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Sri Lanka government must not ignore Tamils in camps

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Commenting in The Jakarta Post, Lakhdar Brahimi and Edward Mortimer reflect on the end to the conflict in Sri Lanka and examine the conditions which must be fulfilled before the country can move towards a sustained peace.

It is now three months since Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared the country "liberated" from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels after a 26-year war.

He said then that he wanted to settle most of the displaced Tamil civilians within 180 days - but today, with more than half that time elapsed, nearly 300,000 are still being held in "internment camps," to which the media and humanitarian organisations have virtually no access.

One person who was able to visit some of them in May was UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He said: "I have travelled round the world and visited similar places, but these are by far the most appalling scenes I have seen..."

In mid-August, these camps were flooded by downpours which, according to The New York Times, "sent rivers of muck cascading between tightly packed rows of flimsy shelters, overflowed latrines and sent hundreds of families scurrying for higher ground."

"We all knew that the monsoon rain would come," says Nimalka Fernando, a Sri Lankan human rights activist and lawyer. "Many alerted the authorities. The government should have evacuated the displaced people earlier. It is terrible now. I am not sure whether the authorities can handle these conditions. Who can bear their children getting sick?"

Moreover, there is no public list of those being held in the camps, and many families do not know whether their loved ones are alive or dead.

The brutal and violent methods used by the LTTE during the conflict are beyond dispute. But while it was going on the government claimed to draw a distinction between LTTE fighters and the law-abiding Tamil population, whose genuine political grievances it would address once the "terrorists" had been defeated.

So far, nothing like that has happened. Although it has screened out those it believes were LTTE cadres and sent them to separate camps, the government repeatedly extends its own deadline for releasing the civilians who are still in the main camps.

People who question this inside Sri Lanka, like Fernando, are accused of being traitors in the pay of "the LTTE diaspora," while outsiders are accused of using humanitarian concerns as an excuse for neo-imperialist intervention. Sri Lankan journalists who criticised the government have been arrested, beaten and in some cases murdered in broad daylight, while many more have fled the country. Foreign journalists have been kicked out, and Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not allowed in.

In the last weeks of fighting an estimated 20,000 civilians lost their lives. Government forces are accused of shelling Tamil civilians and killing people who tried to surrender.

The LTTE are charged with using civilians as human shields, forcibly recruiting them as fighters and shooting those who tried to flee. There are rumours of mass graves but no independent observer has been allowed into the war zones to investigate. The government claims to have won the "war on terror" within its own frontiers, and denies the right of countries that have been less successful to question its methods.

As one of the five "Colombo Powers" which organised the historic Bandung Conference in 1955, and a leading member of the Nonaligned Movement, Sri Lanka was, for many decades, a responsible democracy, even a model member of the international community. Surely, the people of Sri Lanka do not want to compromise that enviable status, and with it their good standing in the main groups that represent the developing world.

Friends of Sri Lanka the world over, especially in the developing world, do not understand why Rajapaksa chose Myanmar as the first country to visit after winning the war. They were concerned to read, on the government's own website, that one reason for this choice was that "the (Myanmar) generals are increasingly finding it difficult to contain insurgent groups in the country's northern frontier and are willing to learn some fresh lessons from President Mahindra Rajapaksa on how to defeat the enemy."

That is not what the international community in general, and the developing world in particular, wishes to learn from Sri Lanka. Rather, friends of Sri Lanka were - and still are - expecting the country to be faithful to its democratic tradition and act on Rajapaksa's promises that the rights of minorities would be respected, that the displaced would be helped to return home, and that prisoners would be treated humanely.

We do not believe that most people in Sri Lanka agree with what some are saying in Colombo to the effect that developing country governments can best deal with internal opposition by crushing it ruthlessly and treating any advice to respect universal principles of human rights and humanitarian law (which Sri Lanka agreed to uphold when it signed and ratified many treaties and conventions) as hypocritical.

Sadly, the government's willingness to ignore these principles has met with very little international resistance. Even the United States, which has urged the rapid release of all civilians and deplored the government's slow timetable on political reform, is simultaneously encouraging US investors to "make Sri Lanka your next business stop."

This puts a heavy responsibility on all who are close to Sri Lanka's ruling elite and on Asia's key powers - India, Japan and China - which have been staunch supporters of the Rajapaksa government and have channelled large sums of money in its direction (much of it, recently, for humanitarian purposes). It is time for the people of these countries to insist on a full account of how their money is being spent, and for their governments to say clearly that further economic and political support will depend on the following conditions being fulfilled:

  1. The United Nations, international Red Cross and voluntary agencies must be given full and unhindered access to care for and protect the civilians in the camps, and then help them return to wherever in their own country they choose to live.
  2. A list of all those still alive and in custody should be published, so that families can stop searching for loved ones who are dead.
  3. Any who continue to be detained as alleged LTTE combatants must be treated in accordance with the provisions of international law, and urgently given access to legal representation.
  4. Accountability processes must be established to ensure that international aid is not diverted to purposes other than those for which it was given.
  5. The Sri Lankan government should invite regional and international specialists in conflict reconciliation to help rebuild lives and communities.
  6. Sri Lanka should request or accept a full UN investigation into war crimes committed by all parties during the war.

The government has won the war, and the world shares the feeling of relief visible among Sri Lanka's people. It remains for them to win the peace, and the rest of the world must help. That is the purpose of the demands listed above. World leaders as well as public opinion must insist on them, not only for the benefit of Tamils in general and the detainees in particular, but also for the hopes of democracy and human rights throughout Sri Lanka, and beyond. Peace won by the brutal humiliation of a people is rarely secure.

Lakhdar Brahimi is a former foreign minister of Algeria and UN special envoy. Edward Mortimer is senior vice president of the Salzburg Global Seminar and formerly chief speechwriter for former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Both are members of the Advisory Council of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice.

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