7 April 2014
Again we are talking of a war-torn country and “the blood in the streets”. The ethnic question in Sri Lanka has taken yet another labyrinthine turn with the United Nations Human Rights Council voting for a “comprehensive investigation” into alleged violations of human rights, and with the UN General Secretary insisting that Sri Lanka “must cooperate with the International community” and take its ‘assistance’. Many questions highlight the irony of the situation: what does the term ‘international community’ mean when there are 12 ‘no’ votes and 12 abstentions in a 47-member council? How far must/can such an agency intervene in matters concerning the sovereignty of a country? And how can any external agent heal Lanka’s profound wounds, caused by an internal war of more than three decades? In the true Nerudan tradition, poet Cheran’s moving testimony ‘explains a few things’ about being a Tamil in Sri Lanka. N Sathiya Moorthy indicates a policy direction, where the UN could step back and actively encourage internal resolution.
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The Tamil Tragedy
A Fine Balance
N Sathiya Moorthy
In the last week of April 2009, an unexpected telephone call from a long-lost friend woke me up in the early hours. For me, those were the days of continuous trauma, relentless protests in the streets of Toronto and constant ‘bombardment’ by horrific images from the war zones in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka. The request from my friend was simple and direct:
Then, he started to cry, his voice gradually became faint, and finally, the call ended without a farewell. He must have shelled out all his money for those few minutes on the telephone.
Several months later, I identified his bullet-ridden body in one of the photographs that has become documented evidence of war crimes. He was just one of my eighty-four friends and relatives, including children, deliberately killed in the last days of the war, while seeking refuge in the so-called ‘no fire zones’.
On 27 March 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted for a resolution to set up a “comprehensive investigative mechanism” into war crimes, and other related crimes by Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Of the Council’s 47 members, 23 voted for the resolution while 12 voted against it. There were 12 abstentions. India, which supported the previous two resolutions against Sri Lanka at the Council in 2012 and 2013, abstained, claiming the resolution was “extremely intrusive” and not conducive to “reconciliation” in Sri Lanka. India’s foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh, maintained that “[India] believes that our abstention is in the best interest of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and will assist us in our efforts to help them”. She was continuing a political decision. It was also a response to a question about Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s remarks, a few days after the vote, that the decision could have been taken by officials in the External Affairs Ministry. Chidambaram had further said, “twenty three countries had supported it and we also should have supported it, even if it was a watered down one.”
Whether it was a decision by foreign office bureaucrats or politicians, India’s decision to abstain was certainly not in the best interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and particularly the thousands of victims of the war. While hypocrisy, selectivity and geo-political interests routinely trump principle at the UN, the degree of denial, justification and cover-up of what happened in the Vanni region during the last phase of the war is truly shocking.
UNHRC Commissioner Navi Pillay was disappointed with the 12 abstentions and 12 “no” votes. She had urged a full-fledged independent international commission of inquiry, with adequate resources and political clout. The current resolution provides for an international investigative mechanism to be undertaken by the UNHRC. While there is hope, there is also uncertainty and doubt about the implementation process.
It is no secret that the US-led ‘international community’ and India were complicit in what happened in the last phase of the war. Wikileaks documents as well as the statements and interviews of the Sri Lankan President and Defense Secretary are just examples of the material and moral support rendered to the Sri Lankan state by the US and India. In 1996, the US Green Beret and Navy Seals commenced joint military exercises with the Sri Lankan security forces. Subsequently, Sri Lankan Special Forces were created and trained by the US. American military and institutional cooperation with Sri Lanka remain intact. This is also the case with India, Pakistan and China.
In addition to intelligence sharing and military training and support, India has protected Sri Lanka politically and diplomatically. On 27 January 2009, the then Foreign Minister and current President of India, Pranab Mukherjee offered the country’s solid support for the Sri Lankan state, asserting that “military victories offer a political opportunity to restore normalcy in the North [of Sri Lanka].”
Sections of the Indian media were embedded with the Sri Lankan army in the last phase of the war. In the subsequent months, when large-scale civilian casualties mounted and the hospitals and other ‘safe zones’ were indiscriminately shelled, considerable international pressure began to build. However, India succeeded in preventing any international response by insisting on “bilateral diplomacy”.
The role of the UN was even more troubling. There are at least two reports by the UN itself acknowledging “systematic failures” in protecting civilian lives during the last phase of the war. The first one was the UN Panel of Experts Report on Accountability in Sri Lanka commissioned by the Secretary General (2011) and the second one was the Internal Review Panel on UN Actions in Sri Lanka by Charles Petrie (2012). Petrie’s report meticulously documents how senior UN officials systematically refused to blame the Government of Sri Lanka for the killings, even while their own international staff advised them of the government’s culpability.
Charles Petrie’s report demonstrated
According to Petrie, a casualty sheet prepared by UN staff in March 2009, “which showed that almost all the civilian casualties recorded by the UN had reportedly been killed by government fire” was not disclosed. UN officials also failed to mention that two thirds of the killings were taking place inside ‘safe zones’ unilaterally declared by the government, purportedly to protect civilians.
