Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A small but positive step by Sri Lanka

According to Al-Jazeera, "more than 120,000 Tamil civilians held in state-run detention camps in Sri Lanka have been allowed to leave the facilities and return home." Although "transport out of the camps is a problem," "people seem to be very happy" and "many people ha[ve] already left." The move comes following "growing" international pressure on the Sri Lankan government to free the 128,000 men, women and children displaced by the conflict and thought to be detained in camps.

There are problems, of course. "Many detainees are expected to face a difficult task returning to their home villages in areas still littered with mines and other dangerous leftovers from the war." In response, "authorities [are] stepping up mine clearing work in the former combat zone" and "efforts to resettle the detainees were continuing as quickly as possible."

Given that "human rights have condemned the detention as an illegal form of collective punishment for Tamils following the government's victory in the war," this is an important step. An Amnesty International briefing paper from August detailed the serious risk of "enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence" faced by the refugees. With the camps opened up and the detainees free to leave, it would seem that that risk is at least reduced somewhat.

However, although UN spokesman for Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss has called this "a big step," he has also admitted that "security concerns remain." Namely, many refugees "are confined to the Buna area" because "their homes have been destroyed or the areas have mines."

But this is not all. Along with its August paper on the camps, Amnesty highlighted the plight of journalists in the country and the effects of media obstruction on civil liberties. Around the same time, it emerged that "the [Sri Lankan] army chief says he wants the army, already 200,000, to increase in size by 50%" now that the war is over," in order to "observe everything these people [LTTE survivors] are doing, and take any action needed to prevent them forming again." All of which made the end of the civil war seem like the beginning of a new repression rather than a chance to restore peace and basic rights.

It appears that these issues have not been addressed, and that human rights issues in the country will continue to fester. However, in the immediate short term, this small, positive step must be acted upon. as Britain's International Development Minister Mike Foster told the Independent, "now it is imperative that humanitarian agencies be allowed full access to give them the help they need in all the places that they return to."