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Sexual violence against Tamils ‘systematic’, ‘part of policy framework’: Interview with Yasmin Sooka

Photograph SL Campaign

As the global summit on preventing sexual violence in conflict gets underway in London, the Tamil Guardian spoke on Tuesday to Yasmin Sooka, one of the three co-authors of the 2011 UN Panel of Experts report into wartime mass atrocities in Sri Lanka and co-author of the 'An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka 2009—2014' report on post-war Sri Lanka.

In comments ahead of an event on Wednesday focused on sexual violence in Sri Lanka and hosted by the Canadian High Commission, Ms. Sooka, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa and member of the advisory panel of Sri Lanka Campaign, also discussed the context of ethnic hierarchy in which the abuses are taking place.

Tamil Guardian: Can you tell us more about the event tomorrow night focused on Sri Lanka amidst the heightened interest on sexual violence in conflict given the global summit taking place in London?

Yasmin Sooka:

 

It's really to raise awareness of the human story, which often gets lost, into the documentation of the sexual violence. We've arranged for celebrities, including Bianca Jaggar and the famous rapper M.I.A to read some of the testimonies of witnesses.

It's meant to be not a long event, but one which makes use of the fact that we have a number of important people attending the prevention of sexual violence conference, to really raise awareness about the fact that the war in Sri Lanka is being persevered through other means.

 

Tamil Guardian: Reflecting on your experience in co-authoring the UN Panel of Experts report into mass atrocities in Sri Lanka, how did you find the experience of collating evidence for the 'Stop Torture' report into rape and torture?

Yasmin Sooka:

 

 

Collecting evidence when I was part of the Panel was extremely difficult, because even though I've been in many countries that have gone through conflict and have been in post-conflict countries as well, there may be something different in the way in which the war in Sri Lanka was conducted. The callous disregard for life during that final phase, and the manner in which the war was conducted was extremely cynical.

Already at that time the Panel was receiving individual testimonies and photographs about sexual violence but it was not on a massive scale and because we were almost at the end of our mandate it was really very difficult for us to make the determination that we have enough evidence, to say more than we did in our report, but what we did indicate was that it should be looked into.

The report by Charu Lata Hogg and Human Rights Watch I think was ground-breaking as well, in the sense that it really broke the story about sexual violence, but I think what was different about this one, was firstly that this was not in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. [In] fifty percent of the statements, the violations took place in 2013, and we have two statements in December 2013 and one as late as February 2014.

We also wanted to make sure that from a legal perspective the documentation would include medico-legal evidence. To some extent it's a little unassailable and you can't deny it, but it is really traumatic because it's not random. It's systematic.

Even someone like me – you know I always think I'm an old war weary war horse – I was shocked by the witness statements and the testimonies, because the kind of things that were done, were so depraved and there was no distinction that was drawn between men and women.

In fact for many of them, this remains a nightmare. The single thing that all of them said when I asked them, why did you want to [and] why were you able to speak about it, they all said, 'we want to make sure it doesn't happen again'. And of course that's our function, because quite frankly it's still happening in Sri Lanka and we have to draw attention to it so we can put a stop to it.

 

Tamil Guardian: You refer to sexual violence against Tamils by military commanders during the last phase of the armed conflict. How do you read that within the historic context, that it has been almost routine for decades through successive governments?

Yasmin Sooka:

 

 

Firstly I think that when something is as systematic as this - and one should remember that there are some reports of sexual violence going right back even through to the JVP period - it speaks really to a culture of impunity. It has become entrenched within the security forces.

The fact that when you begin to explore – and we do this extensively in our report – whether there has ever been action taken against senior officers for rape, torture and sexual violence, you actually see that it's minimal. One cannot but then draw the inference that it's actually being encouraged and that it's part of a policy framework.

And then when of course you take that in the context of a government that says 'the war is over now and we should build peace and reconciliation', and you see that the violations are on-going, I think there is a real question to be asked about whether the government is serious. That raises the question of the obligations of the international community to make sure that Sri Lanka is held accountable.

I think the fact that this year in the Human Rights Council member states agreed to set up this inquiry, the members of which will be announced very shortly in this June session, is an important step forward by the world, to hold Sri Lanka accountable.

We have to thank the people who come forward and who despite the traumatic experiences they have gone through are willing to speak, because when they do so, we are able to push the issue into the international agenda and into the public arena.
 

Tamil Guardian: The testimonies in your report reveal perpetrators of sexual violence explicitly mentioned the ethnicity of the victim during the act of abuse. How do you see the ethnic imbalance here between perpetrator and victim?

Yasmin Sooka:

 

 

I think that obviously there is a power dynamic structurally. The military is in control and you will remember in the report we wrote as the [UN] Panel of Experts, we talked about the triumphalism, and obviously annihilating the Tigers has created that sense of triumphalism and clearly it finds expression in the fact that Tamils in Sri Lanka are a vanquished group.

I do think that when the inquiry takes place they will need to probe this question because many Tamils have often spoken about the fact that this is a genocide, and that it has genocidal tendencies - the war in which this war prosecuted. I think all of us in the Panel that were confronted with this question have always raised that there is a real need for a proper investigation when it happens to test this issue.

In the case of the Panel we use the word persecution, because genocide is a very high threshold to meet. But I do think that when this inquiry is set up – and you must remember that the work of the Panel was to look into whether the allegations out there were credible – this inquiry should take it further, and should really look at that question as well, because when you look at allegations, you don't have the capacity really to look at the kind of criteria for each of them when you look at the question of genocide.

I guess this inquiry will have to look into what does it mean when you have a sense one over one, and have the vanquished all belong[ing] to a particular ethnic group, it does raise particular questions.

Having said that, I have to say we also had access to the medico-legal reports to 57 other cases and in that group, there were also people who were Sinhala and not just Tamil, so I think it's about which side, or who you supported really, that seems to be one of the criteria to become the fact in this on-going conflict.

 

Tamil Guardian: When you say 'it depends which side you supported', were the Sinhalese people that were affected, the Sinhalese victims, seen as being on the Tamil side?

Yasmin Sooka:

 

 

I think they were seen to be linked in some way. Even in our group of 40, there was somebody who was Muslim, but his family has had, I think, commercial links to the LTTE, so it became known that he was targeted because of that.

If you were perceived to be in opposition to the state then the same kind of treatment is going to be meted out to you, but there is no doubt that in the sample group that we looked, 39 of our witnesses were Tamil and of course in the interrogation the language that was used was really derogatory and really also picked up on the ethnic factor, and that is something that will need to be looked into when the inquiry does happen.