Sri Lanka: Will Tamils get justice from the UN?
Tamils are held in miserable conditions in IDP camps.
By Ron Ridenour
May 16, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Forty-seven governments on the Untied Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will discuss and decide, beginning at its May 30 session, what to do about an unusually truthful report in the world of international politics.
The “Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka” was delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 31 concerning: 1) alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last phases of the 26-year-old civil war, September 2008 to May 19, 2009; 2) consequences for approximately 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and, by extension, for 2.7 million Sri Lankan Tamils, 13% of Sri Lanka's 21 million population.
After receiving the report, which calls for investigations into these allegations, Ban Ki-moon stated that he did not have the power alone but one of three UN bodies had to request such action, either the General Assembly or the Security Council or the Human Rights Council.
The panel—chair Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven Ratner (US) and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa)—was commissioned by the secretary general, June 22, 2010, after Sri Lanka’s government had failed to rehabilitate or reconcile with the Tamils affected by the brutal war, which, according to the panel, caused up to 40,000 civilian deaths in those eight months, plus several thousand combatants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government soldiers.
The panel began work in September 2010 but had to conduct its research outside Sri Lanka as the government refused this United Nations body permission to enter its country. The panel could interview many eyewitnesses, however, who were eventually released from military camps after months of detention—many of whom bribed their way out—or who were able to escape the war zone towards the end on boats provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Several ICRC workers and other humanitarian employees were killed by government military shelling.
Of the dozens of recommendations proposed by the panel, the last two concern the United Nations.
A. The Human Rights Council should be invited to reconsider its May 2009 Special Session Resolution (A/HRC/8-11/L. 1/Rev. 2) regarding Sri Lanka, in light of this report.
The above-cited resolution had been proposed by the Sri Lankan government to praise its behaviour in the war and condemn only the LTTE for war crimes and terrorism. Not a member of the HRC, Sri Lanka got Cuba, then the Non-Aligned Movement president, to introduce it. It passed with 29 voting in favour and 12 against, with six abstentions.
The panel determined that, “the Human Rights Council may have been acting on incomplete information”.
B. The Secretary-General should conduct a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.
The panel criticised the UN’s role in this conflict.
During the final stages of the war, the United Nations political organs and bodies failed to take actions that might have protected civilians.
The panel recommended that the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) should “commence genuine investigations”, and an independent international mechanism established by the UN secretary-general should also investigate what did occur.
The panel recommended that GOSL should also “issue a public, formal acknowledgement of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties”.
In its summary, the panel wrote:
The Panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government of Sri Lanka. The Government says it pursued a "humanitarian rescue operation’"with a policy of "zero civilian casualties". In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity (author emphasis). Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.
Especially the Panel found credible allegations associated with the final stages of the war. Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling causing large numbers of civilian deaths. This campaign constituted persecution of the population of the Vanni. Around 330,000 civilians were trapped into an ever decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by the LTTE. The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear.
The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches. It shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided by its own intelligence systems and through notification by the United Nations, the ICRC and others. Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.
The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government. The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering.
The panel’s full text of 214 pages lists details of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides in paragraphs 246-252:
The government is accused of: murder, extermination, mutilation, arbitrary imprisonment, rape, torture, persecution founded on race, religion or politics, and disappearance.The LTTE is accused of: violence to life and person, torture, mutilation, forced labor and forced recruitment of children, and shooting civilians trying to flee the war zone.religion or politics, and disappearances.
The IDP Tamils were brutally confined and treated. Tamils in their traditional northern and eastern “High Security Zones” are militarised, denied normal rights, intimidated and made victims of violence.
The panel therefore recommended that GOSL end all state violence, release all displaced persons and facilitate their return to their homes or provide for resettlement. [Thousands of Tamil homes have been taken over by soldiers and other Sinhalese.] It should also repeal thel emergency aws that deny democratic and civil rights.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa family regime continues to deny any wrongdoing, contending that no civilians were killed and were later well treated in IDP camps. It claims it only attacked the LTTE. If there were civilians killed, according to government logic, it is their own fault for being there. The panel cites international law that “an attack remains unlawful if it is conducted simultaneously at a lawful military object and an unlawfully-targeted civilian population” (paragraph 199).
The GOSL says it has established a transparency process to address the past from the 2002 ceasefire agreement to the end of the conflict, the so-called Lessens Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). While the panel views this as a “potentially useful opportunity to begin a national dialogue”, the “LLRC fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interests of some of its members”— Three were government officials; one an attorney-general.
The panel also points to the history of conflict between the government and Tamils seeking full rights. For decades the Tamils used Gandhian civil disobedience, non-violent tactics before many took up arms in several groups. The Tamils have suffered half-a-dozen pogroms, with government backing, in which thousands were brutally murdered, including mutilation and being burned alive.
In the few instances in which governments have set up commissions of
inquiry to examine human rights abuses, they have “failed to produce
a public report and recommendations have rarely been implemented”.
