Students Take Temperature of Human Rights in Sri Lanka

Human Rights Study Project

Cowan Fellows, from left, Calleigh McRaith, Jane Lee, John Akin, Gabriel Hippolyte, Elizabeth Dobbins and Lansing Lee were among the Human Rights Study Project members who went to Sri Lanka.

April 3, 2012

Almost three years after the end of a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, a group of University of Virginia law students ventured into the Southern Asian island nation in early January to explore the current state of human rights. The eight field researchers, who serve as Cowan Fellows in the student-run Human Rights Study Project, will report on their findings on Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m. in Caplin Pavilion.

Each year, fellows in the Human Rights Study Project travel to countries with troubling records on human rights to collect information, mostly through first-person interviews, and report their findings. Past teams have traveled to China, Cuba, Cambodia and the Middle East, among others. (More)

In the decade since the program started, students have often faced questions from government officials or even surveillance, and this year's fellows said their visit to Sri Lanka was no exception. But they said the most challenging part of their trip was merely sorting through the complex set of problems the citizens there face — issues that were often downplayed by official sources.

"Just denying that there is a problem is something we all experienced to one degree or another," third-year law student Calleigh McRaith said. Last month, she published a portion of her research culled from interviews with post-war detainees on the Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews. (More)

The Sri Lankan government defeated the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009 after a 26-year conflict that involved alleged human rights abuses on both sides. Since then, the government has had the task of rehabilitating and reintegrating former rebels, and rebuilding the country. McRaith found that post-war detentions often seemed to be arbitrary and unrelated to the level of previous service to the opposition.

"These are people who were never charged with anything," McRaith said. "Some were kept for two years, some only a year, but that's a long time with no counsel."

Sri Lanka
The Cowan Fellows traveled to Sri Lanka in January to conduct field research on human rights conditions.

McRaith and the other Cowan Fellows say they went into the project with an open mind. "We were really looking for a country that had issues all of us would be interested in researching," said second-year law student John Akin, the current Human Rights Study Project president. Sri Lanka was chosen over Suriname and Nepal based on its relative safety and feasibility, he said. Since the civil war's ceasefire, there have been no reports of terrorism in the country, according to U.S. advisories.

The students said the relative sense of safety may be due to the government's tight police control, which they witnessed firsthand at a military checkpoint — where their arrival seemed to be expected, they said. In fact, the government sent a car for the students on the second day of their visit to verify their intentions.

Officials also provided bus tickets, set up interviews with preferred sources and kept tabs on them throughout their 17-day visit, the students said. Under watchful government officials, threats to freedom of speech are real in Sri Lanka, said Clare Boronow, a third-year law student who focused on the topic. Article 14 of Sri Lanka's constitution ensures the freedoms of speech and expression — subject to limitations such as national security — but these freedoms do not always exist in practice, she said.

Boronow said since the editor of The Sunday Leader was assassinated in 2009, government officials have been able to use more subtle tactics to scare journalists into writing reports that meet with their favor. "The government has been known to call up editors and threaten them," she said. "Now the biggest issue is self-censorship."

The students said the government wants to emphasize the future and is reluctant to discuss reconciliation, a topic that second-year law student Jane Lee studied, but which crossed over contextually into all of the students' research. International human rights monitors have charged that Sri Lanka's internal measures for war accountability haven't gone far enough.

Post-war accountability is also an issue. Second-year law student Lansing Lee, who researched the status of land rights, said determining property ownership following a civil war is difficult. The Tamils had previously expelled Muslims from the territory, and following the war, the government had to decide how to reallocate portions.

"It's a pretty complex problem in Sri Lanka and it's not as cut and dried as war crimes," Lee said. "It is kind of a societal problem. It's not like all the Tamils are the victims and all the Sinhalese, which is the majority party in Sri Lanka, are the perpetrators in this instance."

Lee spoke to Sri Lankans who were asked to leave their land temporarily, only to be told they couldn't return because a military base would be built there. So far, he said, those civilians have not been offered any compensation, as required by law.

Akin, who studied challenges to the rule of law in the country's post-war society, interviewed members of the Kandy and Jaffna bar associations. They reported that disputing equal protection and other fundamental rights is impractical for most people. Petitions are expensive to file, and require a personal appearance in Colombo, which is distant from Jaffna.

"This is so costly and prohibitively complex that it's out of reach as a practical matter," Akin said.

Similarly, he said, the courts do hear habeas corpus petitions, but if a person who may be illegally detained is held in an unknown location, judges often claim it's impossible to issue an order to bring the parties in for a review of due process.

Another barrier to justice in the country is the language gap between the Sinhalese and Tamil people. Their inability to communicate has resulted in some questionable police investigations, Akin said.

"English is supposedly the link language, but that's not necessarily the reality," he said.

The students said the lack of a common language affects others aspects of life as well. Third-year law student Amanda Gray studied education and language policy, and second-year law student Gabriel Hippolyte studied the related topic of child protection and reintegration. Hippolyte said the government places a strong emphasis on the value of education for all groups, but that the North suffered from a lack of resources when the war ended, including a scarcity of teachers who could speak Tamil.

"It's believable that they wouldn't have enough teachers to teach such a large amount of students," Hippolyte said.

Just as languages compete in Sri Lanka, so do a plurality of personal laws that affect traditional family concerns such as marriage, divorce and property ownership. Second-year law student Elizabeth Dobbins studied the family law system and said that although Thesawalamai law — practiced by Tamils in the North — may be in need of reform to protect religious liberty and women's rights, she hopes the government can take a respectful and mostly hands-off approach to changes.

"It is a defining feature of the Tamil people," Dobbins said. "As such, any reform to this law affects them deeply. Had I not traveled to Jaffna, I wouldn't have understood the complexity of what this legal reform meant to them." For the students, the trip expanded their ability to make contacts, network and think on their feet — skills that are important to all field research, they said. "I'm applying for some international jobs, and for places like the U.N., it's good to have field research," McRaith said. "We have to take responsibility for things we say and our procedure. I think that's good experience for our careers, especially doing human rights."  


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