Discriminatory Policy Will Fuel Ethnic Tensions
June 9, 2007
Nothing could be more inflammatory in Sri Lanka’s polarized climate than identifying people by ethnicity and kicking them out of the capital. The government has every right to take action against individuals who are reasonably suspected of committing a crime, and to take security measures when there are threats to the public. But that doesn’t mean it can arbitrarily discriminate against a whole group of people.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The Sri Lankan government’s expulsion of Tamils from Colombo due to “security considerations” is blatantly discriminatory and will further fuel the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 1, 2007 Colombo Police Inspector-General Victor Perera told reporters, “Those who are loitering in Colombo will be sent home. We will give them transport.” On June 7, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense said that 376 Tamil persons, including 85 women, were asked to leave for their homes in Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Jaffna and Trincomalee because they could not provide “valid reasons” for being in Colombo. They were rounded up during overnight police raids on budget hotels, put into buses and sent out of the capital to their home towns in northeastern Sri Lanka. According to media reports, thousands more Tamils from the north and east have been asked to leave Colombo if they do not have the permits required to travel to and remain in the city.

“Nothing could be more inflammatory in Sri Lanka’s polarized climate than identifying people by ethnicity and kicking them out of the capital,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has every right to take action against individuals who are reasonably suspected of committing a crime, and to take security measures when there are threats to the public. But that doesn’t mean it can arbitrarily discriminate against a whole group of people.”

The crackdown, according to the police, is to stop members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from infiltrating Colombo and carrying out bomb attacks. The LTTE has been held responsible for a number of attacks, including suicide bombings, in the city during two decades of conflict and recently claimed responsibility for two bomb attacks that killed nine, most of them civilians.

Citizens from the north and east, where Tamils are in the majority, are required to obtain a pass to travel to the rest of the country and specify for how long they will stay. This permit system was restored after the collapse last year of a ceasefire signed in 2002 between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The renewed hostilities have displaced tens of thousands and claimed more than 4,000 lives. More than 70,000 people have been killed since an armed conflict over a separate Tamil homeland broke out two decades ago.

The director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation in Jaffna, Father J.J. Bernard, told Human Rights Watch he fears this crackdown is part of “a long-term plan of the government to conduct ethnic cleansing in Colombo.” Tamil parliamentarians also lodged their protest in parliament against the evictions.

Sri Lanka is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of movement and choice of residence to all lawfully within a state. Sri Lanka’s own constitution provides the same guarantee. While this right may be restricted to protect national security, restrictions must be lawful and consistent with the other protected rights. Policies which are arbitrary and discriminatory are not permitted or legitimate restrictions under international law.

Since the outbreak of open conflict between the state and the LTTE in the 1980s, ordinary civilians have borne the brunt of such attacks by both sides. In the 1990s, the LTTE evicted thousands of minority Muslims from the northern peninsula of Jaffna. The Sri Lankan government has routinely singled out Tamils living in Colombo and asked them to justify their presence in Colombo. However, this is the first time since the 2002 ceasefire agreement that the government has carried out a large-scale eviction process of Tamils from the capital.

“The Tamil Tigers have carried out terrorist acts in Colombo and elsewhere,” said Adams. “But Tamil Tiger crimes don’t give the government the right to engage in collective punishment. By evicting thousands of Tamils, the Sri Lankan government is sending the dangerous message that it views most of its Tamil citizens as a threat to security.”

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