August 26, 2009

The problem with running a disingenuous military campaign is that victory is never as sweet as it should have been. In a world on alert against bombings and gunmen randomly attacking civilians, the Sri Lankan government had expected to be congratulated for concluding the twenty-six-year civil war on the island by defeating one of the world's most abusive armed groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

It is hard to mourn the passing of a group that pioneered suicide-bombings, murdered Tamils who opposed Tiger tactics, and ran a near-totalitarian state-within-a-state. The evil of the Tiger leadership was never more evident than in the final days of the conflict when Tiger forces shot Tamil civilians attempting to flee the fighting and heavy government shelling.

Yet the celebrations in Sri Lanka were very one-sided, with even Tamils who opposed the LTTE wary about what the government has in store for them (see Robert D Kaplan, "Buddha's Savage Peace", Atlantic Monthly, September 2009). Many in the international community, while pleased at the end of a long-running and brutal conflict, remain concerned about the violations of the laws of war that paved the way to victory; they are also worried about the authoritarian behaviour of the Colombo government, which includes continuing intimidation of the media and human-rights defenders and expulsion of foreign journalists and aid workers deemed critical of the government.

Colombo's evasion

Perhaps the biggest blight on military victory is the way in which Tamils displaced by the fighting have been treated. More than 260,000 Tamil civilians are now in detention camps for what the government calls security reasons. Instead of breathing freedom now that they are out of the clutches of the LTTE, people who suffered the horrors of a brutal conflict are essentially prisoners in their own country.

The government claims it needs time to filter out LTTE members who may have escaped with the civilians. At least 10,000 alleged LTTE fighters are believed to have been removed from the camps and separately detained. Only a few thousand of the displaced have been released and allowed to return home or to stay elsewhere. But many of the camp residents have relatives, including close family members, with whom they can live if they are allowed to leave. Humanitarian organisations have long advocated the release of the displaced from the camps; they have been ignored.

There are genuine concerns that many of the villages where these people lived are heavily mined and badly damaged, making it unsafe for them to return until the areas have been cleared and rebuilt. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is seeking international assistance to run the camps. The United Nations has called for $270 million in aid to Sri Lanka. In July 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka that was held up for several months because of international concerns regarding the treatment of the displaced. The Indian government has committed a million dollars in its annual budget to assist Sri Lanka in rehabilitation and reconstruction of the northern war-zone.

Now heavy rains have led to flooding in the sprawling camps, unnecessarily putting camp residents at risk. Oddly, the minister of resettlement and disaster management told the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror that he held United Nations agencies responsible for the flooded camps, saying "(The) Government cannot be blamed for the poor condition of the drainage systems which burst and failed."  

This evasion of responsibility is not surprising. The Sri Lankan government had first refused to admit that the civilians being held hostage by the LTTE numbered several hundred thousand, instead making claims that only a few were at risk from the heavy fighting. Then the government insisted that it was respecting its self-declared no-fire safe zone to protect civilians. But satellite images and accounts by witnesses made it clear that civilians instead suffered a continual barrage of military shelling. The Sri Lankan government also claimed that hardly any civilians had died in the final weeks of the fighting; but United Nations figures and personal accounts indicate that several thousand were killed. Some government officials still make the ludicrous claim that the not a single civilian was killed by the Sri Lankan army (see War on the Displaced: Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni, Human Rights Watch, February 2009).

The people's right

Thus when the government doctors who had earlier sent out anguished messages to the world reporting heavy civilian casualties came out from weeks of largely incommunicado detention to repudiate their own accounts, claiming that they had made their reports under pressure from the LTTE, it raised more questions than it answered. There are reasonable suspicions that the retractions were made under pressure from the government, which has accused the doctors of supporting the LTTE and has threatened them with criminal prosecution.

One reason the government has held so many people in detention camps is that tens of thousands of civilians who were in the conflict zone may be able to corroborate the doctors' reports. The Sri Lankan government's denial of access to the camps to independent journalists and human-rights workers creates suspicions that the government has much to hide.

Foreign assistance is clearly needed both to help those who have been displaced now and to help rebuild. But the aid should be given on the understanding that humanitarian aid principles and human-rights standards are met. The 260,000 civilians in the camps should be free to leave if they want to and stay with family, friends or charities. Freedom of speech should be restored to people who didn't have such freedoms while living under LTTE rule. The government needs to stop running the clike prisons and allow aid workers and independent observers full access.

Sri Lankans want lasting peace. But to reassure its Tamil citizens that this is possible, Colombo needs to end its mistreatment of Tamils displaced by the war and allow an independent international inquiry into the conduct of the fighting by the LTTE and government forces. Until this happens, there can be no real victory.

Meenakshi Ganguly is senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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