Worldview Commentary No. 281 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

Author: Susan Good

“Sri Lanka: US Must Do More to Curb Forced Disappearances”

Global economic power brings responsibility.

That’s the message we send to China, by pressing Beijing to use its leverage as Sudan’s best oil customer to curb the slaughter in Darfur. China does not commit human rights violations in Darfur, but it can and should use its influence to save lives.

The same applies to the United States. There are places where we are not involved in violations, but where we can and should use our economic leverage to curb them.

One such country is Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, an island nation of 20 million people off the coast of India. The US is Sri Lanka’s best customer. Last year we bought 30% of the island’s $7.6 billion in exports, ranging from T-shirts to tea.

Sri Lanka is beset by ethnic conflict. Its population is over 70% ethnic Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist, and less than 20% ethnic Tamil, who are mostly Hindu. For the past 25 years, security forces of the Sinhalese-dominated government have clashed with the Tamil Tigers, insurgents who demand independence for the Tamil areas of the island.

War is bad enough, even when conducted according to the Geneva Conventions. But both sides in Sri Lanka have made the war, which has taken over 60,000 lives, far worse. The Tamil Tigers have a nasty habit of bombing and massacring Sinhalese civilians, and torturing and assassinating Tamil dissidents. The US declared the Tigers a terrorist group in 1997; the European Union followed suit in 2006.

The human rights record of the military and police is equally appalling. They specialize in forced disappearances. Their victims are typically young Tamil men suspected of membership in or sympathy with the Tigers. Often high school or university students, these youths are taken from their homes in sweeps, or picked up at checkpoints. They are then hauled off to military bases or to secret prisons, where they are tortured and never seen again. The security forces deny any knowledge.

Forced disappearances are one of the worst human rights violations. Not only do the immediate victims suffer. Families are left in anguish, not knowing whether their sons are alive or dead. Communities are terrorized.

For two decades Sri Lanka has been among the world leaders in forced disappearances – usually by the government side, since the Tigers tend to kill their victims outright. Over 20,000 people – one third of all fatalities in the war – have been forcibly disappeared.

A few years ago there was a lull. In 2002 Norway managed to broker a ceasefire, which more or less held until 2006 – even though European monitors reported some 4,000 violations of the ceasefire.

In 2006 civil war broke out again. The government side resumed widespread forced disappearances. A new report documents 100 cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, and lists 500 more cases documented by Sri Lankan human rights groups.

This month’s State Department Country Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka cites reported figures of over 300 disappearances in 2006 and nearly 900 in 2007.

The traditional response of Sri Lanka’s government is to blow smoke. It sets up commissions of inquiry. They document disappearances. The government then pays money to the families – over 16,000 by 2002.

But few perpetrators are prosecuted. Hardly any are convicted. The disappearances continue.

The current government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is more recalcitrant than most. Last year he told the Asian Tribune that some disappeared have simply “gone on their honeymoon without the knowledge of their household.” He added, “I must categorically state that the government is not involved at all.”

Plainly the fix cannot be left to his government. Human rights groups, joined by the British and American governments, call for deployment in Sri Lanka of international monitors, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to investigate and report on disappearances. In a visit to Sri Lanka last October, UN High Commissioner Louise Arbour endorsed the idea.

Monitors would be a step in the right direction. But what is really needed is enough pressure to persuade the Sri Lankan government and military to bring disappearances to a halt.

Last week US Ambassador Robert Blake held what the State Department termed a “constructive discussion” of the Department’s highly critical Country Report with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister. State says it looks forward to “continued dialogue.”

Diplomatic dialogue is not enough. Sri Lanka has proved adept at deflecting international pressure by setting up commissions and paying off families. Meanwhile more families are destroyed.

The US message must be clear: Forced disappearances must stop. Period. Otherwise we can find other places to buy our T-shirts and tea.

Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.