Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 7 (Winter 2002): Integrating Human Rights and Peace Work: Articles: Building Legitimacy and Trust

Mar 25, 2002

Human rights and peace groups in Sri Lanka have come to be divided along ethnic lines, making ground-level coordination minimal. This is painfully evident among groups working in the northeast, where Tamil and Sinhalese military forces continue to fight the country’s eighteen-year-old ethnic conflict. Tamils make up only 12 percent of the population but dominate in the northeast; there, human rights activity is generally led by Tamil advocates and is focused on abuses committed by the Sinhalese-majority government. Peace activities tend to take place in Sinhalese-dominated, Buddhist areas outside the northeast.

The current armed conflict pits the Sinhalese-dominated government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an organization that has claimed for itself the mantle of sole legitimate representative of the Tamils. In a population of 18 million, over 65,000 people have been killed and nearly a million displaced. Tensions between the two ethnic groups extend back over decaeds. Successive Sinhalese-dominated governments have imposed a number of policies vehemently opposed by the Tamils, including the "Sinhala-only” language legislation of 1956, discriminatory university admissions policies of the mid-1970s, and the state-sponsored settling of Sinhalese in the northeast throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Not surprisingly, Sinhalese and Tamils—and by extension peace groups and human rights groups—define peace differently and hold divergent regarding the conditions for achieving it. Nongovernmental peace organizations such as my own, the National Peace Council (NPC), seek to assist a negotiated peace. Institutional reform will be difficult to bring about in a majoritarian state, especially given the strain that tense majority-minority relations are placing on our parliamentary system. We aim to resolve the conflict through the establishment of a federal type of power-sharing arrangement between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

Human rights advocates, by contrast, define peace as an end to abuses perpetuated by the government. They seek to normalize the lives of Tamils, to secure equal rights and broad minority rights protection. They are also working to expose, condemn, and remedy abuses such as checkpoint violations, kidnappings, torture, and extralegal killings carried out by the Sri Lankan Army.

Understandably, the Tamil groups are not prepared to work for a cessation of war on the Sinhalese-dominated government's terms. They are unwilling to take a stand for peace that would entrench a status quo in which they feel like second-class citizens, lacking security and basic rights that Sinhalese enjoy. The Sinhalese majority, meanwhile, fears Tamil separatism and is resistant to changing the country’s centralized system of governance.

Overcoming the long history of mistrust between ethnic groups is a tremendous challenge. The NPC is working to promote open and sustained interethnic dialogue. A more mature and constructive relationship is emerging, albeit slowly. As a Buddhist monk who attended an NPC-sponsored event put it, "We could have talked about the LTTE attacks on the Temple of the Tooth and the Sacred Bo Tree, but this would have re-created the divisive debates outside. Instead we came to learn how these people [Tamils] from the northeast feel and go forward from there." Yet even Sinhalese participants who are making an effort to be open-minded, like this monk, are often surprised to find that their Tamil counterparts wish to talk about their rights before talking about peace.

A major rights problem that undermines the legitimacy of human rights work in Sri Lanka is fundamentally political: the unwillingness of Tamil groups to condemn the human rights violations committed by the LTTE. Human rights groups will not make an issue of the LTTE’s recruitment of child soldiers, for example, because to do so would almost certainly mean a loss of access to LTTE-held areas. The LTTE is suspicious of civil society initiatives and does not permit independent actions in the areas under its control. Tamils who act against the war have reason to fear not only state security forces but also the LTTE itself. This precarious security situation accounts in part for the absence of Tamils from peace-oriented civic activities.

Outside of the northeastern region, human rights work actually has a better reputation than peace work. After the government crackdown on the Marxist-inspired second People’s Liberation Front insurrection in 1988-89, during which thousands of Sinhalese were arrested, disappeared, tortured, and killed, human rights groups visibly sought redress for the victims. This raised the profile of human rights work. In fact, peace work is often regarded as less concrete, purposeful, and productive than human rights work and is perceived by some Sinhalese as appeasing the LTTE.

