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Lacking Conviction

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With the violence in Sri Lanka steadily reaching ever higher levels, even the international monitors overseeing the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) admit there isn’t at present a condition of ceasefire (i.e. a cessation of hostilities). Nevertheless, they and the international community continue to take comfort from the commitment in principle by the Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka government to uphold the CFA and to pursue the Norwegian brokered peace process.

But it is clear to everyone that the peace process is disintegrating in an ever-deepening quagmire of violence and counter-violence as Army-backed paramilitaries and, increasingly, the Sri Lankan armed forces attack the LTTE and unleash deliberate punitive measures against Tamil civilians. It is the escalation of the latter that, above all else, raises the question as to whether there is indeed a peace process left to salvage. Tamil civilians are being murdered on a daily basis. Tamil parliamentarians are being threatened. This week saw a brazen attack on the offices of the popular Tamil daily, Uthayan. The international community, whilst making muted comments about a need to continue the peace process, have studiously avoided criticism of the Sri Lankan government (though some states, as ever, have been quick to heap invectives on the LTTE).

It is in this context that the determination by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) last week on killings of civilians was gratefully received by the Tamils. “We fear” the SLMM said, “that government security forces have, in the north and the east, been involved in extrajudicial killings of civilians.” Moreover, “this conviction,” the SLMM pointedly stated, “is based on our observation and inquiries on the ground.” The determination was vital as the SLMM, tasked by both sides with supervising the truce, has the attention of the international community. The ruling thus formally highlighted the ongoing murders of Tamil civilians suspected by the Sri Lankan military of being sympathetic to the LTTE. Crucially, therefore, it could have galvanised international pressure on Colombo to rein in not only its murderous paramilitaries, but, now, its security forces also. The SLMM ruling, of course, merely reflects what alarmed observers in Sri Lanka’s Northeast have been protesting for some time. In that regard, it must be noted, the ruling was long overdue.

However, this week the SLMM obfuscated its position on the extrajudicial killings. It did so, moreover, “after consultations with the Sri Lankan government” on the matter. Press reports say the second statement occurred after President Mahinda Rajapakse’s administration had summoned the SLMM and delivered a vehement denial. But it would have been expected to. What was not expected, was that the monitoring mission would buckle under the government’s howling rage and stutter a confusing ‘clarification’ that, for all intents and purposes, is being interpreted by all concerned as a retraction of its earlier unambiguous position. Instead of ‘conviction’, the SLMM now has ‘concerns.’ Whilst first ‘government security forces’ were blamed, now it is ‘some individuals on the ground.’ Most despicably, instead of ‘extrajudicial killings of civilians’ there are now ‘clandestine activities against civilians.’

This episode has amply demonstrated that the SLMM, for all its internationally accorded backing and prestige, is not a robust institution which can make courageous determinations and stand by them. It has lowered itself to level of the many well-meaning, but essentially powerless human rights organizations which have sooner or later quailed before an enraged Sri Lankan state during the conflict. The SLMM’s backtracking this week will therefore have far reaching implications for the integrity of the CFA, for the possibilities of curbing violence against civilians and, above else, for its own authority.

Most importantly, a dangerous precedent has been set. If the international monitors are prepared to retract their statements or abandon their ‘convictions’ simply because the Sri Lankan state expresses its displeasure, then what purpose is served by the SLMM? To monitor the LTTE alone? It is an unwritten but understood truism that the SLMM’s moral authority is underpinned by the support of powerful states for the CFA and the peace process more generally. But even that authority has been undermined by the SLMM’s timid behavior this week.

This, of course, still leaves the Tamils of the Northeast with the problem of how to protect themselves from the increasingly brazen and undisguised violence being unleashed against them by the Sri Lankan military and its paramilitary allies. With hopes of an effective defence of human rights by the international community now all but dashed, there can be but one option for the Tamils to fall back on.

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