Persuaded by a combination of muscular dystrophy diagnosis and a first-hand perspective of post-Civil War Sri Lanka, Rajeev Sreetharan set out in 2005 to find meaning in his life. He quit his job on Wall Street, wrote a thesis on world order, and earned a master’s in international relations from NYU. Ultimately, it would take more.
“Some people take the LSAT after watching Legally Blonde; I decided to after the FBI came to my parents’ house under a warrant issued by ‘post-9/11’ terrorism statutes that sweep innocent humanitarian activism within a prosecutorial net,” says Sreetharan, who concluded that to make a difference, he would need to get involved in law. “Vindicating peoples’ rights is probably more useful to society than me accumulating wealth for the purpose of accumulating wealth, so that’s why I’m here.”
Sreetharan perseveres today as a human rights activist in the war against genocide and as the first Sri Lankan Tamil enrolled at Tulane Law School. The LSAT, however, was only one piece of the larger picture for Sreetharan, a native of England, where his parents moved from Northern Sri Lanka in the 1970s amid increased war tension and anti-Tamil racial discrimination.
Around the same time of his diagnosis, the war in Sri Lanka ended, allowing Sreetharan and his family to return to the country to visit relatives. Recounting the war’s decimation, orphanages, amputees, and military checkpoints, he admits it was then that he re-connected with his Tamil identity.
Sreetharan and his family, along with fellow anti-genocide activists from the group American Tamil Diaspora, in 2008 founded the U.S.-based Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), an international non-profit organization that focuses on legal action for Tamil rights, from issues such as genocide and war crimes to asylum.
“Since Sri Lanka’s legal system does not work,” he says, “we began focusing on how to enforce Tamil rights outside of Sri Lanka for crimes that happen in Sri Lanka.”
Due to government shelling of a safe zone, an estimated 40,000 Sri Lankan civilians died within a year of opening TAG’s Bethesda, Md., doors. Since then, Sreetharan has worked with the victim community, finding lawyers across North America and Europe, studying the law, and essentially initiating legal action “that the United Nations should be doing, but will not.” The experience, he says, has been humbling, invaluable, and enlightening.
“In the past three to five years, I have seen the darker side of what the expensive legal textbooks on international law and human rights do not teach law students … of what happens when all of the fundamental, inalienable rights are transgressed by a government before the open glare of everybody,” he explains. “In retrospect, I have studied war crimes/genocide law in reverse.”
Sreetharan says he would like to develop a paradigm, similar to that of Sri Lankan Tamils, where Diasporas affected by armed conflict can come together to counterbalance geopolitical neglect of their plight. For now, however, he is content knowing his voyage continues in New Orleans, where a hurricane’s devastation drew him in and a community’s strength increasingly reminds him of home.
“War and genocide, when they are over, are all about rebuilding from the ruins,” Sreetharan expounds. “When you see passion for the Saints or Mardi Gras, I can sense an aura of resilience, which reminds me of the Tamil communities, which still smile despite the war and hardships. After this long journey, I finally feel like I am in the right place.”
In an ironic twist of “things coming full circle,” Sreetharan has landed a summer internship doing terrorism-related criminal defense work on Wall Street.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 504-865-4000 firstname.lastname@example.org