Rights groups want UN to monitor Sri Lanka abuses

By M.R. Narayan Swamy


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New Delhi : Alarmed by the scale of abuses in Sri Lanka, not just in the northeastern war theatre but also in capital Colombo, human rights groups are advocating UN intervention.

Prodded by their Sri Lankan counterparts, global rights groups are concluding that only the UN can bring some sanity in a country where killings, kidnappings, forced recruitment and other violations are rampant.

Colombo too has seen plenty of killings and daylight abductions.

The worst sufferers of the lawlessness are civilians, particularly Tamils both in the troubled northeastern region and also elsewhere in the island nation, the activists say.

"Human rights groups are extremely concerned about the situation of civilians after the resumption of hostilities," Meenakshi Ganguly of US-based Human Rights Watch told IANS from Mumbai.

"We are also worried about the large-scale displacement of people (due to fighting) and about forced recruitment of civilians particularly children by the LTTE and Karuna group," she said, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its breakaway outfit led by its former commander Karuna.

"We are also concerned about the abductions," she said. "Civilians are caught between the armed groups and government forces operating with apparent immunity from prosecution for abuses that they commit."

Other activists agree that such a gloomy scenario prevails in Sri Lanka, where fighting since December 2005 has led to thousands of deaths, forced thousands to flee their homes and spiked the internationally backed peace process.

With the Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which oversees the 2002 truce between Colombo and LTTE, now limping, and the government determined to seek a military solution to the conflict, many Sri Lankan and international rights groups feel it is time the UN stepped in to protect civilians.

But another rights activist Rajan Hoole asserted that any UN intervention should aim to strengthen Sri Lanka's democratic set-up, not look like thrusting a foreign solution.

"Reviving Sri Lankan institutions (such as police and judiciary), not imposing something foreign, should be the objective," said Hoole of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), which routinely issues detailed reports that are critical of everyone – Colombo, LTTE and other armed groups.

"We believe that the UN should not just record and expose human rights abuses but work with the Sri Lankan judicial system and bring about prosecutions," the activist said.

The UN, he went on, should bring in Sri Lankan professionals into the picture. "At this time they are being marginalized."

According to those who spoke to IANS, the idea of UN rights monitors originated from Sri Lanka before groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Asian Human Rights Commission took it up.

Since then, and encouraged by the role the UN has played in Nepal, the rights activists have held formal and informal discussions amongst themselves and with officials of countries such as Japan and the US.

These countries are expected to persuade Colombo to accept a UN monitoring system despite domestic opposition. The system would also require funding which they can provide.

Asked if the LTTE would agree to UN monitors in its territory, one activist said: "We think so, since the Tigers say they are concerned about (the welfare of) Tamils."

Rights groups have meticulously documented the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka but feel that is not enough.

In any case, too many armed groups are now operating in the island nation and often no one seems to know who is doing what.

If such a climate has to end and there has to be prosecutions, only a UN-mandated rights body would be able to do it, even if it involves Sri Lankans on the ground – thus goes the argument.

Said Ganguly: "Human rights groups conduct independent investigations. But because of limited capacity, they can only highlight cases and call for proper investigations by the government so that those responsible can be prosecuted.

"Because of the nature of the conflict, it is often impossible to identity the perpetrators. Witnesses and victims are too frightened," she said. "We are therefore suggesting a UN mission to monitor and investigate the human rights situation."