Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, September 24, 2018

AU appallingly provides platform to oppressive regime

Sri Lankan ambassador to speak in SIS on April 6

Correction appended

By Valli Sanmugalingam and Ali Beydoun

In Sept. 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the authoritarian and oppressive Iranian regime, gave a speech at Columbia University, claiming that "women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom" and denying that the Holocaust occurred.

The speech was met with uproar and protests from within Columbia University as well as from the media and general public, claiming that the University was providing a platform for Ahmedinaejad to promote his controversial ideas.

This Saturday, AU will be repeating history on our own Quad. The South Asian Arts Festival, sponsored by the School of International Service, will be presenting Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S., as its keynote speaker.

Wickramasuriya is the official representative of another authoritarian and oppressive regime, and AU is disturbingly allowing him a platform to deny Sri Lanka's genocide against Tamils on the island.

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 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war. There is overwhelming evidence revealing the intentional shelling of civilian safe zones and hospitals by the Sri Lanka Army and countless testimonies of gang rapes and gender-based violence during and after the peak of the fighting.

Two weeks ago, 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 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently 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 by Buddhist priests essentially endorsed by a nationalist Buddhist government.

Even more troubling is the increasing ratio of one Sri Lankan army solider for every four civilians in what the Sri Lankan government claims is a time of peace, prosperity and growth for Sri Lanka.

It is clear that Wickramasuriya unabashedly supports the Sri Lankan government that committed illegal war against Tamils. As you can see in dozens of his televised interviews and public statements, he categorically rejects any allegations that Sri Lanka's soldiers committed atrocities against Tamils, paradoxically characterizing the war as a "humanitarian rescue mission" despite accounts of the widespread and systematic nature of attacks against Tamil civilians and society.

Unsurprisingly, Wickramasuriya has wholeheartedly opposed the call for an independent international investigation.

How can the SIS, an institution which carries the AU banner and mission, give him the opportunity to broadcast his regime's propaganda? The answer: it cannot and must not sponsor the keynote address of the ambassador.

As an alum and a professor at AU, we know firsthand of SIS and the University's efforts to instill a strong commitment to justice and human rights, in holding all governments --- including our own --- accountable for the treatment and protection of their citizens.

Inviting the Sri Lankan ambassador to speak this weekend is completely contradictory to the value system that is so actively inculcated in AU students.

It is appalling that AU has agreed to provide a platform for Sri Lanka's oppressive regime to promote its false narrative of a peaceful and democratic Sri Lanka.

Ali Beydoun is the director of AU Washington College of Law's UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic.

Valli Sanmugalingam is an alum from the AU class of 2012 and advocacy director for People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL).

Correction: This article previously inaccurately described Wickramasuriya as the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka. He is the Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States. This article also previously misspelled Ahmadinejad's name.

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