Internal communications from the annexes to the Petrie report reveal that when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, attempted to speak out about potential war crimes by the Sri Lankan government, Ban Ki Moon’s then chef de cabinet, Vijay Nambiar, strongly implored her to dilute her statements.
After the end of the war, a UN report confirmed as credible the reports of up to 40,000 civilian deaths. The Petrie report suggests that 70,000 people could possibly have died in those final months, while the Bishop of Jaffna testified at the Sri Lankan government appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that 146,679 people were not accounted for.
Interview with Cheran Rudhramoorthy
For someone like me who inhabits three interconnected locations, as a journalist who has witnessed and reported on ‘genocidal massacres’ and other human rights violations in Sri Lanka in 1984-1993, as a poet and playwright, and as an academic with ongoing research and teaching commitments to the sociological and anthropological study of conflicts and resistance, what happened in the last phase of the war was but one thing: genocide.
We know genocide is a complex phenomenon that cannot be addressed or understood solely through the lens of international law. Indeed, the contemporary international legal framework and related international institutions serve the interests of nation-states. Nation-states and consequent methodological nationalism have been the cornerstones of the international system. The political demands by non-state communities, nations without states and other marginalised groups have received inadequate attention in the international arena. This is precisely the reason why modern-day genocides that target ethnic minorities or nations without states or nationalities fighting for self-determination either go unnoticed or have not been conceptualised/interpreted as genocide, pursuant to the 1948 Genocide Convention.
General descriptions such as “mass slaughter” and “ethnic cleansing” do not have the same legal imperative as genocide. In almost all cases, the perpetrators are the states themselves. They will either not acknowledge the genocide or marshal international support to deny any kind of responsibility. Denial and/or cover-up are the key strategies for avoiding responsibility. The notoriously slow process associated with international prosecutions inadvertently facilitates denial and cover-up.
Since 1948, there has been a systematic and widespread campaign against Tamils in Sri Lanka, or what may be described as ‘genocide priming’ – a process of exclusion and oppression which resulted in pogroms against Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1983 and culminated in the genocide of 2009. Between June 1956 and December 2008, 145 genocidal massacres of Tamils took place in Sri Lanka. These are very well documented. As a journalist, I have visited the sites of 41 massacres in the period between 1984 and 1987, interviewed survivors and reported the massacres for the English language weekly newspaper Saturday Review, published in Jaffna. People massacred were men, women, children and even babies.
The tragedy of Tamils is not so much in the loss, dispossession and continuing genocide by attrition. It is our utter haplessness in hoping the very forces guilty of supporting and facilitating the Sri Lankan state would somehow provide redress.
The periodic heat of the United Nations Human Rights Council has again passed. The US-sponsored resolution said it was time for a “comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka.” India and 11 other countries abstained from voting, 12 countries including China and Pakistan opposed the resolution, and Sri Lanka maintained that the resolution hurt the reconciliation efforts, and that it did not help. Such an investigation as mentioned in the resolution has the potential to upset the political processes in the island-nation. Ironically, it holds promise, too, of some ‘ethnic peace’ in the troubled country.
Today, crime and punishment in Sri Lanka seem to represent an eerie return to the old days, when competitive actions by the Government and the Tamil side, irrespective of the justifications raised by either party, had had disastrous consequences for the community and the nation at large. The recent attack on a police officer by an alleged cadre of the LTTE and the detention of three Tamil civilians, comprising two civil rights activists and a Tamil woman, may be considered a case in point.
Truth be told, no one other than Sri Lankans – Tamils as well as Sinhalese; Muslims, Burghers, and not to leave out the ‘Indian Tamil’ population – understand Sri Lanka better. It would be preposterous to try and fit Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans into a template of social attitudes and political behaviour alien to most people in the country. In fact, many of them do not even know how to acknowledge the existence of such a template elsewhere. Friendly nations like India, and later Norway, had failed in facilitating a negotiated settlement to the decades-old ‘ethnic issue’. It may now be the turn of the US and the rest of the West to make an attempt, again with little realisation of the ground realities in politico-administrative and socio-economic realms.
In 2012, a resolution was already voted
Despite two-plus years of continuous engagement at the UNHRC, neither side has learnt to speak the language of the other or arrived at an idiom the other can understand and act upon. Neither stake-holder in Sri Lanka can understand each other’s tongue, which they had begun to do during the post-war negotiations. It will remain so as long as the ‘Big Brother’ either dominates – or, is seen as dominating – their collective horizon, choking them out of breath, space and time.
It is one thing for the international community to ‘encourage’ the ethnic leaderships in Sri Lanka to talk to one another, to find an all-encompassing political solution that can be implemented on the ground with the whole-hearted backing of a demographic majority across the ethnic-divide. It is entirely another matter for the world to tell Sri Lanka what it should do, that too in a brash way that the nation does not understand or cannot afford to accept. Today, not just the political leadership, but even local perceptions of sovereignty and stability seem to be ‘threatened’.
