Tamil mothers in Sri Lanka’s north and east have chided a visiting British minister for ignoring the victims of war in an apparent bid to improve bilateral trade with the debt-ridden nation that is yet to fulfil its accountability commitments.
The British Minister of State for South and Central Asia, United Nations & the Commonwealth and Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, Lord Tariq Ahmed is in an official visit ‘to discuss our shared interests and to explore future opportunities’.
On the eve of his arrival the minister penned an opinion piece in a Sri Lankan daily setting out his agenda.
“The UK has a renewed focus on the importance of the Indo Pacific region to global trade and investment, and our mutual security, wrote Lord Ahmed in Colombo based Daily Mirror.
“The UK is building a network of economic partnerships and will look to work with Sri Lanka on these issues. I am also keen to support those in Sri Lanka striving for good governance and for strengthening human rights for all citizens.”
“Set aside dark memories’
Women leaders from all the eight districts comprising the war torn north and east who are on a continuous campaign to find the truth about their loved ones who are victims of enforced disappearances were highly critical of the minister’s approach.
“It’s clear from this article that your priority is engagement with a State that has and continues to violate human rights rather than any empathy for the victims,” Association for Relatives of the Enforced Disappearances (ARED) wrote in a jointly signed letter, of which JDS has a copy.
“At no point do you mention the burning ongoing issue of enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka – the country with the second largest number of cases reported to the UN. We represent the Tamil families who lost their loved ones most recently in vast numbers, particularly at the end of the war in 2009 when they surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army. The disappeared include babies and children. No answer has been given regarding their fate.”
At least 29 children below the age of 14 have disappeared at the hands of the military according to data released by ARED. This is apparently the largest number of child disappearances in one day at one place, in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil mothers said that it is imperative that Lord Ahmed ask all those he meets on this trip, including the President of Sri Lanka, who was defence secretary during the war, about the fate of loved ones.
On the day of the UK minister’s arrival, in a policy statement after inaugurating the second session of 9th Parliament the president downplayed the issue of enforced disappearances by saying that “it is not a problem limited to one party alone”.
“What we need now is to set aside the dark memories of the past and build a secure country where all sections of the community can co-exist in peace,” said Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
‘Insulted, abused & threatened’
However, the mothers from north and east making it clear that they are not prepared to move on without answers about the tens of thousands of disappeared Tamils, did not take the British minister’s ‘passing reference to accountability’ lightly.
“Imagine if it was your child who disappeared and just asking what happened meant you were insulted, abused, threatened and told it was your fault you didn’t have more information about who took them. We have been treated with utter disrespect for the last thirteen years and your emphasis on engagement and the economy – and only a passing reference to accountability – is just another abuse we suffer.”
Prior to his arrival, Lord Ahmed had displayed an optimism that the Sri Lankan government will deal with issues of the past.
“Dealing with issues of the past is essential to lasting peace, and building an inclusive future,” said Lord Ahmed writing in Daily Mirror.
“The Geneva process provides an essential framework for all those supporting Sri Lanka’s progress on peace, accountability, reconciliation, and social cohesion following the civil war. The UK supports the promotion of human rights in Sri Lanka, for all groups of people.”
However, the Tamil mothers who did not share the visiting minister’s enthusiasm called for sanctions against perpetrators.
“Do you really think this government is going to engage seriously with the past through the Geneva process? We want the UK government to help us achieve justice using universal jurisdiction cases as Germany did for the Syrians – and in the meantime sanction the military men involved in enforced disappearance,” they said in their letter.