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From Violence to Peace: Terrorism and Human Rights in Sri Lanka Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Sanjana, Sri Lanka Feb 21, 2003
Peace & Conflict , Human Rights   Opinions
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From Violence to Peace: Terrorism and Human Rights in Sri Lanka


In the context of a militarily strong secessionist guerrilla movement actively seeking a negotiated settlement to their goal of a separate state, an examination of the dynamics of terrorism and human rights in Sri Lanka is pertinent – a country ravaged by terrorism, racial tension and bad governance.

In a global context, while successive regimes have tried to address and then root out the evil of terrorism, the latest efforts spearheaded by America, show that many who engage with the problematics of terrorism do not really know what they are dealing with, or the implications of what they are doing to address it. Fighting against terrorism has become the facetious couture of a seemingly bi-polar world which is either with terrorists or against them. However, rhetoric and action that claim to root out terrorism often disguises the vacuity of anti-terrorism’s greatest exponents, who, like weathervanes in a storm, like to self-importantly spin and rattle largely in a world of their own imagination, where the causes of terrorism are ignored in the battle against its manifestations, where arrogant self-interests define the borderlines of conflict, and where the difference between an ally or an enemy is judged by the degree of subservience to a soi-disant coalition against terror.

Towards a definition of terrorism

Although legislation in many countries purportedly addresses terrorism, very few have dared define the word.

In its broadest sense terrorism can be thought of as the use or threatened use of force against civilians designed to bring about political or social change. Moreover, while we think of terrorism as being both a political and irrational act (especially suicide terrorism), terrorism can also be thought of as a rational act conducted specifically because of the impact it will have - fear, confusion, submission etc.

Today, terrorism must be viewed within the context of the modern nation-state. Indeed, it was the rise of a bureaucratic state, which could not be destroyed by the death of one leader that forced terrorists to widen their scope of targets in order to create a public atmosphere of anxiety and undermine confidence in government. This reality is at the heart of the ever more violent terrorism of the last 100 years.

The overwhelming salience of a coherent definition of terrorism must also address the wider socio-economic issues that give rise to terrorism. All we have to do is look at both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide to understand that violence, including terrorism by the state, rarely stops further violence as long as underlying societal grievances are not addressed.

Furthermore, definitions of terrorism must tread warily between restricting the freedoms of the individual with legal provisions required to guard against the contingencies and imperatives confronting the state and the primary necessity to protect democratic processes without excessive intrusion in to the private domain of the individuals. Maintaining the democratic process, which is the ultimate guarantor of individual liberties and human rights, must be uppermost in any definition of terrorism.

A single definition of terrorism then, cannot account for all possible uses of the term. In the context of Sri Lanka, a useful description of terrorism was given by the President Chandrika Kumaratunga at the first Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture held in Delhi recently. The President made the insightful observation that terrorism cannot be tackled without addressing its causes. “The tactics of terror and murder cannot... and should certainly not be tolerated by any state or government. The strictest action should be taken efficiently and expeditiously, against all movements and individuals participating in or condoning terrorism as a political strategy. But the causes that have generated such movements must be addressed” and went on to say that “the rational political, social and economic aspirations of peoples which, when frustrated continuously, give rise to full blown terrorism of modern day must be sifted out of the process of terrorist actions and looked at separately.” This is a definition that has not thus far been lucidly articulated by Chandrika herself in Sri Lanka. While one could argue that the President's ‘War for Peace’ strategy was also one that tried to isolate terrorists whilst promoting constitutional reform, the failure of the strategy highlights an important facet of the Sri Lankan state – that dominant power structures rarely address the conflict with a commitment to find the underlying causes for terrorism.
Is there a link between terrorism and Human Rights?

Much of the debate and discussion on Human Rights focus primarily on Human Rights concerns associated with the response of State's to activities of non-state actors. However, we must not ignore the impact of non-state actors on Human Rights. As Ms. Kalliopi K. Koufa, the UN Special Rapporteur on Terrorism states in her progress report on Human Rights and Terrorism: "There is probably not a single human right exempt from the impact of terrorism."

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Sanjana Hattotuwa is a Rotary World Peace Scholar presently pursuing a Masters in International Studies from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. The views expressed here are his own. He can be contacted at hatt@wow.lk.

curtis star | Oct 8th, 2003
I would like to applaud Sanjana Hattotuwa on her insightful piece delving into the causes of terrorism in SriLanka. She approaches the subject matter with sincerity and honesty and makes it evidently clear to us, the forces and influences that single handedly planted the seeds of rebellion and chaos in the form of the LTTE. If only Sri Lankan politicians could be as honest with themselves then this war would have been over many years ago. Well done Sanjana! Curtis

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