The Mayor of Toronto has said that only an independent mechanism with international can deliver justice to the Tamil people.
Writing in the Toronto Star on his recent visit to the Northern Province, Mayor John Tory, also commented on the “extraordinary military presence” in the North, adding “when you ask, you are told most of these bases are located on land forcibly taken from Tamil citizens,” and that “this unilateral use of formerly privately owned land, combined with the suffocating military presence itself, causes immense anxiety on the part of the people of northern Sri Lanka and impairs the healing process.”
See the Mayor’s full op-ed published below.
Originally published on thestar.com
Those who know members of our community from Sri Lanka in Toronto will know they are enterprising, successful, engaging people. Good citizens, good neighbours and good friends.
You probably know a lot less about their home country and how many of them, mostly Tamil, came to be here in Toronto.
In fact, many were either escaping or just getting away from a lengthy and tragic civil war in Sri Lanka — a war with many chapters over many decades.
It was within that context that I recently visited Sri Lanka along with Councillors Michael Thompson and Neethan Shan, the first Tamil Canadian elected to Toronto City Council.
I had been in Sri Lanka 10 years ago but was basically prohibited from going to the north of that beautiful country as it was at the time a war zone.
But with hostilities having ceased a few years ago, I was able to go to Jaffna and other communities in the north on this visit and I came away with a much better understanding of what will be required if the Tamil people are to have healing and justice.
One of the first things that strikes you as you travel the north is the extraordinary military presence. Every couple of miles there is a military base, far in excess of what you would expect to see in even a highly militarized democratic country.
When you ask, you are told most of these bases are located on land forcibly taken from Tamil citizens and that, taken together, they represent a military presence of one soldier for every three Tamil citizens.
Needless to say, this unilateral use of formerly privately owned land, combined with the suffocating military presence itself, causes immense anxiety on the part of the people of northern Sri Lanka and impairs the healing process.
There is no memorial or monument for the Tamil community in the Northern Province to remember their loved ones who were lost during the civil war.
The Tamil community has created a makeshift memorial at Mullivaikal, the land where the last phase of the civil war took place. The United Nations estimates that 40,000 lives were lost during this last phase. It was extremely moving for me to light a lamp, lay flowers and have a moment of reflection at this memorial.
While I was there, quiet protests were taking place and one in particular was very moving. It consisted of a group of middle aged women, protesting outside government offices, holding pictures of young men.
When I spoke with them, I realized these pictures were of their sons and grandsons. Many had received reports of these young men being taken away in the latter stages of the war, but they hadn’t been seen or heard from since.
Think about it. Your child, rounded up years ago and taken away, and despite some recent initiatives on the part of the government to trace the fate of these kids, most everything remains shrouded in mystery.
Imagine being one of those moms knowing the government knows more than they are telling you about the fate of your son. I saw the pain in their eyes, and as a father and grandfather, I immediately understood it.
These emotionally traumatized moms need some closure, even if the news is bad. Making public years old government reports on these missing kids would be a good start.
It seems reasonable to conclude, as the Northern Province’s chief minister advocates, that only a truly independent, accountability mechanism comprising of international actors will ever really be able to deliver justice when it comes to past human rights transgressions, disappearances and loss of lives.
The establishment of an accountability process comprising of internationally respected judicial actors could allow for a calming reassurance that reconciliation really can happen and that real change can take place.
The area also desperately needs a plan for economic and social investment. As with most places in the world, opportunity and a job will accomplish a huge amount when it comes to achieving social justice for the Tamil people.
While much of this initiative has to come from the Sri Lankan government itself, I am happy to report that we did sign a memorandum of understanding between the City of Toronto and the District of Jaffna whereby we will work together on everything from education to economic development to the renewal of their historic library, which was destroyed during the war. As a symbolic gesture to show good faith and partnership on the memorandum of understanding, we donated books to the Jaffna Public Library from the Toronto Public Library.
The entire experience of visiting the Northern Province of Sri Lanka was incredibly moving precisely because we met real people who had experienced real trauma and who had still not seen action by the government adequate to constitute justice and promote real healing.
If there is a glimmer of hope it comes from the fact the present government is seen as having taken a few small steps on some of these issues after years of denial by previous governments.
The challenge now becomes one of taking the next, bigger steps. Give those moms the information they so much need and deserve about their missing kids. Return serious quantities of land to rightful owners and at the same time reduce military presence. Establish an accountability process with the involvement of international actors to examine what happened. And develop a real plan to help this region and the Tamil people to have a sense of hope and opportunity.
I look forward to working with the community here in Toronto to help make these things happen.