By Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka campaigner
A buzz of attention surrounds Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa’s visit to the UK. “Arrest Rajapaksa for war crimes” reads one banner brandished by a Tamil diaspora group keen to see Rajapaksa arrested under ‘universal jurisdiction’, the principle that allows war criminals to be arrested in any country. His appearance at Oxford University has been cancelled.
As Amnesty International calls on the United Nations to establish an independent international investigation to document the full extent of crimes committed during the final phase of the conflict, my thoughts go back to two earlier acts of violence.
Both sides in the Sri Lankan conflict that ended in May 2009 have been accused of atrocities.
In 1999 I was a research fellow attached to the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo. That year, one shocking event affecting the whole institution reminded me that the stench of violence was all too real, despite the authorities’ attempts to gloss over a bloody past: It was on 29 July 1999 that the Director of the ICES, Dr Neelan Thiruchelvan was assassinated on his way to the office.
In the previous weeks, MPs who belonged to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) had been threatened by the LTTE. It is widely believed that Dr Thiruchelvam, a TULF MP campaigning for constitutional reform, was killed by the LTTE for being a moderate.
Over the years both sides to the conflict have used labels to justify acts of violence against civilians.
On 14 August 2006 a Kfir airforce jet attack killed a group of young women in the district of Mullaitivu. The girls, from various schools in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts, were attending a two-day course on first aid at Sencholai when the air raid by the Sri Lankan air force took place. Despite claims from the Sri Lankan government that the site was an LTTE training camp, the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission who visited the site said they couldn’t find “any evidence of military installations or weapons.”
What shocks me about both these acts of violence is the immediate desire by the perpetrators to erase people as individuals. Dr Thiruchelvam was punished for being a moderate, a ‘traitor’ to the Tamil cause. In the Sencholai incident the government spokesman claimed the girls were Tiger trainees and therefore a legitimate target. He chose to forget the girls’ names or consider that they might themselves be victims if forcibly conscripted.
In the final months of the Sri Lankan war I wondered how a war reporter like Martha Gellhorn would have responded to the restrictions placed on media reporting in Sri Lanka. Gellhorn reported from Madrid when the destruction of Guernica became “the moment when indiscriminate bombing of civilians became an acceptable and terrifying tactic of war”. The Sri Lankan government made theirs a war without witnesses, by sealing off the combat zone to journalists during the final months, and deliberately underestimating the numbers of civilians trapped.
It was difficult for Amnesty to verify the horrifying reports we had of spiralling civilian casualties, or make sense of photos of body parts or children shaking from shell attacks. No war reporter was present to document the terrible scale of violence in the final weeks of war in the Vanni.
It is hard even now for me to think back on April and May last year without profound sadness. I have met families whose lives were ripped apart, their children mute from seeing an ocean of bodies. I want to know the names of the ordinary civilians killed; I want to remember their individuality. To me they are not just a label.
I’m proud to be a member of an international human rights movement that is calling for an independent international investigation into what happened in Sri Lanka. We need to recognise that unacceptable tragedies have occurred in Sri Lanka and that victims’ families have the right to truth. Neither President Rajapaksa nor the LTTE should be allowed to get away with amnesia. - courtesy: http://livewire.amnesty.org -