UN will deny Tamils justice
Tamils protest in London, April 2009, during the Sri Lankan government's brutal war to crush the Tamil movement for national rights.
By Ron Ridenour
February 20, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Brace yourselves Tamils in and from Sri Lanka! The United Nations Human Rights Council will not grant you justice at its 19th session, on February 27-March 23, 2012 or, perhaps, in any foreseeable future.
Until the past few weeks it looked as though the “international community” (US, UK-Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan), the east (Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran), the Middle East-Libya/Africa and the progressive global South (Cuba-ALBA+, South Africa) were content with ignoring Sri Lanka’s war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This tragedy was not even placed on the agenda despite the UN’s “Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka” delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, March 31, 2011. The panel determined that both the Sri Lankan government-military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had most likely committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It called for an independent international investigation into credible allegations levelled at the state. The LTTE was crushed by May 18, 2009 and no longer exists.
On the agenda for the 19th session are 80 reports and missions with 40 addendums concerning about 50 countries. None deal with Sri Lanka, not even under section E, “Combating impunity and strengthening accountability, the rule of law and democratic society”. The 18th HRC session (May-June 2011) also avoided placing the matter on the table despite the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s request, while the Secretary-General was/is silent.
Human rights game
While there would be no accountability, the “human rights game” requires a façade of concern. At the end of January 2012, US State Department officials Thomas Melia and Lesley Taylor met with a Tamil citizen group in Jaffna to tell them what to expect at the 19th session. Eighteen notes of the meeting were taken by participants and sent to Tamilnet.
The key points were: “There is no possibility of a resolution” [concerning the UN expert panel and war crimes issue]. This is due, partially, to the lack of “sufficient pressure” from the affected people. What can be expected is a positive reference to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report conducted by appointees of the Sri Lankan government. While the US may ask the Rajapaksa family government to implement the recommendations the commission made, which it has done nothing about in the three months since its delivery, the US will do nothing to “antagonize the GOSL” (Government of Sri Lanka) nor is it interested in “instituting an accountability mechanism”.
It may be that high-ranking members of the Sinhalese government were not so keen even with this minor pressure to adopt its own commission’s report.
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
Led by former attorney general C.R. de Silva, the eight Rajapaksa appointees on the LLRC did not address possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by the government. The commission of inquiry into the time of ceasefire (2002) and the end of the war found no government or military entities culpable that required any process of accountability. It did, however, poke a hole in the government’s constant litany that “no civilians were killed” by it, and implied that some security forces might have caused some deaths and injuries of civilians although there had been no intent to cause harm. It stated that there were numerous citizens’ testimonies related to disappearances. It admitted that there may have been some “bad apples” but no systematic atrocities took place.
The LLRC report’s major significance is its recommendations that the Tamil north and east be demilitarised, that paramilitary groups be dismantled, that a degree of devolution of local power to Tamils take place and that the police departments be made a separate institution from the military.
Regarding the last point, there are more military and police today—300,000 —than during the war, and all are under the command of the minister of defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brothers. G. Rajapaksa uses one-fifth of the state budget, $2 billion. About 40 members of the Rajapaksa family hold government, parliamentary and key institutional posts.
Following the Jaffna meeting with a Tamil civilian group, the US initiated
meetings with Sri Lanka government officials with the aim of having them step
in line. Three leading US officials—Marie Otero, undersecretary of state for
democracy and human rights; Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for
South Asian affairs and former ambassador to Sri Lanka; and Stephen J. Rapp,
ambassador-at-large for international war crimes—travelled to Sri Lanka to let
the GOSL know what was expected. Its arrogance was becoming an embarrassment to
the human rights game.
The Tamil coalition of political parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), must also pay attention. While it has long demanded that accountability for war crimes committed be addressed, some members also call for the LLRC recommendations to take precedence. One significant instance is the confusion caused by two TNA leading MPs, R. Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran, who told Stephan J. Rapp on February 7 that the TNA wanted an independent inquiry, accountability and “meaningful” devolution of power. One week later, Sumanthiran stated to the BBC that the “TNA backs a domestic process to implement the LLRC recommendations. We ask for an international probe only after a failure at that.
At the same time, South Africa’s government, a natural ally of the Tamils, signalled approval of the LLRC report and recommended the government implement the recommendations. It did say that the LLRC should have delved into accountability. Just the year before, the African National Congress called upon the UN to implement an investigation recommended by the panel of experts.
