Sri Lanka: what price "stability"?

June 7, 2009

In an interview published today in The Nation, a Sri Lankan newspaper, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, claimed that an international investigation into abuses committed by both sides during the recent fighting could destabilize Sri Lankan society.  In mid-May, the Sri Lankan government had announced that it had defeated the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reconquering all the territory held by them and killing their leaders.  The LTTE had been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island for over 26 years.  Both sides committed gross human rights abuses during the course of the conflict.  Amnesty International has called for an international investigation into the abuses committed by both sides in recent months.

The Minister said in the interview:

The armed forces had to do what they had to do to eradicate the ruthless terrorist outfit and give a new lease of life within a democratic framework to the citizens.  In the process of doing that many thousands of lives had to be sacrificed.

In response to another question about the number of civilian casualties killed during the last stages of the war, the Minister said: 

No one knows really how many civilians were killed because of the complex nature of the conflict.  How do you distinguish between the appearance of a LTTE cadre and a civilian?  We know that LTTE cadres were not always wearing uniforms. . .  So to talk about numbers in respect of civilian casualty [sic], it is like walking on thin ice, no one can authoritatively support numbers and therefore it is best not to speculate.

It seems to me that the Minister is saying, in effect, that thousands of civilians may have been killed but it was necessary in order to defeat the LTTE, so let’s just forget the past and move on.  And without an investigation, we’ll never know how many of the dead were civilians or LTTE cadre but let’s not try to find out for fear of “destabilizing” the country.  How would the truth be “destabilizing”?  It could be if an investigation determined that the military committed war crimes but the government held no one to account for them.  Is this what the Minister has in mind – there will never be any accountability, so best not to expose what the military did toward the end of the war?  If this is indeed what the Sri Lankan government has in mind, the international community shouldn’t stand for it.  We need an international investigation now.