In May 2009, after a carefully negotiated surrender, a ragged group of Tamil fighters and their wives and children attempted to surrender to the Sri Lankan government. They were told to raise a white flag as they walked slowly to the government.
They were all summarily executed within minutes. This tragic war crime is now infamously known as the “White Flag incident”. This crime followed months of Sri Lanka’s systematic bombing of hospitals, food queues and so-called “No Fire Zones.”
This Thursday, one of the key officials implicated in the White Flag incident will be speaking at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Sri Lankan Ambassador Palitha Kohona is Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the United Nations in N.Y., and is the subject of an investigation by the Australian Federal Police. There have also been requests from NGOs to the International Criminal Court that Kohona’s involvement in these extrajudicial killings be investigated.
Kohona is the official representative of an authoritarian and oppressive regime. Yale is disturbingly granting him a platform to whitewash Sri Lanka’s genocide against Tamils on the island and normalize Sri Lanka’s role within the international community.
Sri Lanka endured a bloody half-century-long ethnic conflict in which credible estimates from the ground cite 146,000 Tamil civilians killed at the hands of Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Since the end of the armed conflict in 2009, Sri Lanka has come under scrutiny from the U.S. government, the United Nations and all major human rights groups for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Tamils. There is overwhelming evidence revealing the intentional shelling of civilian safe zones and hospitals by the Sri Lanka Army, and countless testimonies of torture, gang rape and gender-based violence during and after the peak of the fighting.
In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to “credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearance, [and] demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka”. This comes two years after Sri Lanka established a domestic “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” as a feckless front to circumvent the establishment of an international investigation into abuses committed.
In the meantime, the human rights situation on the ground has only deteriorated, as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights reported increasing “disappearances” or state-sponsored extrajudicial killings, assaults on journalists and free speech throughout the island, and escalating attacks on Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and Hindu temples. Even more troubling is the increasing ratio of one Sri Lanka Army solider for every four civilians, which engenders unprecedented Sinhalization and the erosion of the Tamil identity.
It is clear that Kohona unabashedly supports the Sri Lankan government in perpetrating an illegal war against Tamils. Kohona has categorically rejected allegations that Sri Lanka’s soldiers committed atrocities against Tamils, paradoxically characterizing the Army as pursuing a “zero civilian casualty policy” despite accounts of the widespread and systematic nature of attacks against Tamil civilians and society. Unsurprisingly, Kohona has wholeheartedly opposed the call for an independent international investigation. FES, an institution which carries Yale’s name and mission, should not grant him the opportunity to broadcast his regime’s propaganda.
As a Yale alum, I know firsthand of FES and the University’s efforts to instill a strong commitment to justice and integrity, in holding all governments — including our own — accountable for human rights violations. Inviting the Sri Lankan ambassador to speak is completely contradictory to the values that are so actively inculcated in Yale students. I expected better from Yale.
Tasha Manoranjan is a 2012 graduate of Yale Law School and the founder and executive director for People for Equality and Relief in Lanka .