Human rights activists were cautiously celebrating last week, after an Indian court postponed the ill-founded and potentially unjust executions of three Tamil men for allegedly partaking in the murder of Rajiv Ghandi twenty years ago. Yet just across the water in Sri Lanka, decisions were being made that will condemn far more Tamils and bring even greater suffering to one of Asia’s most maligned ethnic groups.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa allowed Sri Lanka’s state of emergency to lapse, under pressure from the international community, ahead of next month’s UN Human Rights Council meeting, which is expected to discuss the War Crimes of his government during their conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But relief amongst campaigners was short lived: on the same day Rajapaksa implemented regulations under the Prevention of Terror Act (PTA) that will effectively continue the abuses stemming from the state of emergency, simply under a different name.
In practice this means that an undisclosed number of ‘suspected rebels’, thought to stand at as many as three thousand -many of them civilians whose only crime is being Tamil, will remain in detention without charge or trial. It represents a shocking back-track on promises that more than one thousand suspected or surrendered rebels would be released and signals a grim continuation of the post-civil war crackdown that began with the construction of concentration camps across Tamil Eelam in summer 2009.
Even more disturbingly, the PTA gives the President and Secretary of Defence extra powers to pass further oppressive regulations without the approval of Sri Lanka’s Parliament. These will not be subject to renewal in the same manner as the state of emergency, potentially resulting in a permanent and even less justifiable security regime.
More than two years after the LTTE was wiped out (along with tens of thousands of Tamil civilians) it is unacceptable than anyone is still in detention without a fair trial in a civilian court. The need to address this is all the more urgent considering that the Sri Lankan military has been categorically exposed as racist, brutal and frankly out of control. The same men who executed detainees, systematically utilised torture and murdered aid workers during the conflict are the same ones now holding Tamil prisoners on the basis of purely arbitrary legislation. The safety and wellbeing of those in detention must be protected.
It is therefore imperative that the upcoming Human Rights Council meeting addresses the present and the future, as well as the War Crimes of recent years. Brilliant investigative journalism such as Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, has already shamed the international community, which stood idly by during the final bloody stages of Rajapaksa’s onslaught. It will never be possible to truly make amends for this failure, but at least some damage can be repaired by concerted pressure for the immediate release of detainees held under the state of emergency and now the PTA; as well as genuine opposition to the continued suppression of the Tamil population through new and authoritarian regulations.
It is clear that Rajapaksa and his henchmen have no intention of ending their campaign of persecution. The Tamil people have experienced decades of conflict and abuse by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE; without a strong and immediate international challenge, their future is unlikely to be any brighter.