Perhaps the Rajapaksa brothers were still balking because the media reported on February 10 that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sent a letter explaining what the Sri Lanka government must do:
- Submit an action plan with time frames to establish implementation of the LLRC;
- Consent agreement to be signed between the government and the TNA;
- Release General Sarath Fonseka, the key general victor over the LTTE, from prison, where Rajapaksa sent him over differences and because Fonseka challenged him in elections, something that the US might want to see happen again.
For emphasis the US threatened to reveal voice recordings of defence secretary G. Rajapaksa and field commanders in which he instructed them to kill all senior members of the LTTE even if they carried a white flag of surrender.
Undersecretary Otero told Colombo journalists that the US will support a resolution calling for the government to implement its report. She spoke favourably of Sri Lanka’s government saying the US had over the years supplied it with $2 billion, much of it in military assistance to fight the Tigers and prevent a separate Tamil nation.
”The United States has long been a friend of Sri Lanka; we were one of the
first countries to recognize the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, in
1997”, she said.
Human rights game and the players
The main groups of governments are:
- The US-EU-Israel-India axis.
- The Russia-China-Pakistan-Iran semi-alliance.
- The Middle East/Africa parts of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
- The progressive Latin American NAM area.
Many of these governments, especially the Western and Eastern ones, have directly supported the various Sinhalese-chauvinist governments with money and credits, military equipment, intelligence, military training and mercenaries. (See my “Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka”, pages 121-125, to see which governments have financed and continue to finance Sri Lanka’s human rights abuse. In that writing I inadvertently left out Russia from the long list: India, US, Israel, U.K., EU, Japan, Iran, Pakistan and the greatest war crimes contributor of them all, China.)
Russia has sold weapons and military aircraft to Sri Lanka governments over the years. Even after the war in 2010, during which hundreds of thousands of Tamils were suffering in concentration camps, Russia offered Sri Lanka $300 million in credit to buy military aircraft and armaments, among other items. Only $500,000 was allocated for “relief”.
There has not been much or any economic or military aid from third group of governments, but these support Sri Lanka and oppose not only the Tamils’ guerrilla war but the very demand for an independent nation within the state of Sri Lanka. That is what Tamil Eelam means and what, until the end of the war, almost all Tamils in Sri Lanka wanted, including political parties that did not take up arms. Most people in Tamil Nadu, India, and the rest of the Tamil diaspora sought the same.
fourth group is caught in an ideological bind—between solidarity with oppressed
peoples and solidarity with Third World sovereign states—but concludes in
condemning the LTTE for terrorism, ignoring the victimised civilian Tamils, and
politically supporting the Sri Lanka government. In the May 26, 2009 HRC
resolution, the Cuba-led majority praised Sri Lanka for its “commitment” “to
the promotion and protection of all human rights”; congratulated it for freeing
Tamil civilians from the terrorist LTTE; and reaffirmed “respect for the
sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the Democratic Socialist
Republic of Sri Lanka”.
The Western group opposed this resolution for its geopolitical reasons. It asked Sri Lanka to conduct its own investigation and the LLRC is the result.
So, what I think will happen at the 19th session is that there will be no talk about the UN expert panel report or independent investigations into accountability. Some NGOs disagree with me and think that the US will press for accountability.In my view, the Rajapaksa’s government will present a “national action plan for the protection and promotion of human rights” in conjunction with the LLRC. This will please the US-EU-India axis. Israel may not take any position believing, perhaps, that the Rajapaksan absolute arrogance and unwillingness to do anything was the best course. This course is its’ own against the Palestinians.
If for some odd reason, Sri Lanka does not add implementations into its action plan, there will then be a US-EU-Israel-India axis group resolution demanding it to do so. The session will end either with the passage of such a resolution or, if Sri Lanka still balks then its ALBA-NAM allies, being the majority on the HRC, will vote down any Western approved ploy.
Either way, the human rights game will conclude (for now) thusly:
The Russia-China-Pakistan-Iran group will look grey in its lack of critique of Sri Lanka, its do-nothing approach. The Middle East/African NAM group can contend simply that it supports all 113 NAM governments. Group 4, the socialist-communist and progressive-led governments of Latin America and especially Cuba-ALBA, will have egg on their faces for having only praised the brutal Sinhalese-chauvinist government and not played any human rights role in favour of the civilian Tamils. They have only played the geopolitical game and done so in a staid manner: of the enemy of my enemy is my friend type.
