Sri Lanka’s government prosecuted a brutal military campaign from mid-2008 to spring 2009 to inflict a final defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eilam (LTTE / Tamil Tigers) after twenty-six years of war. Many thousands of civilians died amid the horrors of this last battle.
In the aftermath, the Colombo government corralled 280,000 Tamils who had fled from Tiger-controlled territory in forty-one “detention-camps”. Now it has announced that almost 130,000 of them are being let out, with the remaining 150,000 supposed to be released in 2010. The move is designed to suggest - to international as much as to domestic opinion - that the situation is being “normalised” and that there is no need for concern about continuing repression. The government faces widespread calls in the European Union to suspend Sri Lanka's “GSP+” status, which allows the country favourable access to EU markets; it hopes the releases will ease international pressure on its appalling human-rights record.
The camps are better described as concentration-camps, since they have been sites of prolonged incarceration of an overwhelmingly civilian population, punished for being Tamils and having lived under the LTTE. They undoubtedly include some Tigers supporters, but most of the civilians have committed no greater crime than to survive the twin horrors of the Tigers' oppressive rule – and their killing of all who tried to escape – and often indiscriminate bombardment by the Sri Lankan army. The conditions of these squalid settlements - including Menik Farm camp, which holds the vast majority of detainees - include gross overcrowding, limited supplies of food and clean water, and rudimentary medical facilities.
There are many reports of beatings, rape and prostitution involving the military who run the camps as well as government-allied militia. The minimal access of independent observers mean that these cannot be confirmed or their scale accurately estimated.
Sri Lanka has nominally independent judges and media. But it is a state where torture has long been common, independent journalists are murdered, and the major parties of the majority Sinhalese population share nationalist hostility to the minority Tamils. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is allowed into many camps, but not to irregular camps in which alleged former LTTE fighters are believed to be held. But no other international NGOs or any independent media can access the camps – or anywhere near the recently reoccupied parts of northern Sri Lanka. Amnesty International has been refused access to the country since 2008, despite seven requests for entry in that time.
An oppressive grip
In these circumstances the announcement that many Tamils are being released should be treated with caution. The former detainees will still have to report to the police so that their movements can be monitored - even though they are suspected of no crimes. The information that filters out suggests that early releases have involved dumping large numbers of people in urban centres, often hours away from the villages they lived in. Families that had been reunited in the camps (after separation during their initial flight) are sometimes being redivided.
Everywhere in the former LTTE-controlled region of northern Sri Lanka, the military retains an oppressive grip. There is no evidence of a proper resettlement programme to assist people to return to their homes; it is impossible to know how many people have houses or livelihoods to return to, or whether resettlement even involves return to home districts. The government's continuing refusal to allow media and NGO access clearly confirms that the situation is one which international observers would not tolerate.
Much is at stake in the next few months. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has called a presidential election for 26 January 2009; he faces a challenge from the man who commanded the army in the recent war, General Sarath Fonseka, who promises to “restore democracy”. But in the event that Fonseka topples Rajapaksa there will be little relief for the Tamils, who even in Colombo - hundreds of kilometres south of the war-zone - face arrest at roadblocks and attacks by militia.
There is little hope, moreover, of redress for the war victims from Sri Lanka's intimidated media and compromised judiciary (see Luther Uthayakumaran, “Sri Lanka: after war, justice”, 25 May 2009). The last attempt to achieve accountability for human-rights violations collapsed in April 2009; then, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) tasked with overseeing the latest presidential commission of inquiry (COI) into sixteen cases of serious violations terminated their mission, stating that the COI had not been able to investigate cases independently in accordance with international standards.
The world’s eye
Any future Sri Lankan government will be hoping in the coming months to consolidate the victory over the LTTE and - in the international arena - to deflect criticism of the state's war methods and detention policies. Israel has had to face the criticism of the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09 (the Goldstone report), commissioned by the UN’s Human Rights Council – yet Sri Lanka persuaded a pliant Human Rights Council to pass a supportive resolution. It is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC), so that criminal prosecutions are possible only in the national courts of other countries, if any of the latter can be persuaded to act under universal-jurisdiction prosecutions. With support for Sri Lanka from China and Russia and (as yet) no strong moves against it by the United States, Britain or France, it is highly unlikely that the United Nations Security Council will take action now when it failed to do so during the war.
Yet Sri Lanka's war claimed at least five times as many civilian lives as Israel's Gaza campaign; the conditions in its camps are more ghastly even than those in Gaza; and Tamils in the newly reconquered zones face a more total military occupation than most Palestinians.
This is the moment to campaign to hold Sri Lanka responsible. The abuse in the camps is not over, and the episode remains an international scandal. Government and military leaders should face international justice – as should the surviving leaders of the LTTE for their brutal treatment of civilians in the conflict. In the west, civilians must press their political leaders to initiate UN action and non-governmental organisations should consider establishing an unofficial international commission of enquiry to prepare the ground. Above all, those outside Sri Lanka should remember that the traumatised survivors - whether in the camps or outside - need support and assistance in rebuilding their lives, of a kind which Sri Lanka's government and armed forces are unlikely to provide.