Human Rights Day in Kilinochchi

By Jehan Perera

When human rights are discussed in the context of Sri Lanka’s peace
process, they are generally seen in the area of LTTE violations, rather
than those of LTTE celebrations, and as a pressure point. Despite
four years of ceasefire, a wide range of human rights continue to be
violated in the north east.

The human rights violations that grab the media headlines most often
are the increasing number of killings and the problem of child
recruitment. But there are also other major unresolved issues that give
rise to human rights violations.

One is the inability of people to return to their homes due to high
security zones. Another is the absence of democracy, not least the
right to vote.

Underlying the human rights violations taking place in the north east is
the right of self determination. This right was contested politically in
the first three decades after independence and then militarily for
another two decades on the battlefield. Today it is being sought to be
negotiated in the peace process. The North East Secretariat for
Human Rights (NESOHR) based in Kilinochchi took the right of self-
determination as the theme of their International Human Rights Day
celebrations on December 10. The detailed topic of the day was Self
Determination to the Peoples of the World contributes to World Peace.
The director of the institute, Fr. M.X. Karunaratnam invited several of
the leading proponents of human rights from Colombo to attend the
event. However, the response from most was not favourable.

The deterioration in the ground situation in the north and east in the
past few days made some of those who had firmly agreed to
participate change their minds at the last moment. The landmines that
killed several soldiers on the airport road in Jaffna and which narrowly
missed a passing Swiss NGO group, created anxieties of a similar
possibility on the road to Kilinochchi. This was not an isolated fear.
The reduction in vehicular traffic on the road to Kilinochchi in
comparison to what it had been was noticeable. Army personnel on
duty at the checkpoint at Omanthai, which crosses over into LTTE-
controlled territory, said that traffic along the A9 Highway had declined
by more than 50 percent in their estimation.

There were other fears as well. One was that the sad fate of the three
policemen who had gone into LTTE-controlled area to arrest a foreign
pedophile would befall them. The policemen from the National Child
Protection Authority had gone into LTTE-controlled area in the
company of Catholic priests to uphold child rights in the country. But in
a cruel twist of fate, the LTTE arrested the three police officers and
have kept them incarcerated for over three months, despite appeals
for their release from the Catholic Church, the international monitors
of the SLMM and the National Child Protection Authority. The fear of
the prospective participants was that if they spoke out about human
rights in Kilinochchi, they might be detained there too.

There were also more ideologically based objections. One was the
whole exercise in Kilinochchi was meant to show the world that the
LTTE was an organization that respected human rights when the
reality was different. There was a concern that none of the participants
from Colombo would be able to speak, but would only be able to listen
to the speeches of others. Another sentiment was that in the aftermath
of the enforced boycott of the Presidential election, in which so many
people were deprived of their right to vote, it was inappropriate to
celebrate human rights so soon in Kilinochchi.

The Event

In the end only a rather depleted contingent of persons from Colombo
set of to Kilinochchi, consisting of Dr Mahim Mendis and Anton
Piyarathne, members of the department of social studies of the Open
University and Nilhan de Mel and myself from the National Peace
Council. We had to address the issue of self-determination in the
context of the prevailing human rights situation, recognizing that there
are at least two dimensions to the right of self- determination. One is
its national dimension, the other is the individual dimension.

We had an uneventful journey into Kilinochchi. Due to the reduced
vehicular traffic, we did not have to spend a long time either at the
government or LTTE checkpoints. The youthful civil personnel in the
LTTE checkpoint were courteous and motivated, as indeed they
usually are as a rule. Dealing with these civil employees of the LTTE,
and seeing normal life along the road, did not make us fear an
impending war that was around the corner. This impression was
strengthened when we attended the human rights day event organized
by NESOHR in the public Cultural Hall at Kilinochchi.

There were about 150 persons who attended the event, among them
being representatives of different citizens groups from the districts of
the north east, foreign organizations and expatriates. The LTTE’s
political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan was the chief guest and head
of the LTTE Peace Secretariat Puleedevan was also present. In
addition, TNA MPs Joseph Pararajasingham and Gajan Ponnambalam
were also present. There were several short speeches made. The
concluding item was the panel discussion on the theme of self -
determination, where I was one of the five panelists invited to speak.

Where national self-determination is concerned there are two
expressions of this right. Self-determination can take the form of either
external or internal self-determination. External self-determination is
manifested in the form of a separate country. Internal self-
determination can be manifested in through power sharing
arrangements, usually in a federal system, in which several
governments co-exist within one system. The Tamil people and their
leaders have campaigned and fought for the right to self-
determination in both of these positions, giving one more emphasis
than the other at different times in the country’s post independence
history.

In the 1950s and 60s the dominant position was that of federalism,
while in the 1970s, with the passage of the Vaddukoddai resolution,
the dominant position became separation. Both federalism and
separation were unilateral positions taken by the Tamil people arising
out of their failure to negotiate successfully with the leadership of the
Sinhalese people. However, due to the internationally- facilitated
peace process, there was a historical meeting of minds in December
2002 in Oslo. The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE both
committed themselves to exploring a federal solution on the basis of
internal self-determination.

I spoke of external and internal self-determination in this manner, and
also of individual self-determination and expressed my view that the
boycott of the Presidential election went counter to the right to vote. I
said that this boycott had prevented the people of the north-east from
joining with the people in the rest of the country in an exercise of
democracy. Dr. Mahim Mendis made an intervention in which he said
that one of the main reasons he had come from Colombo was to
express his pain and disappointment at the boycott, which has made
the task of taking the peace process much more difficult.

The comments

Most of the questions and comments that came from the audience
during the discussion period related to the issue of the boycott. Some
said that election boycotts were a part of the Tamil people’s strategy
to win their rights. Others said that elections made no difference to the
Tamils, which is why the people refrained from voting. There was an
exchange of ideas and opinions, but to the credit of everyone it was
done civilly and without acrimony. There was also a repeated request
that came from members of the audience, to make their views and
problems known to the people in the south. They wished their deep
sense of frustration and distress at their unresolved problems, be they
displacement, abject poverty or lack of schooling facilities, to be known
and dealt with instead of being ignored.

With the passage of time it appears that new civil society institutions
are taking root in the LTTE-controlled areas. NESOHR is one such
example. This is a positive feature and needs to be encouraged. The
LTTE needs to actively consider further strengthening and developing
its political wing, so that they can dissent from the other LTTE
institutions and have their view prevail. It is one thing to have an event
celebrating human rights, it is another to ensure that they are
practiced, which is what the world waits to see. It was through their
political wing, the Sinn Fein, that the IRA was able to translate their
gains on the ground from the use of violence into political gains and
negotiate a power sharing agreement with the British government.

On the other hand, if the LTTE continues to give priority to military
means of dealing with the government and their opponents, they will
continue to lose international support and legitimacy. As a result of
this resort to military action, the credibility of the LTTE’s political wing
is suffering. This can also be seen in the request of the Norwegian
facilitators for direct access to LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapakaran, as
they seem to be losing faith that their communications actually get
through to him or are screened out elsewhere in the organization. If
the LTTE is to convert their military gains on the ground into
sustainable political gains, they have to forge ahead with
strengthening their political wing.