The fact is, states the report (paragraph 28):
After independence [from Great Britain in 1948], political elites tended to prioritize short-term political gains, appealing to communal and ethnic sentiments, over long-term policies, which could have built an inclusive state that adequately represented the multicultural nature of the citizenry. Because of these dynamics and divisions, the formation of a unifying national identity has been greatly hampered. Meanwhile, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism gained traction, asserting a privileged place for the Sinhalese as protectors of Sri Lanka, as the sacred home of Buddhism. These factors resulted in devastating and enduring consequences for the nature of the state, governance and inter-ethnic relations in Sri Lanka.
The first pogrom took place in June 1956 as the new prime minister, SWRD Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka Freedom Party—the same party to which the Rajapaksas belong) backed the “Sinhala Only” bill, one of several discriminatory measures against the Tamil people. Because some Tamils conducted sit-ins, Buddhist monk-led mobs rampaged for 10 days, murdering 150 Tamils and burning their homes and businesses. Ironically, because Bandaranaike was willing to engage in dialogue with Tamil leaders he was murdered by a “pacifist” Buddhist monk on September 29, 1959.
Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo, became PM in July 1960 and continued discriminatory policies against Tamils. She sat as PM or president four terms spread over 40 years, for a total of 13 years. She was the world’s first female PM and brought Sri Lanka into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as a founding member, in 1961. The NAM, now with118 state members, stands against imperialism, interference from foreign nations, bloc politics and against racism. Cuba and other progressive governments, as well as reactionary ones in the “Third World”- based NAM have, therefore, backed Sri Lanka in international issues.
In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela launched ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America) as an alternative to capitalist economic and political coalitions. Today there are eight Latin American government members, including Ecuador, which is now on the HRC along with Cuba. In 2009, Bolivia and Nicaragua, both in ALBA, were members of the HRW supporting Sri Lanka.
These socialist-leaning governments have better human rights records than the previous capitalist governments of their countries, which were for many decades under the dictates of US imperialism and before that under European colonialism. ALBA partners now have a chance whether on the council or not to help the Tamil people in some way, also by calling for an investigation.
This is the challenge that the countries of the NAM on the HRC now face with the panel’s recommendations for an international investigation into alleged war crimes. Will they resist criticising a member for its racist and terrorist actions against an entire people, or will they take sides with a clearly oppressed people? The latter choice might place them voting alongside the rich, Western nations that will probably call for some sort of an investigation. (See my piece on this dilemma at http://links.org.au/node/1362.)
As I view the possible thinking of socialist Cuba and other NAM countries, the dilemma is between supporting sovereignty for Third World countries confronted with interference from imperialist and former colonialist states, a legitimate issue, and conducting national policies in such a way that no section of the population is systematically discriminated against or subject to genocide.
Since the 2009 HRC resolution, there are 15 new countries on it, among them the US. One must ask: just what is the game plan of the US and its European allies, who make sounds of protest against Sri Lanka’s abuse of human rights while they are the worst offenders, constantly engaging in aggressive wars against NAM members and others: now warring against the sovereign government of Libya and the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine.
One can also ask why one of the panel members, Ratner, participated in such an elaborate, comprehensive and just report. As a legal expert of international law he advised the US State Department (1998-2008), which is the major political aggressor in the world and has backed Sinhalese nationalist governments against Tamil’s liberation efforts, providing armaments, intelligence, finances, military training and propaganda. (See http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/11/the-terrorists-international-support-for-sri-lankas-racist-discrimination/.)
But then most governments of both “blocs” have done the same: China, Russia, India, the UK and other European states, even Iran and also and especially Israel.
Clearly victims of US permanent war aggression, such as Cuba, react against its hypocritical “support” for “human rights”, and side with the “victim” Sri Lanka. Not in all cases, however, is the “victim” innocent. There are more offenders of human lives and civil rights than the imperialists. And the Sinhalese majority has been whipped up by Buddhist supremacist clergy and Sinhalese nationalist chauvinism by all the governments in Sri Lanka since 1948. Unfortunately, and without comprehension from my viewpoint, most of the Sinhalese-led Communist, Trotskyist and Maoist parties have immorally allied themselves with the two major parties to keep the Tamils down.
The United Nations is comprised of 192 nations, only three in the world are not in it: Kosovo—a separatist state creation of the US-EU; Taiwan, a separated part of China; and 771 people in the state of the Vatican City. The member states of the HRC, with China and Russia and other large countries represent more than one-half the world’s citizens.
Third World countries comprise the majority on the HRC. They have many ethnic peoples long oppressed and brutalised by others. Let us remember Rwanda and how the UN failed to intervene and prevent genocide of 1 million people. The UN again failed in a similar debacle in Sri Lanka. Let us hope that the Human Rights Council will redeem these tragedies regardless of motives.
[Ron Ridenour was born in the devil's own country, he rejected the American dream and became a solidarity and revolutionary activist and writer nearly half-a-century ago. He has lived in many countries and worked as a journalist-editor-author-translator for three decades. He worked for Cuba's Editorial José Martí and Prensa Latina for eight years, and has published five books about Cuba, as well as Yankee Sandinistas. His website is at http://www.ronridenour.com.]