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Sri Lanka: Humanitarian Crisis, Democratization, Political Solution

by Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, 27 February 2009

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For Immediate Release

27 February 2009

SLDF Calls for Immediate Measures to Address Humanitarian Crisis:

Peace and Justice are Dependent on Democratization and a Political Solution

The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka continues to deepen as tens of
thousands of civilians remain trapped between the LTTE, in the final
stages of its military defeat, and the advancing security forces. The
safety of civilians is of paramount importance: too many have lost their
lives while others continue to suffer from the devastation and
displacement of war. An entire generation of youth has been decimated by
the war effort on both sides. The LTTE has sacrificed vast numbers of
Tamil youth as cannon fodder, many of whom were forcibly recruited for a
war they did not choose. And the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has lured
thousands of Sinhala youth from economically marginalized villages to
fight its so-called “patriotic war”, concealing the high casualties that
have been suffered by their families. Generations of youth, from all
communities in Sri Lanka, have paid with their lives for successive
governments’ lack of vision and leadership. Indeed, the war ultimately
stems from the unwillingness and inability of political leaders to work
towards a political solution, to abandon Sinhala majoritarianism, and to
address the grievances and aspirations of minorities in Sri Lanka.

The Humanitarian Situation

The severe humanitarian situation requires the attention of multiple
actors to apply pressure on both parties and to provide immediate
assistance and monitoring on the ground. Furthermore, civilians’
predicament should not be taken advantage of by any narrow political
concerns. The safe evacuation of trapped civilians; the care and
supervision of IDP camps; the surrender or capture of LTTE cadres and
their subsequent rehabilitation; the longterm rehabilitation and
resettlement of IDPs; and, the longterm compensation for general victims
of the war from all communities are all issues that need attention and
action.

The LTTE

The LTTE should immediately allow the free movement of civilians. The
LTTE has callously used civilians for its own purposes over the last few
decades, and this disregard for their welfare is most evident now, when it
holds civilians hostage and shoots at those attempting to flee. Pressure
should be brought to bear on the LTTE to immediately end the practice of
forced recruitment and firing from or near civilians; indeed, some of
these practices are war crimes.

The LTTE has made a belated offer of a ceasefire. It has unilaterally
broken several previous ceasefires, thereby undermining attempts at
negotiations with successive governments. A ceasefire must prioritize
saving the lives of the trapped civilians and also combatants on both
sides of the divide. While the LTTE’s good faith commitment to a
ceasefire may be suspect, a pause in the exchange of fire between the
warring parties will be useful for saving the trapped civilian population.
Moreover, any cessation of hostilities should be coupled with pressure on
the LTTE to permit the UNHCR, UNICEF and ICRC to enter LTTE-controlled
areas so that they may ascertain the number of civilians, examine the
conditions in which they are living, estimate the care and supplies needed
for their maintenance, evacuate those who are in need of medical
attention, and enable those who want to exercise their right to freedom of
movement to do so.

The Government of Sri Lanka

The security forces have indiscriminately killed and maimed thousands of
innocent civilians, targeting places such as hospitals, schools, and
places of worship. There is disturbing evidence that war crimes have been
committed with impunity by the security forces.

Those civilians that fled LTTE-controlled territories are now being held
in government controlled “welfare camps”, where civilians are indefinitely
interned with no freedom of movement, access to health care, and other
basic supplies. There is a history of human rights abuses in such
“welfare camps”. In order to ensure the rights of such civilians and in
the interest of timely resettlement, these camps should immediately be
brought under the supervision of the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees (UNHCR). In addition, the GOSL should conduct security
screenings of interned civilians as expeditiously as possible with a view
towards their resettlement, and in the presence of the ICRC.

The GOSL must promptly begin planning for resettlement, and must heed the
wishes of the civilian population who have suffered huge loss and trauma
these past months. These civilians should be resettled in their former
places of residence or allowed to join their relatives in other areas if
they so wish. Moreover, the GOSL must prioritise the rebuilding of homes
and the reconstitution of civilains’livelihoods. Finally, it is
imperative that the GOSL not use resettlement to manipulate the
demographic balance of areas through maintaining and prolonging
displacement, or through resettling people in places against their wishes.
The GOSL should adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Internal
Displacement in both its treatment, and eventual resettlement, of those
displaced by war.