It is already happening. Supporters of the Anglo-American resolution this time, both among the Sri Lankan Tamils, starting with their diaspora, and also their ‘umbilical cord brethren’ in Tamil Nadu, maintain that the US had ‘diluted’ the draft. Some say that the US wanted only a ‘friendly government’ in Colombo to protect its geo-strategic interests, and that Washington was least concerned about the Tamils, their problems and aspirations in Sri Lanka.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has consistently
On the other hand, the Sri Lankan Government under the two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa has consistently and steadfastly opposed UNHRC interventions of any kind, other than as an advisory role in Colombo’s terms, references and specifics. Though reports say that the Sri Lankan Government has started negotiating/bargaining with the US, there is nothing at all to suggest that they might have reached that stage already. As evident in Rajapaksa’s comment on the resolution, Colombo continues to harbour suspicions that the West is acting at the behest of the voters from the diaspora of the Sri Lanka Tamil (SLT) in countries such as the UK, Norway, Canada and Australia. Canberra has been consistently opposed to all ‘international interventions’, as it wants to work with Colombo to check the flow of ‘boat people’ from Sri Lanka, who could upset the local job market and social structure, demography and elections.
The Tamil cause finds support in the wide Tamil diaspora
It may be surmised that both sides in the ethnic debate in Sri Lanka are back to the old blame-game between them, as well as to criticizing the international facilitator. For the relatively ‘optimistic’ sections of the SLT diaspora, any international initiative, while serving only a limited and immediate purpose, if at all, would take their own agenda one more notch up.
The ‘Tamil nationalist/separatist’ leadership would then blame the world for letting down the Tamils and their captive constituency back home. This way, they would no longer have to rely on ‘outsiders’ and could fight for their right space in the way they deem fit. This would be a return to separatist politics, if not a revival of the ‘ethnic war’ that had led to all-round disaster for the afflicted community.
Against this, the Sri Lankan government, which could and should still try and revive the political process involving the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) after it was allowed to flounder in 2011, and that too in the run-up to the first US resolution at UNHRC, would cite the “limited/unlimited international political support” for the Tamils in the country as the sole cause for the return of militancy, and the militant mindset of the ex-LTTE cadres overseas, first, and nearer home. As a sovereign state, it would then demand of and expect the international community to help Colombo clean up the mess that they had caused in the first place. The past bears evidence to the future.
In the case cited at the beginning of this reflection, other than the ‘official versions’ from either side, which naturally are contradictory, nothing much is known about the hand that pressed the trigger, or the Tamil woman, Jeyakumari, who alone has been held back in custody, as the alleged assailant Gopi had stayed in her house. Justice C V Wigneswaran, the Tamil-exclusive TNA Chief Minister of the Tamil-majority Northern Province in Sri Lanka, stated on record that the local army commander had said that the suspect, Gopi, had arrived from overseas, and was attempting to revive LTTE militancy.
Tamil activist Balendra Jeyakumari
The question that remains is whether the Sri Lankan state should have the sovereign right, responsibility and duty to follow up on such reports, or whether this job should be left behind for a future global probe, sanctioned by the UN system and accepted by the host-nation. Larger questions would relate to the mood of the 200,000-strong armed forces that may feel let down by the world after thanking them early on for “ending unprecedented and unmatched terror of the LTTE variety” – all of them together threatening the nation’s stability in ways that the international community can understand.
What would be the new role of the army now?
Constant references to ‘accountability issues’ can be counter-productive, particularly if such a probe covers LTTE terrorism, and numerous instances of hostage-taking and human-shields-making of the Tamils. Any unbiased probe – national or international – could put veteran Sri Lankan army officers and serving ones under the scanner, but could also strike a political balance by putting on the dock, retired members of the LTTE terror-network, many of them cooling their heels in western nations, and also serving leaders of the Tamil polity and society, including religious leaders. All these have consequences.
The right way, instead, is for the international community to help and encourage the Sri Lankan stakeholders to sit across the table and find a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue by sharing their ideas and experiences in terms of ‘democratic power-sharing’. Evidently, this would amount to not pushing any less-understood, less-proven processes, which can hit where it hurts, but may not hit where it should.
Cheran Rudhramoorthy is one of the most influential contemporary Tamil poets. A native of Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka, he worked for the non-aligned English weekly Saturday Review in the 1980s and contributed to the creation of the Tamil newspaper Sarinihar in the early 1990s. He is now teaching at the Department of Sociology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. His many publications span across the fields of multi-lingual poetry, literature, history, politics and culture.
N Sathiya Moorthy is Director at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. A policy analyst and journalist, he has worked with most major Indian newspaper groups in India, both in English and local languages, for over three decades. He was Editorial Advisor to a tri-lingual TV group in Sri Lanka in 2005-2006. His current work involves Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Update (5 May): The third image is changed, due to editorial concerns.
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