A backward slide

The weakness of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil rebels is currently most obvious in the country's northeast. Recently, a group of journalists from the south was denied permission by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) from entering the areas of Trincomalee Province under their control. The group was on an exposure visit, to meet with civic organisations and distribute tsunami relief goods. A year ago, a similar group of journalists had not only been allowed to visit, but were actually hosted by the LTTE in both Kilinochchi and Jaffna to the north. What had changed? Perhaps the instability of the northeast, which left the rebel leadership feeling more vulnerable, or perhaps it was the continuous killing of civilians and affiliated members of various Tamil groups. Either way, this marked a rapid deterioration in human security.

Today, the town of Trincomalee (pictured above) stands as particular witness to the inability of the ceasefire to restore normalcy. Although Trincomalee possesses golden beaches and a magnificent harbour, it has become severely run down, with extensive squalor and little modern development. In addition, the tension in the town is today palpable, particularly after dark. Travelling through Trincomalee is now a frustrating throwback to the pre-ceasefire years, with heavily armed soldiers at every street corner, increasingly anxious as night approaches. One soldier even accused the LTTE of paying people to harass the armed forces. Meanwhile, the Tamil inhabitants are now reluctant to venture out at night.

The inadequacy of the ceasefire is particularly apparent in dealing with political killings. In the face of such incidents, there proves to be little remedy but to protest to the international monitoring mission, consisting solely of Scandinavians. The repetitious reaction from the mission is to reiterate that its mandate does not include such investigations or remedial action. During the three-and-half years of ceasefire, registered incidents of human rights abuses have grown to nearly 4000 in number. In theory, the protection of human rights would require an environment conducive to that protection; the question now is whether the ceasefire agreement has provided such an environment. It may have brought about a technical end to the war, but certainly not a situation of peace.

Two principals

The recent murders of two of the most well-known college principals in Jaffna might well comprise watershed events. N Sivakadathcham (of Kopay Christian College) and K Rajadurai (of Jaffna Central College) were on opposite sides of the schism that engulfs Tamil society – those who support and those who oppose the LTTE. Sivakadathcham had virtually resurrected his school, after years of war had reduced it to a wreck. He had also been one of the main organisers of the recent pro-LTTE Pongu Thamil celebrations in Jaffna. The LTTE leadership conferred high honours on Sivakadathcham posthumously. Rajadurai, on the other hand, was a prominent social activist and one of the few civic leaders in Jaffna willing to be critical of the LTTE and its methods. Consistently opposed to child recruitment by the LTTE, he was murdered on his way to a cultural function.

The deaths of Sivakadathcham and Rajadurai have been taken as opportunities by the people of the north to vent their anger and disgust publicly; a sense of urgency seems suddenly to have gained momentum. Civic leaders both in Jaffna and elsewhere have strongly condemned the killings of the educators, warning that such incidents are destroying the Tamil community.

In peaceful, civilised societies, government and regional leaders do not order the assassinations of their rivals. In Sri Lanka, however, even during the recent years of ceasefire, there have been several hundred such murders. In peaceful, civilised societies, citizens do not languish in refugee camps or with distant relatives for 10 or 20 years, without even the remote possibility of returning home. In Sri Lanka, however, this is the situation of hundreds of thousands of people. No wonder the country's present condition is often described as one of no-war and no-peace.

The institutional framework and environment necessary to nurture and protect human rights in Sri Lanka is currently lacking. Therefore, if the citizens' rights are to be protected, new institutions need to be set in place. As such, it was disappointing that the mid-October visit by Ian Martin, the Human Rights Advisor to the Peace Process (jointly appointed by the government and LTTE), was not more successful. Indeed, Martin's diplomatic call coincided almost exactly with the assassination of the two Jaffna principals. Subsequent discussions with the LTTE proved unfruitful, with the rebel leadership suggesting that a joint declaration on human rights would only be possible once peace talks were restarted.

The reasoning underlying such a stance suggests that the ceasefire agreement by itself has not been the final settlement for the conflict: it has simply stopped the war. Building up institutions that will actually protect human rights will require additional negotiations, as well as progress on mutually agreed-upon political reforms. On the other hand, unless a respect for human rights underpins the peace process, it cannot succeed. Every violation of human rights further undermines confidence in the peace process, in the minds of both the political parties and the general public.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian