Lanka received independence, there was no ruling class left in the country.  The people who were to become prominent political leaders were from a class of citizens who had helped the British administration.  They were not a ruling class; at best their skills were administrative.  It is also an undisputed fact that Sri Lanka did not have an independence struggle like they had in India.  A political leadership was therefore not created through a similar struggle as that of the leadership in India.  Thus, in 1947 when Sri Lanka became self-ruling it did not have any experience in governing a nation.

In 1931 adult franchise was introduced in Sri Lanka and it was said that this was the first time this had been introduced outside a developed country.  This was the first occasion when local people began to acquire a say in their country affairs.  The suppression of expression for over a century had left many grievances of citizens being left unexpressed.  During the period following 1931, different groups began to express the problems that they faced.  The characteristic of this time was that instead of having national common grievances, many different communities asserted their own personal group struggles.  Naturally, among the group grievances was the issue of ethnicity, causing the minority issue to rapidly surface.  The demands for making Sinhala the national language on the one hand and Sinhala and Tamil on a 50/50 basis also arose during this time.  In the period between 1931 and 1947, the British could not resolve the problems and left the conflict to be dealt with by the new inexperienced government.  However, these political leaders did not have much time to resolve these difficulties rationally and soon after independence ethnic forces on all sides became too powerful to be brought under the government’s democratic control.  Over time these forces pushed their group struggles in a manner that has undermined democracy as a whole.

The period between 1947 and 1977 was marked by these intense internal clashes which had yet to develop into an armed conflict.  The government that came into power in 1977 introduced an authoritarian model of rule thereby displacing even the basic structure of democracy that was introduced in 1947.  Besides this, the government also nakedly and ruthlessly unleashed the forces of globalisation into the national economy, thereby aggravating the already deep internal conflicts.  On top of this, the new government used ruthless military force in the north and east with a view to crushing the militant Tamil movements.  The ferocity of these attacks generated an equally ferocious retaliation by militant groups who became armed and militarily prepared for a prolonged battle.  Part of the country virtually became outside the control of the state.  These territories have become strongholds for the military struggles.

Despite temporary ceasefires this militarized conflict goes on.  The government at the top is unable to control or bring about a peaceful solution to the matter.  The government is fighting through the military and paramilitary forces including a faction from the Tamil minority itself.  The government and the LTTE remain opposed to any external intervention such as a brokered settlement to the conflict by a UN peacekeeping force. What has been left is an intense killing match with all sides to the conflict believing that that is the only alternative left and that they will prevail in the end. What this would mean in terms of costs to human life, other forms of suffering imposed on civilians and the material costs seem to be treated as a matter of no concern.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-307-2006
Countries : Sri Lanka,