War and Targeting of Civilians

The recent attacks on innocent civilians travelling in public transport has brought the war nearer home. All three of the recent bus/train targets in Dehiwala, Katubedde and Polgolla and the fourth on the rail track at Dehiwala were obviously by the LTTE, even though the Ellalan Force (which also had a murky and secret past history of terrorism) has claimed responsibility. This is not the first time that the LTTE has targeted civilians. The Central Bank bombing, the bombs at the Pettah Bus Stand and at the Maradana Railway Station junction were instances from an earlier stage of the war of the LTTE’s callous disregard for civilian life. They even showed no respect for the religious sensitivities of the people by their attacks at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura and the Mosque at Kattankudy. That times have not changed their warped mindset is reflected in their renewed targeting of innocent civilians peacefully travelling in public transport, not only in the recent incidents but also earlier at Kebbitigollawa and Bibile in the current stage of the war.

These civilian massacres have rightly received publicity and condemnation in the media. But what does not receive the publicity are the abduction, disappearance and extra-judicial killing of largely Tamil and Muslim but also Sinhala civilians mainly in the North and East but also in other parts of the country. This is equally tragic. Indignation and resentment followed the recent killings in Colombo and Kandy. But the same indignation was not shown in the killings at Kebbitigollawa and Bibile. Is it because the dead in those cases were the poor peasantry and it took place in a rural part of the country. Again, when Tamil and Muslim civilians are abducted and killed almost on a daily basis, why is there no condemnation? Is it because they belong to minority communities and every member of the minority community is considered an "enemy"? This is the hard reality and all such killings are either ignored or explained/justified as collateral damage in the course of the war.

In the aftermath of 9/11 when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were reduced to rubble, the United States, holding Al-Qaeeda responsible, bombed suspected Al Qaeeda camps in Afghanistan killing several civilians. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an interview he gave Simon Hattenstone for the Guardian in December 2001, said: "If, quite rightly, we consider that what made the terrorist attack so reprehensible was the fact that innocent civilians were targeted, we can’t turn round and then say that we didn’t intend to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan, that they are ‘collateral damage’. It is an obscenity to say of people who are killed that they are collateral damage. (The United States) would not take happily to someone saying that the people killed in the twin towers and in Washington were collateral damage. They are not." Many of us who applauded Archbishop Tutu for those words in respect of the United States seem now displeased with his expressing similar sentiments in respect of Sri Lanka. Who is being guilty of double standards?

Monitoring Human Rights and creating a culture of Peace

Many of us seem unaware or do not seem to want to know that Tamil and Muslim civilians are being abducted, disappearing or being extra-judicially killed in Colombo and in various parts of the country. Mr Mano Ganeshan of the Western People’s Front deserves the gratitude of the nation for his fearless monitoring of these abductions and compiling a register of all such cases. As far as this columnist is aware, no other civil society or religious organisation is doing this necessary task. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) does some monitoring and there reports are carefully researched. But being forced to work underground, they cannot be expected to receive reports from the aggrieved parties in every case. It is a pity that none of the civil society or religious organisations which have the capability of recording and monitoring abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings by all parties (not only in respect of the war) have failed to do so, except to issue statements, which no doubt also serve a purpose.

The general attitude among the most people is to be selective in condemning violations of human rights. The task of civil society (which includes religious organisations) is to encourage our people to have a broader sense of identity and to create space in their psyche for the mind of the ‘other’ ethnic communities. The dividends of peace are enormous for the country. We perhaps need to somewhat depoliticise this conflict and for civil society and the business sector to take the initiative in educating the people on the peace dividends. Capturing territory while losing the hearts and minds of the people will undoubtedly be counter-productive. Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, in a response to this column, has indicted that his Peace Secretariat was supporting a ‘Business for Peace’ initiative. While welcoming such initiatives, we urge Civil Society to undertake more such initiatives in all parts of the country. We have to depoliticise this conflict. Apart from peace initiatives at community level, civil society (a citizen’s committee maybe through the Organisation of Professional Organisations) can also present to the country a framework for a political settlement that will be acceptable to all communities. Undoubtedly, extremists on all sides reject such a framework since it will not fall within their narrow agenda, but it will be an initiative to create community consciousness, since the politicians and the APRC have signally failed in their responsibilities.

Constitutional Council and Lawlessness

Authoritarianism, the suppression of political dissent and abuses of human rights must never be condoned. We already see the impact of these on society. There is a noticeable increase in general lawlessness. Political thugs and shadowy underworld enjoying political patronage take the law into their own hands and seem to enjoy immunity. To this columnist’s mind, this stems from the deliberate failure of the government to fulfil its constitutional duty under the 17th Amendment. Pressure must be brought on the President to set up the Constitutional Council (and thereafter the independent Commissions) as he is required to do in terms of the law. Adherence to the law must begin at the top.

By suppressing dissent and legitimate political protests, the moderate voices are being silenced and a climate of insecurity is being created. A small-time parish pump politician (they are all however now Ministers of this or the other) recently assaulted a Police Officer in Mutur in the presence of other senior police officers. That politician enjoys immunity and in the absence of an independent National Police Commission, it is the police officer who will have to grin and bear. We also know that a more notorious Minister of this or the other continues his thuggery enjoying immunity. The government, by its failure to do its constitutional duty, has to be held directly responsible for all this lawlessness.

A Response to Rajiva Wijesinha’s Response

Rajiva Wijesinha, like Goldsmith’s schoolmaster, can argue still, with words of learned length. But, despite two lengthy contributions, this column’s original criticism that the Peace Secretariat was in a state of denial regarding civilian deaths still remains valid. To this column’s detail of several cases of unjustified killing of civilians, Wijesinha’s response is that none of them were caused by shelling or aerial attacks. Of course they were not, but that charge was never made. But they still were targeted killings of which the government forces stand accused. This column’s simple point is that by Wijesinha trying to "explain" these killings, he is justifying or denying culpability for these killings.

Wijesinha claims that the cause of human rights is better served by stopping ‘relentless attacks on the forces’. This column agrees that relentless attacks are inappropriate as much as Wijesinghe’s acquiescence in the new ‘Geneva-style diplomacy’ (even his response has traces of it) and his refusal to accept that there have been unjustified extra-judicial killings. Pointing these out is by no means ‘relentless attacks’ but only contributes to greater professionalism, to which our security forces are undoubtedly committed. Blanket criticism and blanket cover are both inappropriate to take the peace process forward.

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