The Society for Threatened Peoples is concerned about the violation of the Social, Economic and Cultural Rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. These violations can be traced to the long-standing policies of successive governments which have eventually led to the outbreak of armed conflict. Whoever is concerned about ending the war in Sri Lanka that has so far claimed 55000 dead, 800.000 internally displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of expatriates among the Tamils, must address these causes and cannot confine himself to lamenting the manifest violations of rights, including torture, disappearances, censorship, impunity and the quasi permanent emergency.
Sri Lanka is home to a plurality of peoples: Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays, and Burghers who speak three different mother tongues (Sinhala, Tamil, English) and practise four different religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity). However, far from recognizing this cultural and ethnic heterogeneity in their nation-building and development policies, successive governments have in practice and in constitutional law favoured the majority community denying equality to the other communities.
Exploiting the power of the ballot, the majority community of roughly 70 % Sinhala Buddhists has identified itself with the nation, appropriated the state and used it to its own advantage. Ever since independence in 1948, government policies have systematically violated the social, economic and cultural rights of Tamils: through the disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils, through state sponsored colonization of the North-East by Sinhalese settlers, frequently accompanied by forceful eviction of Tamils, through a discriminatory language, education and recruitment policy which pursued but one aim: the Sinhalization of the state. Today, more than 90 % of civil servants, and 99 % of the security forces are Sinhalese. The politics of ‘positive discrimination’ of the Sinhalese appears presently to be transformed into one of long-term exclusion of the Tamils because of proven incapacity. For what reasoning other than to eliminate the formerly superior Tamil competitiveness once and for all, while prolonging, even cementing Sinhala domination well into the next generation, can be adduced to explain the surplus of 14 000 Sinhala as against a shortage of 10 000 Tamil medium teachers, the lack of the most elementary school equipment (over 120 000 desks and chairs in the Vanni alone); a teacher pupil ratio of 70 to 1 in Tamil areas as against 22 to 1 for the rest of the country? The results of this outright violation of rights manifest themselves: in the competitive examinations for the Sri Lanka Accountant and the Administrative Service at most two Tamils were selected each year since the early 1990s!
Successive constitutions have abandoned the earlier minimum provisions for the protection of minorites. The present government’s constitutional proposals have been hailed even by members of this Commission as a model for solving ethnic conflicts. But, far from accomodating the minority peoples it reaffirms the unitary state, confirms by flag and religion the majority as the sole representative of the nation; instead of multilingualism, Tamil is reduced to local vernacular; the decentralization of power, finally, leaves nothing more than the authority of a local council to the ‘provinces’; and the latter’s delimitation in the North and East, which the Tamils claim as their homeland, aims at limiting the territorial basis of the Tamils as far as possible. Neither devolution nor peace-offer, it is an invitation at constitutionally legitimized submission!
The Tamils have first sought to redress the long-standing systemic violation of social, economic and cultural rights by peaceful means. However, promises made by primeministers were broken, increasingly bloodier pogroms, occasionally with offical connivance, were carried out against the Tamils. Thus, having exhausted all peaceful means and fearing for their survival as a people, arms were taken up in the aftermath of the pogrom of 1983.
The former Secretary General of the UN, Mr.Boutros Boutros Ghali prognosticated a doubling of UN members within the next decades, a development which can only come about through a fragmentation of existing states. The international community has confined the right to self-determination to peoples struggling against ‘salt water colonialism’. However, by sanctifying the sovereignty and territorial integrity of existing states, it has effectively given carte blanche to repressive governments vis-à-vis minority peoples. It is this internal colonialism, not an ethnic war which is but its result, which poses the greatest threat to the unity and territorial integrity of states. The demand for the respect of Human Rights in general, of minority rights in particular is no remedy against state sponsored discrimination since these are essentially individual, not collective rights. As Sri Lanka exemplifies, it is this violation of social, economic and cultural rights, this institutionalized denial of a collective identity that leads the oppressed to eventually resort to arms in their defense, if necessary by way of external self-determination.
In conclusion, the Society for Threatened Peoples asks:
How long will the UN Commission for Human Rights continue to listen to the reports of its own Special Rapporteurs and of NGOs concerning massive human rights violations in Sri Lanka as it has been doing for over a dozen years without addressing its primary causes?
Would it not be in the interest of prevention of further such violations if the Commission would concern itself with the provisions for decentralisation and group rights in the proposed new constitution?
If this Commission is to evolve human rights law, contribute to prevent internal war, and reduce the threat of fragmentation of states, it will have to reconsider the content and applicability of the right to self-determination. To focus on state-sponsored violation of social, economic and cultural rights as potential underlying causes of conflict, adopt the viewpoint of the discriminated minorities would advance such endeavour.