Protecting Human Rights in Sri Lanka

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India this week offers a vital opportunity for the world's two greatest democracies to jointly promote their common values supporting freedom and civil rights in South Asia -- a region where extremism and China's influence continues to grow. More specifically, the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue must include a strategy for protecting human rights and fundamental democratic principles in Sri Lanka. Two years have passed since the end of the island-nation's 26-year civil war, yet little has been done to address the underlying causes of the conflict. The Sri Lankan government continues to argue that its self-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) can conduct an impartial investigation, but all previous government commissions failed to hold anyone accountable for the violence in Sri Lanka. Leading experts believe a credible commission should have been modeled in substance, not just in name, after South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Experts do not consider the LLRC an objective body or a viable judge of accountability, since it was commissioned by a government that itself bears responsibility for slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians during the final stages of the war. Enjoying the spoils of victory, President Mahinda Rajapaksa stacked the government with family members and continues to undermine the constitution and the fundamental tenets of democracy. After the war, presidential term limits were abolished, along with many key checks on presidential powers. Electoral reforms, political power sharing and greater regional autonomy -- all key ingredients for reconciliation -- have fallen off the agenda. Furthermore, the Rajapaksa government continues to intimidate independent journalists. The U.S. State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report noted that journalists are practicing self-censorship out of fear of retribution. Disappearances of journalists continue and the government still censors international publications such as The Economist, confiscating all copies whenever stories appear about Sri Lanka. It is impossible for the government to defend its democratic record when Freedom House reports that the only countries in the region with worse press freedoms are Afghanistan, Burma, China and North Korea. Tamils and other ethnic groups continue to face official discrimination. The government is attempting to alter the island's political landscape by building army posts and settling Sinhalese in traditionally Tamil areas in the north and east, while preventing thousands of internally displaced Tamil civilians to return to their homes. As Sri Lanka's economy continues to improve, job opportunities in the north and east must be made available to local Tamils. Post-war Sri Lanka will not thrive unless the country invests in all of its human capital, including the Tamil population, and rebuilds the homes, schools, hospitals and employment base of those who were most heavily impacted by the war. Mrs. Clinton's visit includes a stop in Chennai, where on June 8 the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu, under the leadership of Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, passed a historic resolution calling for investigations of war crimes in Sri Lanka and urging the Indian government to impose economic sanctions against the country until it stops discriminating against Tamils. Although the visit to Tamil Nadu is primarily for the trade interests of both countries, Secretary Clinton cannot ignore the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu where the killing of tens of thousands of their fellow Tamil civilians across the narrow Palk Straits is still very raw and painful. The Tamil American Peace Initiative applauds the initiative of the Tamil Nadu assembly and urges the U.S. and Indian governments to also demand an independent, international investigation of the Sri Lankan war -- one that will hold people on both sides of the conflict accountable, provide reparations to next of kin, close the book on the past, and restore democracy, equal rights, a free press, freedom of religion and economic opportunity. Secretary Clinton's visit should also be used as an opportunity for the two governments to discuss the imposition of economic sanctions against Sri Lanka as a way of compelling the Rajapaksa regime to end policies that discriminate against ethnic groups, and to restore democracy and civil rights to all of the island's peoples. Freedom is under threat in many areas of South Asia, and the United States and India should speak with a single voice and give hope to people across the region that the world's two great democracies will stand together and fight injustice wherever it exists.