Sri Lanka rights activists speak about ‘challenging’ task

By M.R. Narayan Swamy


Support TwoCircles

New Delhi : One of two Sri Lankan Tamils who have won a highly respected rights award say recording human rights abuses by both sides in their country for two decades despite death threats has been a challenging task.

Rajan Hoole, 58, also said in an interview to IANS that he and fellow award winner K. Sritharan were happy to "have played a modest role in sustaining dissident Tamil voices and the demand for a political settlement" to the Sri Lankan conflict.

The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA) FOR 2007 was Friday jointly awarded to tireless human rights workers Hoole and Sritharan as well as Pierre Claver Mbonimpa of Burundi.

The MEA is a unique collaboration among 11 of the world's top rights bodies including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Organization Against Torture, International Commission of Jurists and International Alert.

Hoole and Sritharan are among the surviving founder members of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), which for two decades has recorded the massive rights abuses in Sri Lanka primarily by the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) besides Tamil groups allied with Colombo.

The UTHR reports, some 80 in all so far, are considered a must read for anyone following the Sri Lankan conflict. They record, often in minute detail, the many happenings even in the remotest parts of the island's war-hit northeast.

"Our task is challenging," Hoole said by email, speaking for himself and Sritharan. Both once taught mathematics at Jaffna University along with Rajani Thiranagama, a key figure in UTHR's birth who was shot dead by LTTE. Both men now work from the underground, rarely revealing their movements to anyone.

Hoole explained their early struggles in the human rights movement, when he and Sritharan were forced to move out of Jaffna because of dangers.

"We were helped immensely by Sinhalese friends with a Left background to survive in the south (of Sri Lanka)," he said. "We were never left homeless or in want. Security prevented us from finding regular jobs. Our wives worked.

"Our needs were basic. We did not maintain an office or establishment. We managed living expenses with occasional support from friends and by dipping into our savings. Formal donor funds were sought only for publication expenses."

In no time, since fighting in Sri Lanka's northeast prevented access to the region, more so in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers, UTHR reports became the staple for those wanting to know what really was going on.

"By consistently taking a stand against the LTTE's and government repression, and for the need for (Colombo) to put forward a political settlement that meets Tamil aspirations, we have played a modest role in sustaining dissident Tamil voices and the demand for a political settlement," Hoole said.

The Tigers were not happy with UTHR, which consistently focused on the group's recruitment of children, at times upsetting even Western countries that felt the rights body was upsetting the peace process.

According to Hoole, the LTTE media once dubbed him a "traitor", a euphemism used usually for those marked for death.

But UTHR reports won widespread respect both because they took no sides, and because Hoole and others frankly admitted any mistakes they may have committed in reporting or interpretation of events.

Hoole has his fingers crossed vis-à-vis the current situation in Sri Lanka, where escalating violence since late 2005 has left thousands dead, many homeless and the international community frustrated.

Today, he is very critical of Colombo's poor human rights record. He said: "For the government the so-called peace process is completely irrelevant.

"During (President Chandrika) Kumaratunga's time, the government wanted to clean up the rights record. Now under (Mahinda) Rajapakse, they are not bothered about the human rights record at all.

"When violence and threats are used against potential witnesses, one cannot expect human rights reporters to be very safe. It is not that the government has threatened us or anything like that. But they way things are, one has to be wary."