In recent weeks, the international community awoke from its slumber concerning the indignities and obscenities that have arisen during twenty-five years of conflict in Sri Lanka.
The attempt of the minority Tamil community to establish a Tamil homeland by armed force has been brought to an end. Overwhelming military force has achieved a military victory.
As the government troops advanced, the international community became increasingly concerned and increasingly vocal about the impact of the fighting on civilians. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, backed a call for United Nations humanitarian teams to gain access to the conflict zone. He also called for the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the process of evacuation from the conflict zone is open to monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. Most recently, he called for a political solution to prevent another generation turning to terrorism.
On 13 May 2009, the United Nations Security Council called for the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure the security of those displaced by the conflict and to cooperate with the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other international humanitarian organizations in providing humanitarian relief and access to them as soon as they leave the conflict zone. The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs called for camps of tens of thousands of internally displaced people, Tamil civilians from the areas of conflict, to be managed by civilian police (and not the army) including women police and police from the Tamil community. The Security Council called on the Sri Lankan government to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance by the international community.
On the same day, President Obama called on the Sri Lankan government to stop indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas including hospitals. He also called on the government to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to have access to more than 190,000 internal civilian refugees.
In the wake of the apparent end to fighting, United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, called for a process of healing and national reconciliation. He called for the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people and other minorities to be addressed. He called for full unconditional access to be provided for the United Nations and its partner organisations to all civilians.
The Secretary-General visited Sri Lanka, last weekend, touring Manik Farm, the country’s largest refugee camp and occupied by 220,000 people. He also visited a field hospital for wounded civilians. The Secretary-General also flew by helicopter over the final battle ground and met President Rajapaksa. Mr. Ban told the Sri Lankan President that the United Nations and other international humanitarian agencies needed immediate and unimpeded access to camps that are housing the internal refugees.
The behaviour of the Sri Lankan government over recent weeks and months does not encourage hopes that the international calls will be heeded without an intense effort by all nations with trade and other links to Sri Lanka. An International Commission of Jurists report dated 14 May described eye-witness accounts of government bombing of a two kilometre area designated by the government, itself, as a safe zone for civilians. The government shelled the Mullivaikal Hospital within the safe zone killing 68 patients on 2 May and 50 patients on 13 May.
The government has banned aid workers, journalists and United Nations officials from the conflict zone. On 9 May, two journalists from the UK Channel Four were expelled from the country for daring to report on appalling conditions within the camps in which the internal civilian refugees are confined including allegations of rape, enforced disappearance, ill-treatment, lack of food, water and medicine.
There are also discouraging signs from the Human Rights Council. The Council, an arm of the United Nations, should be at the forefront of ensuring accountability and respect for human rights principles. For two weeks, efforts to convene a special session to discuss the abuses taking place in Sri Lanka, failed to achieve the necessary 16 votes from the 47 nation membership cannot be assembled to cause such a meeting to take place. In a further report, on 18 May, the International Commission of Jurists has called on the Human Rights Council to “fulfill its mandate and to help ensure that human rights become a bedrock of peace and security”.
Belatedly, the Council is now meeting to address the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, “following a request by several of its members”.
The Sri Lankan government continues to resist the calls by the United Nations Secretary-General to provide unhindered access to the internal refugee camps. The excuse being given is a “need to weed out potential Tamil Tiger infiltrators”.
The Sri Lankan government has shown by its conduct, at least in the closing weeks of the civil war, and since, that it resents accountability and it resists transparency. It will not lightly give in to calls to allow access to its ugly secrets of the present and the past.
The government is likely to gamble that the reflected glory of a military victory will allow it to outlast any calls that it allow the United Nations; the Red Cross; other humanitarian non-government organisations; and journalists to the former conflict areas and the refugee camps where its displaced civilians are contained. It will seek to keep the ugly secrets of the past and the ongoing wrongs of the present away from the prying eyes of an international community.
The government will hope that the so-called need to “weed out potential Tamil Tiger infiltrators” will buy it at least a few more weeks by which time it will be more difficult for independent investigators to document what really happened in the closing weeks of the war.
The international community must respond by increasing and maintaining its pressure on the government of Sri Lanka. Governments of other nations, who put their own self-interest over the benefits of ensuring justice in Sri Lanka, must themselves face international pressure. Australia has an important role to play in these processes.
The world must do more for the internally displaced and the other victims of injustice in Sri Lanka than wake for a few moments; mumble a few platitudes; and, at the behest of President Rajapaksa, return to the slumber of indifference.