NEW DELHI — Human-rights advocates won a major victory March 27, when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution approving an international investigation into possible “war crimes” in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic war.

U.N. agencies have estimated that more than 40,000 people, belonging to Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Tamils, perished in May 2009 in the final stage of the war that ended with the decimation of the Tamil rebels known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), who had merged with fleeing civilians.

Since 1983, the LTTE carried out a bloody campaign for autonomy of ethnic Tamil majority areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Overall, Tamils account for 18% of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people, while Sinhala-speaking Buddhists account for 70% of the population.

The Tamils are predominantly Hindus in their religion, but there is a substantial Christian minority among both the Sinhalese and Tamil populations in Sri Lanka.

One of the staunch advocates for an international investigation has been the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, whose members witnessed massive bloodshed and the loss of thousands of civilian lives in the ethnic Tamil-majority areas.

However, the Church faced harassment for speaking up for the war victims from Sinhala nationalist groups.

As the debate in the UNHRC gathered momentum in mid-March, Sri Lankan authorities shocked the world by arbitrarily arresting two prominent Catholic human-rights activists.

Ruki Fernando of the Inform Human Rights Documentation Centre and Father Praveen Mahesan, director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, were detained on March 16 under the Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. Under the law, the arrested could be detained without trial for months.

The arrest of the two outspoken Catholic activists was widely seen as a ploy to intimidate human-rights defenders collectively.

“The harsh measures taken against human-rights defenders will only show … there are continuing problems of arbitrary arrest and detention for human-rights workers in Sri Lanka,” read part of a statement from the National Peace Council, an advocacy group in which the Catholic Church is a member.

Vociferous protests from the international community forced the government to release both of them in two days without a case being registered against them.

“We are happy and relieved that they have been released,” Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar told the Register, following the March 19 unconditional release of the two Catholic activists.


Bishops Under Fire

In fact, Fernando and others had spoken out when Bishop Joseph himself came under fire from the Sinhala nationalist lobby.

Buddhist monks led street protests in Colombo in January, after Stephen Rapp, U.S. ambassador-at-large with the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, met cross sections of ethnic Tamil people demanding independent inquiry into war crimes that allegedly occurred during the closing stage of the ethnic war in 2009.

Even some government ministers demanded the arrest of Bishop Joseph and Bishop Thomas Saundaranayagam of Jaffna for meeting the U.S. official on Jan. 9 at the Jaffna bishop’s house.

“Yes, the Tamil bishops have come in for flak, with government ministers again calling for arrest of the bishops and saying they have misled the U.S. official,” Fernando told the Register.

“The bishops have only reported what has been reported to them by civilians and asked for that to be looked into through an independent investigation,” Fernando said.

Bishop Saundaranayagam took the calls for his arrest in stride. “There has been always [adverse] reactions when we speak about unpleasant things,” he said.

“We want to know what happened in the last few days of the war,” he added.

The Sinhala nationalists and government were infuriated with the Catholic bishops, as they had alleged in a media statement that even hospitals were attacked by the Sri Lankan forces and that cluster bombs were used in areas crowded by fleeing Tamil civilians as a war tactic.

“A massive number of people were slain inside No Fire Zones (NFZ). Just because LTTE was also there, you can’t execute a large number of civilians inside the NFZ. Even if the civilians were held as human shields, you can’t justify killing civilians,” Bishop Joseph noted.

Bishop Joseph also pointed out how international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were forced to leave the battle zones, against their wishes. “This is probably a move to get rid of potential witnesses,” he said. “Even after the war, these INGOs are still not being allowed to serve the people.”

Bishop Joseph further alleged an ongoing “structural genocide” in the Tamil majority areas and “appropriation of lands and government-aided colonization schemes.”

Bishop Joseph confirmed to the Register that “we are facing many difficulties here from fundamentalist groups from the south,” where Sinhala-speaking Buddhists are dominant.


The Next Step

However, undeterred by the criticism, the Church did not give up. More than 200 Catholic clergy, led by Bishop Joseph, sent an appeal to the UNHRC in February reiterating the demand for an international investigation into the war crimes and massive human-rights violation.

“Almost five years after the end of the war, we have not seen any truth and justice emerging from domestic mechanisms,” the Church petition lamented.

An international investigation, Bishop Joseph said, was the next step in the healing process.

“We are not asking this to make revenge on anyone in the government,” he said. “We only want this for the betterment of this country.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.