The government of Sri Lanka has been embarrassed over its human rights record by a call for a boycott campaign being run by respected Australian sports writer Trevor Grant. Grant has been using the Sri Lanka cricket team’s current tour of Australia to highlight what the UN believes were war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in 2009 and a subsequent campaign of human rights abuse against the country’s Tamil minority.
The campaign is the first politically driven proposed boycott of sports in Australia since the anti-apartheid boycotts of South African sporting teams in the 1970s and ’80s.
While touring Australia, the Sri Lankan cricket team, self-proclaimed ambassadors for their country, have been touting a holiday resort on their country’s north-east coast. Grant says the military built-and-run resort is situated at the site where some 40,000 Tamil non-combatant men, women and children died at the hands of the Sri Lanka military.
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A UN investigation into the massacre concluded the Sri Lanka government had been responsible for “a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law … some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”. The panel was also critical of the Tamil Tigers on this score. But the responsible Tamil Tigers were all killed, many being extra-judicially killed after having surrendered.
The call for a boycott comes as there is growing pressure for the Australian government to follow the Canadian government’s decision to boycott the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. “Australia has taken a stand on the failure of democracy in Zimbabwe and Fiji,” Grant said, “yet the situation in Sri Lanka is infinitely worse.”
To date, the Australian government has deepened relations with the Sri Lanka government, including sharing intelligence on Sri Lankan asylum seekers. The warming relationship has come despite evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and Sri Lanka increasingly distancing itself from conventional democratic norms. The Bishop of Colombo, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, has just publicly lamented what he says is the death of Sri Lanka’s constitutional democracy.
This follows the sacking by the government of the country’s Supreme Court chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake. The move was later rejected by a full bench of the Supreme Court, but has been maintained. There are also increasing restrictions on Sri Lanka’s media. Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, which is run by journalists who have fled the country, has documented the murder or disappearance of 39 media workers since 2004.
While Grant is concerned about what he describes as Sri Lanka’s slide into militarised authoritarianism, he says the new resort development at a site where “survivors waded through the neck-high water, passing floating corpses and dodging bullets” perfectly illustrated the reasons for the call for the sporting boycott.
“On the other side of the lagoon from the hotel being touted by Sri Lanka’s cricketers lies a sandy spit of land, which is considered Sri Lanka’s killing fields,” Grant said. He says that visitors to the resort are being offered guided tours of the site of the mass slaughter.
Sri Lanka’s government is furious at having its human rights record paraded at what is intended to be a sporting event cum public relations campaign. Sri Lanka’s envoy to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, has denied Grant’s claims about a government massacre of Tamil civilians, despite the claim being supported by the UN.
However, with the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, recently appointing a new panel of inquiry following the UN’s failure to stop the 2009 Sri Lanka massacre, the issue looks set to dog the Sri Lanka government beyond the cricket pitch and into the halls of the forthcoming CHOGM.