Without interethnic dialogue and objective media reporting, Sinhalese peace workers often fail to comprehend the legitimate fears and aspirations of the Tamils. The peace movement is further weakened by its inability to attract Tamils to positions of leadership within it.

Another factor weakening the popular legitimacy of peace work is that the NGOs, including Christian religious groups, that constitute the peace movement are heavily foreign-funded. The truth is that foreign funding for peace work generally has been respectful of the independence and autonomy of NGOs, and the characterization that NGOs are marching to the tune of foreign interests is wrong. Recently, Sri Lankan business groups have begun to fund peace work, such as supporting families of missing service personnel and disabled soldiers and developing high-profile campaigns for peace. This is a very positive development from the point of view of the peace community.

Peace organizations in Sri Lanka must find more ways to foster relations between Sinhalese and Tamils and, by extension, links between peace and human rights groups throughout the country. The deeper that understanding and trust are built between the ethnic communities, the more possible it will be for both peace and human rights advocates to advance their work. What is needed are facilitative skills that have been absent thus far at the government and civil society levels. It is this absence that stands in the way of a bold approach to peace negotiations that could end the war. Responses

Alan Keenan

Jehan Perera offers an accurate portrait of the complex and frustrating relationship that exists between peace and human rights work in Sri Lanka. He suggests both the malleable character of the word "peace" and the unfortunate way in which ethnic divisions, encouraged or enforced by political powers, continue to hamper the activities of both fields. The relationship between those who yield political and military power and the work of peace and human rights groups in Sri Lanka deserves greater emphasis.

Consistently targeted for violent attack by combatants in all of Sri Lanka's overlapping conflicts over the past twenty years, civil society groups, whether oriented toward human rights or peace work, remain very weak. It is true that there is some freedom for Sinhala people to organize and agitate. However, there are no real means for Tamil civilians in government-controlled areas to put effective political pressure on the Sri Lankan state, nor, it seems, is there a way for Tamils in LTTE-controlled areas to influence the LTTE in politically significant ways. Thus, while Perera may be correct in suggesting that there is more space in the southern parts of Sri Lanka for human rights discourse than for the discourse of peace, this has yet to translate into tangible human rights protections, whether for Tamils or for Sinhalese. And, with impunity for human rights violations now deeply institutionalized, there is little chance—and no expectation—that any negotiated settlement between the government and the LTTE would involve legal accountability for human rights violations over the past two decades of war and terror.

The lack of independent civil society has had an important effect on the kinds of rights arguments that Tamil groups generally articulate. These tend to involve either group rights—such as the central demand for autonomous political control of Tamil areas by Tamils—or rights to be free from ethnic-based discrimination produced by individuals and state agents of another ethnicity. With the exception of the small but influential University Teachers for Human Rights, however, no one speaks in public about those rights that Tamils have as individuals, to be free from abuse by members of “their” community. This is a result not just of the terror and intimidation tactics of the LTTE, but also of the historical and continuing lack of effective political means for Tamils to influence government policies, which serves to legitimate the actions and representative claims of the LTTE. The two factors help fuel each other in a classic vicious circle.

The absence of a movement or organization capable of drawing Sinhala and Tamil people together around their shared experience of massive human rights abuses, both at the hands of “their own" political representatives and those of "others," is, as Perera’s analysis indirectly reveals, one of Sri Lanka's greatest social and political deficits.

The Sri Lankan government is now controlled by a coalition that seems committed to establishing a durable cease-fire and entering into negotiations with the LTTE. One of the crucial questions for those committed to human rights is whether it is possible—and if so, how—to introduce human rights concerns into the pre-negotiation process and later into the negotiations themselves. The issue here isn't so much the now classic one of a trade-off between justice (or accountability) and peace. The question is whether the suspension of the armed conflict can lead to a larger de-escalation that might influence the human rights practices of both parties to the conflict. The government certainly has no interest in, or intention of, discussing their accountability for past crimes and rights violations. Yet it does seem willing to make some improvements in its respect for the human rights of Tamil citizens, at least as confidence-building measures in the initial stages of pre-negotiations. In this sense, some modest human rights improvements—for example, in the treatment of Tamil detainees or in the application of draconian "anti-terrorism" legislation—can function as a component of conflict resolution. Here "peace" and human rights do go together, in however limited a way.

