The news that the Government of Sri Lanka is to close the internment camps where thousands of Tamils were illegally detained, following the end of the country’s civil war against the Tamil Tiger rebels six months ago, is testimony to the effect of international pressure.
The European Union backed the call by Judge Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for an independent, international investigation of war crimes allegations. And it threatened to withdraw Sri Lanka’s coveted membership of “GSP-plus”: the Generalised System of Preferences scheme that gives developing countries privileged trading access to EU member states.
The US State Department produced a lengthy report, detailing attacks on civilians during the war including some 158 incidents of shelling or bombing that could only have come from the government side: a record that is, the authors noted, likely to represent only a cross-section of the full picture since many will have gone unreported to the outside world.
When the International Monetary Fund voted on a package of soft loans to Sri Lanka, worth US$2 billion, earlier this year, the US took the unusual step of declaring publicly that it had abstained (voting is held in secret). The agreement is subject to quarterly review, so there are further opportunities for leverage.
In Australia, by contrast, official hand-wringing has been accompanied by a notable pusillanimity in following through with any form of action. Canberra has one of the two directorships for an Asia-Pacific group of countries on the IMF board, representing 3.4 per cent of the vote; it kept shtum about how it was used, so we must assume it voted in favour.
And Foreign Minister Stephen Smith went cap in hand to Colombo to ask for help in deterring Tamils from seeking refuge in Australia, after the arrival of a few boats had triggered the usual barrage of hysteria from right-wing politicians and media. Instead of governmental action, pressure has been applied through campaigning and lobbying from civil society, keeping a focus on so-called “push factors” that have seen asylum claims, from Tamils who have managed to reach Australia, being approved, at a rate of 95 per cent, in recent months.
More obvious guilty parties include Cuba, which sponsored the motion at the UN Human Rights Council, congratulating the government of Sri Lanka for its “victory”; a move that probably emboldened the Colombo authorities to believe they could get away with keeping the detainees for far longer than they otherwise would. The move dismayed many supporters of Cuba’s socialist government, including some in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Amarantha Visalakshi, an author and translator of books about Latin America, issued this response:
We here in Tamil Nadu celebrated the 80th birthday of Comrade Fidel by releasing eight books on Cuba’s achievements in various fields … and are in the midst of our preparation for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution …
We are struck dumb and rendered disheartened and disillusioned by this act [the HRC resolution] by those countries of Latin America on which we have pinned our hopes for the future - Socialism of the 21st century.
Why do these countries wish for wiping out the Tamils from the Sri Lankan soil where they rightfully belong? What are the sources of information for these Latin American countries to decide against the Tamils and in favour of the racist Sri Lankan government in the UN Human Rights Council?
Clearly, continued vigilance is necessary over what happens to those who’ve spent the last six months living in appalling camp conditions, traumatised by the events that drove them out of their homes in the first place. A report last week in the Washington Post raised concerns over the fate of those already released from incarceration.
“Facing pressure from the Obama administration and the European Union, the Sri Lankan government last month launched a campaign to resettle tens of thousands of the minority Tamil detainees”, wrote reporter Emily Wax. “But interviews in the country’s war-ravaged north reveal that many civilians have merely been shuffled from the large camps to smaller transit ones and are being held against their will. Others have been released, only to be taken from their homes days later with no indication of where they have gone”.
An informant in the port of Trincomalee, Devender Kumar, whose brother was released, only to be taken away by police without explanation, told Wax: “We thought this war was over. But for Tamils, it’s like going from the frying pan and into the fire.” There were 30 men in Trincomalee alone who had disappeared soon after their homecoming. A “senior US official”, quoted in the Post, praised the “sincere effort” to release people from the detention camps, but added the rider: “We have so far been unable to track where exactly they are going. We are hoping to see evidence soon that they have actually been resettled.” Wax reported seeing “fields of weeds where once rice and cashew were grown”.
Brami Jegan, a prominent civil society activist here in Sydney and co-convener of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Project at my own Centre at Sydney University, also drew attention, in an interview with public broadcaster ABC, to concerns over former internees still unaccounted for in their home communities: “Some of them are missing from the camps, they’ve just been taken away never to be seen again and some have been released. They haven’t been released back into the areas that they came from, which is the former conflicts area known as the Vanni, or the greater area known as the Vanni. They’re being released into areas that they weren’t previously living in”.