A voice for the voiceless

There is nothing sunshiny about war; this is a lesson Sri Lankans have learned all over again in the last year and one they are bound to re-learn in the year 2007, if events of the past week speak true. There will always, in times of conflict, be a sidelining of civil liberties and human rights. These are times when the ‘bigger’ picture must override these concerns, or so the reigning administration would tell us.

As a citizenry, however, we are blessed with the ability to observe things more objectively. Not only are we a nation on the brink of full-scale war that will threaten security and the economy in an unprecedented fashion, but we are also teetering on the edge of being internationally snubbed as a pariah state thanks to an abysmal human rights record that has accompanied the escalation of tensions in the north east over the past year. Truth be told, the longer the state continues to treat human rights and conventions of war as things that may be swept under the carpet for the time being, the closer Sri Lanka comes to inviting two dangerous phenomena: (a) the imposition of UN sanctions; and (b) suspension either in part or whole of international funding.

In the year 2006, this tiny island in the Indian Ocean, earned the dubious honour of being the ‘most violent’ state in the Asian region. This violence that has gripped the north east and spilled over to Colombo, has displaced over 200,000 people and killed more than 3000 citizens – civilians, soldiers and LTTE cadres in the 365 days that ended one week ago. It is this violence and resultant insecurity and loss that is threatening every Sri Lankan’s inherent right to life, food and shelter. In besieged Vakarai, some 10,000 people live without food and water, the prevailing weather conditions having made it impossible to flee the area. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates the number of ‘new’ IDPs from last year’s fighting to have topped the 200,000 mark. If one were to pause a while to do the math, the results would prove astounding. More than one percent of Sri Lanka’s population is displaced. They live far from their homes, in appalling sanitary conditions and worse still – in a constant state of fear. To make matters worse, the government shows no regret or remorse when international agencies confirm that the air raids conducted on so-called rebel targets ended up killing and injuring innocent civilians, as was the case in the Padahuthurai fishing hamlet in Mannar last Tuesday. While it might be argued that the LTTE violates civilian security laws on almost a daily basis, and that with impunity, it is also a fact that a terrorist organisation is not bound by the same laws and conventions that bind a democratically elected government. The latter cannot, under any circumstances take cover under the ‘they did it first’ excuse; to retain its claim to legitimacy and differentiate itself from a terrorism outfit, the government should and must ensure the safety of ALL its citizens.

Although far from the theatre of war, the scenario in Colombo is no better. Murders, abductions and constant checking and raiding have rendered people living in the capital susceptible to the deteriorating human rights situation elsewhere in the land.
Internationally, Sri Lanka is walking the tightrope, of this there is no doubt. Last week’s attack on Mannar had the UN Assistant Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Margareta Wahlström, issue a tough warning to both parties to the conflict, charging that too often have both sides fallen short of their duty to protect civilians. Germany, which recently took over the presidency of the European Union has already ceased funding to Sri Lanka. Now it is being reported that with Germany at the helm of the 25 member body and the government’s dismal human rights record not showing signs of improvement, the EU’s recent proscription of the Tigers may be reversed, striking a blow to the very heart of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic efforts to have the ban effected in European states to prevent funding from the region filling Kilinochchi’s coffers. The best way to combat this threat would be for the government to take steps quickly to improve the human rights situation in the country.
But let us lay aside issues of international condemnation and the blackening of a nation’s image to ponder something a little closer to home:

Can we, as a nation, afford blanket immunity to the defence establishment and security forces personnel as the blatant disregard for the civilian ‘collateral’ continues? Can we weep copious tears and shake our fists LTTE-ward when civilian targets are attacked in the ‘south’ with a clear conscience, if we fail to speak on behalf of the innocents killed in those air struck fields of the north east? We cannot. It is only if we, the people, look on every single life as sacred and worthy of securing, shall each of us be safe.

Let us speak then today, for the civilians killed in Mannar and for the scores living in fear and impoverished conditions in Vakarai. Let us speak for the victims of the Ambalangoda, Nittambuwa and Kebethigollewa bus attacks and hold our government responsible for extra-judicial killings, abductions and arrests – (both ‘imminent’ and concluded) happening in this country. Let us pledge solidarity in safeguarding the freedom of expression or tomorrow, we may find ourselves stripped of the right to speak. And in the here and now, let us speak because we can still raise a voice. It is the only way to ensure that we will not be left without a spokesman when finally, they come for us.





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