It is well established that many of the cadres in the LTTE were forcibly
recruited. The government should take great care to set up facilities and
dedicate resources to rehabilitate LTTE cadres who surrender to the Army.
These cadres should be treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva
Conventions, and all efforts should be taken to rehabilitate them to lead
meaningful lives within mainstream society.

Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu

Given the plight of civilians, there is understandable distress in both
the Tamil diaspora and Tamil Nadu. Many in the Tamil diaspora have
relatives who are trapped in the LTTE controlled areas or who have been
displaced. Those truly concerned about civilian lives and welfare must
emphasize the distinction between civilian safety and the LTTE’s future
survival. It is irresponsible to use civilian suffering to legitimize the
LTTE or indeed to strengthen the LTTE. Tamils outside Sri Lanka should
use their influence to pressure the LTTE to allow free movement of
civilians and grant them safe passage out of the areas under their
control. Moreover, if the Tamil diaspora is serious about peace in Sri
Lanka, it should push for the demilitarization of all armed actors, and
work constructively towards an inclusive political process to bring about
a far reaching political settlement that will address the aspirations of
minorities within a united Sri Lanka.

UN and other International Actors

SLDF calls on the UN and its institutions to intensify their pressure on
the GOSL to allow all IDP camps and other rehabilitation efforts to come
under the auspices of the UNHCR with support from the ICRC. Given the
deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, we demand that greater
attention be paid to this crisis at all appropriate UN forums, including
the Human Rights Council and Security Council.

The Rajapakse Government and Political Concerns

The acute crisis facing Tamil civilians in the Vanni and their distress
has justifiably gained international attention. The government’s single
minded pursuit of a military victory regardless has led to callous
disregard for the safety of civilian life. However, the heart of the
problem remains the absence of any meaningful progress towards achieving a
political solution. The Rajapakse government has given Sinhala Buddhist
nationalism a fresh lease of life by giving chauvinist forces primacy in
the glorification of the war effort. Military personalities have been
allowed to make political statements and this has contributed to the
polarization of all communities, including not only the Sinhala and Tamil
communities, but also the Muslims and Up-Country Tamils. The Rajapkse
regime, including the top military brass, have become the spokespeople for
Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the country.

The Rajapakse regime is in the process of entrenching an authoritarian
oligarchy which has capitalized on the political dividends of its military
gains, and used that to suppress dissent in the South. This has reached
new levels resulting in a systematic and brutal bid to eliminate the free
media and silence anyone else who seeks to criticize the war effort, raise
human rights concerns, challenge its authoritarianism, or expose the
heightened levels of corruption in government.

The Way Forward through Democratization and a Political Solution

The issue of democratization in Sri Lanka is inextricably linked to
achieving a lasting and sustainable political solution to the problems
faced by the minorities. It is imperative that the GOSL is pressured into
initiating an inclusive political process and address its problematic
relationship with the minorities. A long-term political solution should
build on the devolution debate that has endured over the last two decades
and should seek to bring about far reaching devolution of power to the
regions and power-sharing at the centre. Such a political solution should
go beyond the 13th Amendment, guaranteeing substantial devolution that
gives adequate financial and executive muscle to the local bodies with
clearly demarcated powers to the minorities while integrating their
concerns at the centre.

This question of a political solution is also a problem of democratization
in Sri Lanka. Linked to this are the problems of the concentration of
powers in the executive presidency, politicization of the bureaucracy and
the judiciary, and more generally, the very structure of the unitary
state. The refusal to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution,
by not convening the Constitutional Council responsible for the
institutions of democratic governance, is a symptom of the malaise of
authoritarianism in the country. Democratization would also necessarily
mean the demilitarization of all actors; that is both the complete
disarmament of all armed actors and the downsizing of the security forces.

At this urgent hour, with a deepening humanitarian catastrophe, the
humanitarian concerns should be addressed with the immediacy that they
require. However, there is a political background to the situation that
has evolved and only a political solution and democratization can reverse
the deteriorating political climate in the country. The people of Sri
Lanka have suffered much as a result of the protracted war and its
problematic history, and deserve a just and inclusive political process.
If the Rajapakse regime is unwilling to change its course, it should be
challenged by all actors concerned about peace and justice in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Democracy Forum
- SLDF Statements are drafted by its twenty member Steering Committee.

For Media Queries Only Contact: spokespersons at lankademocracy.org
- SLDF Spokespersons: Rengan Devarajan and Ahilan Kadirgamar

— 
Sri Lanka Democracy Forum
- www.lankademocracy.org