Penang forum on search for peace in Sri Lanka

by P Ramasamy

Last year around November, the Penang Society of Advancement of Tamils (PSAT) organised an international conference on Tamils with the sub-theme of ‘in search for an identity’. One of the topics that were discussed was the extent of human rights violations in Sri Lanka and why the international community was dragging its feet in terms of investigation and punishing those responsible for crimes against humanity.

This year, on Nov 21, PSAT will be organising an international forum with a specific focus on human rights violations in Sri Lanka and the way forward. The primary concern of the organisers is to examine critically the report published by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) or the OISL Report on the extent of human rights violations in Sri Lanka and those responsible.

The OISL Report, one of the most comprehensive and well-researched reports, says that there were extensive violations of human rights mainly amongst the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka during and after the war.

The Report thinks that crimes against humanity was committed without impunity by the Sri Lankan armed forces against the Tamil population ostensibly in the name of the defeating the ‘terrorism’ of the LTTE.

The Report in its recommendations thinks that Sri Lanka government alone is not capable of investigating the crimes against humanity and that the presence of international lawyers, prosecutors and judges are necessary through the establishment of hybrid court to take to task those responsible for crimes against humanity.

The UN publication provides extensive documentations how crimes were committed against the Tamil population and how thousands of them were killed during the closing stages of the war, how thousands of Tamil disappeared and not to mention the crimes against women and children.

Following the publication of this OISL Report, the US came up with resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that was biased in favour of the Sri Lanka government. The resolution while welcoming the OISL Report is of the opinion that the newly installed government of President Marthipala Sirisena should be given a chance to conduct its own investigation against crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka.

The US Resolution supported by a number of countries thinks that a domestic inquiry should be sufficient to investigate breaches of international law, international human rights conventions and domestic laws. Although the US Resolution is not against international inquiry, it leaves the matter to be decided by the Sri Lankan government.

The Tamils, the most affected segment of the Sri Lankan population, have been taken aback by the non-seriousness of the US Resolution. It is argued that the US Resolution welcomed by the Sri Lankan government would not do justice to those Tamils who have been gravely injured by the cruel and inhuman practices of the Sri Lankan government.

Moreover, since the most of the members of the present Sri Lankan government were in important positions in the former government that was responsible for the crimes against humanity, domestic inquiry alone would not address the issue of serious human rights violations suffered by Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Serious political debate raging

Serious political debate is raging in international circles about what should be done in Sri Lanka and to what extent the US Resolution would be able to address questions of justice, truth and reconciliation among Tamils. While the OISL Report provides an excellent framework and substance for the conduct of an international investigation with the presence of foreign judges and prosecutors, however, the US Resolution tends to pour cold war on this excellent initiative.

Even after the publication of the OISL Report and passing the of the US Resolution, normalcy has not returned to Tamils in Sri Lanka, particularly to those in the north and east, traditional homeland of Tamils.

The Sri Lankan armed forces continue to occupy lands belonging to Tamils in the north and east. Even the new government in Sri Lankan has not kept its promise of returning occupied Tamil lands. On the contrary, recent actions suggest that the army might be seizing more lands in the north and east.

Recent events indicate, that hundreds if not thousands of Tamil prisoners are languishing in the various jails in Sri Lanka without trial. Many of them were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) under the former regime of Mahinda Rajapakse. Recently, these Tamil prisoners went on hunger strike and demanded that they be released unconditionally.

It is indeed ironic that President Sirisena who promised truth, justice and reconciliation for Tamils, has failed to address the serious human rights plight of Tamils in the country. Since the prisoners’ plight has not been seriously addressed, many are wondering how the present government would be able to address and punish those responsible for crimes against humanity.

The Penang international forum on human rights violations hopes to raise the matter of the OISL Report and serious concerns of the crimes against human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Some of the speakers would be able to critically examine the implications of a purely domestic inquiry and to what extent it will address questions of truth, justice and reconciliation principally amongst the Tamil population in Sri Lanka.

There are international as well local speakers. The forum will be opened by Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang. The two keynote presentations will be provided by Lim Kit Siang, Democratic Action Party (DAP) and member of parliament for Gelang Patah, and Vaiko, the secretary-general of the MDMK political party from Tamil Nadu, India.

Lim Kit Siang will speak on Malaysia’s stand on human rights situation in Sri Lanka whereas Vaiko will address the question as to why international investigation is the need of the hour for Sri Lanka.

The other speakers at this forum are: Manika Vasagar from Australia, P Ramasamy, Penang, members of parliament M Kulasegaran, Zairil Khir Johari and Steven Sim, Mohamad Sabu (Parti Amanah Negara), Kolathur Mani from Tamil Nadu, India, and Ananthi Sasitharan, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

At the end of the day, this forum hopes to come out with some important resolutions that might assist in the elusive search for peace, truth, justice and reconciliation among the various ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.

Given the limited space, attendance is by invitation only.

P RAMASAMY is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang and the state assemblyperson for Perai.

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