Sep 23 2007
Could you imagine if your high-school age son was shot by the army while hanging out with his friends at the beach? Could you imagine if your daughter was walking to her aunt’s house and was found the next day, raped and dead in a well just walking-distance from a navy base? What if your brother or sister was one of 17 aid workers found shot in the head in an area surrounded by army camps? What if your teen-age daughter was one of 61 girls who were killed in a government air strike while receiving first-aid training?
Tamil families in Sri Lanka do not have to imagine this, they are living it. There are countless unheard stories similar to these that I encountered first-hand while working for a local human rights organization in Northeast Sri Lanka. During my one year of service in the Northeast, I crossed paths with too many families who have lost loved ones through attacks by the army and government-backed paramilitaries. I soon learned that these incidents of killings and abductions by the Sri Lankan armed forces were a repetition of events for Tamils. They have endured government war crimes for more than 30 years, and only a few years worth of incidents are being publicized.
Foreign governments perpetuate and implicitly condone the Sri Lanka government’s human rights abuses by providing military assistance. The U.S. must know that its military assistance to Sri Lanka is also fueling these human rights abuses.
The Sri Lankan government claims that it must halt a Tamil struggle for equality and self-determination by implementing a “war on terror.” Except this “war on terror” has claimed many Tamil civilian lives. How many? While I was there, monthly tolls would range from 60 to 100 civilians, which amounted to nearly 4,000 civilians in the past two years, as Amnesty International reports.
I had the opportunity to visit girls in a local hospital days after they survived a government aerial bombing of their school. At the time of the bombing, hundreds of girls were taking a first-aid training. Sixty-one girls were instantly killed. The government quickly plays the “war on terror” card and suddenly the 61 schools girls are terrorists in training. However, ceasefire monitors and UNICEF officials reported that there was no evidence the area bombed was a military installation.
This incident and other killings prompted a team of international observers to monitor a presidential commission to investigate human rights abuses. However, just this week, this international team (one of whom is an American) stated, “the investigation and inquiry process to date fails to comply effectively with international norms and standards.” In other words, the Sri Lankan government’s human rights abuses (under the guise of war on terror) are going uninvestigated and continuing with impunity.
The Sri Lankan government seems to have hit all the human rights violations, including the blockade of humanitarian aid to the Northeast. This blockade is not only preventing aid for the recent displacement, but also prevents post-tsunami aid. So far, the Tamils in the Northeast have not received much of the tsunami aid donated by foreign governments and relief agencies. One example is a U.S-registered agency, Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), to which Americans donated generously. The Sri Lankan government keeps a lockdown on TRO funds for over one year without explanation. Meanwhile almost every tsunami-hit home is rebuilt in the island’s South.
How can these human rights abuses be addressed? I join my fellow advocates in supporting the passage of a small, but important, section of the State, Foreign Operations bill that calls for restrictions on U.S. military assistance to the Sri Lankan government. The bill was recently passed by Senate and awaits passage by the House. It includes significant language that, if passed by the House, would halt U.S. military assistance until the Sri Lankan government improves its human rights record. This is an opportunity for the U.S. government to take a leading role in ending human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
*EDITORIAL* In Our Opinion