The LTTE is all but guaranteed to reciprocate these gestures by discontinuing its attacks on Sinhala politicians, economic targets, and civilians, at least while the peace process is under way. But there is no equivalent push for them to reform their dealings with non-LTTE Tamils. Indeed, an extended cease-fire may well give the LTTE an opportunity to continue with its most notorious policies, such as the forcible recruitment of children and the violent intimidation of Tamils who attempt to articulate an independent political line.

Peace work and human rights work seem destined to remain on separate, at times even contradictory, tracks for the foreseeable future. Hope rests in the possibility that the present cessation of hostilities will last long enough to bring about a gradual de-escalation in attitudes and practices. This might open up space for more independent and effective political action and democratic accountability in both LTTE- and government-controlled areas. The question in the interim is how the work of "foster relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, and by extension, human rights and peace groups," which Perera names as one of the central tasks of peace organizations, can be done without ratifying, even legitimating, the anti-democratic control that the LTTE maintains over Tamil civil society groups.

In the short term, however, any respite from the war is itself a gain for human rights. Peace would help end the harassment, abuse, detention, torture, and disappearance of Tamils—and the murders and forced displacements of many Sinhalese and Muslims as well. Ultimately, it could enable a new political space to emerge for Tamils to assert their democratic rights against both the LTTE and the government.

Jeevan Thiagarajah

Jehan Perera correctly points out that splits between the human rights and peace communities in Sri Lanka today mirror ethnic divisions in the society. Although the institutions and organizations working to protect human rights in Sri Lanka have been strengthened, the ongoing civil strife prevents full realization of the rule of law, access to due process, equality, and nondiscrimination. Sri Lanka’s war is unfinished, which prevents normalcy and a return to traditional forms of governance. In this context, the single biggest impediment to peace is the association of ethnicity with state structures set in place to combat terror.

However, I disagree with Perera’s contention that the human rights discourse is dominated by Tamil concerns focused on the northeastern part of the country. As Perera suggests, there is a history of human rights abuse that predates the ethnic conflict. Its most violent phase began with the quelling of the first People’s Liberation Front insurrection in 1971. Seemingly every month since then, Parliament has approved additional emergency-rule measures circumscribing human rights irrespective of one’s ethnicity.

If there is a lesson in Sri Lanka’s experience, it is that the state is willing to use the apparatus it has in place to deal with internal civil strife anywhere. The methods used today by the government to combat perceived Tamil terror in the north and east are the same methods that were used with ruthless efficiency to quell the second southern insurrection in the late 1980s. The number of persons, mostly Sinhalese, who died or went missing at that time outstrips the toll of the conflicts in the north and east to date.

Institutional reform to establish a future power-sharing arrangement between the Sinhalese and Tamils is not enough. There can be no peace without justice. The state’s unwillingness to recognize the impact of Sri Lanka’s overlapping conflicts on its people and to accept responsibility for its role in abuses only makes a return to greater militancy more likely. Impunity presents the greatest threat. Without a change on the part of the state, the cycle of violence—like that seen in the successive People’s Liberation Front insurrections of 1971 and 1988–89 and the government’s repressive reactions to them—will be perpetuated. In the northeast, successive terror and counterterror measures have taken their toll on the community. There are bitter scars.

Both the government and the LTTE must address vigorously the citizenry’s need for recognition and justice. In a multiethnic island nation, these needs assume larger-than-life proportions. In the context of an internal civil conflict, restorative justice would be a more pragmatic approach if pursued formally. If existing social pressures are not to lead to many small wars at the end of this long one, the peace community and the human rights community must work together to make rights and justice the fundamental basis of society.

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