However the play unfolds, I predict that the Western group will come out looking like the good guys in the human rights game. The eastern and Southern groups will especially look like the bad guys. This will be the view most Westerners, including many progressives, will take. For many voters in the US, Obama will look like the hero on the white horse in the White House.
The Sri Lanka-Tamil conflict can also be viewed in the context of the Arab Spring and the role that Group 1 plays in diverting the uprisings to suit its imperial needs. Knowing little of the reality, most liberal-progressive-left Westerners think Group 1’s role in Libya was best for the human rights game, and also with the tragedy in Syria where complications are similar to those in Libya.
What should be clear to thinking people, to people who seek real human rights and justice, is that almost no government wants authentic accountability judged upon a friendly government because it could be its turn next.
If there were true accountability spread around how would group 1, led by the US with its long history of invading weaker countries for their resources and for political control, look committing war crimes including systematic torture? What about accountability for the 2-3 million Iraqis killed since US attacks on that sovereign nation from 1991 to the present? What about accountability of the “coalition of the willing” for mass murder and seizure of Afghanistan? What about Obama’s accountability for seven wars for oil and global domination (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Uganda); and Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people?
What about genocide in Rwanda, where the
“peacekeeping” mission of the US-UK-France played a major role? Then there is
giant China and minority Tibet being overrun with Chinese just as Zionists
overrun Palestine and Sinhalese do the same in Tamil’s traditional homeland in
the north and east.
This appears to be the view also of at least one of the three international organisations representing Tamils’ rights and seeking a Tamil Eelam. The Transnational Government for Tamil Eelam issued its news release concerning the upcoming HRC session, February 17:
This dismal failure in the position taken by the US and several other governments to address the crucial issue of justice is a source of grave disappointment to the Tamils …Today, again, the world’s governments are disregarding their moral and legal obligations by focusing exclusively on Sri Lanka’s own LLRC Report, which has been rejected outright not only by the Tamil people…
It would be a fallacy to imagine that the very power structure which stands accused of these heinous crimes will now begin a process to bring its own members to justice. Therefore, we perceive the leading governments’ choice to focus exclusively on the LLRC Report amounting to an attempt to derail the mounting international clamor for formal international investigations on Sri Lanka.
Less clear in my eyes is what Cuba-ALBA thinks it achieves from the human rights game by entirely denying Tamils’ suffering. These governments do not mistreat their own nationalities, ethnic groups or religious peoples and, unlike many governments in groups 1-3, they are not terrorist states. It is also understandable that they are critical of any interference by group 1, with all its hypocrisy and its subversion against almost all of Latin America. One might think that Bolivia and Venezuela could be skittish about Tamil Eelam because there are groups there that want to create their own separate nation. But these are small groups that are orchestrated by comprador capital aligned with the US and have nothing to do with discrimination against any nationality, ethnic group or religion.
I think that Che Guevara would understand the need for solidarity with the Tamil people. He would be on their side today!
In reality, Rajapaksa’s stonewalling criticism of his regime’s war crimes and his systematic denial of truth is working. Groups 1, 2 and 3 tell Rajapaksa to make a little concession and the human rights game continues. The show must go on!
Out of the negative comes the positive
Although impunity for war crimes will continue, genocide will be ignored and an independent Tamil Eelam will remain a dream, there are positive developments.
1. Media attention of the Tamils’ plight was garnered by the whistle-blowing medium Wikileaks, which began leaking correspondence between the US Department of State and hundreds of diplomatic missions around the world on November 28, 2010. Initially, Wikileaks convinced five core mass media to use the raw data and produce articles. Subsequent to releases of many files about the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by “cablegate”, hundreds more media picked up revelations of massive governmental lying and corruption, and crimes of many types including war crimes, not the least committed by United States governments; 3166 of the 251,287 cables concerning Sri Lanka war crimes and obtained by Wikileaks—perhaps through brave Bradley Manning—are from the US embassy in Colombo.
The Boston Globe reported, December 9, 2010, that, “No foreign leader fared worse in the cables released by Wikileaks than Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa”, referring to US ambassador Patricia Butenis’ implications of his role in war crimes.
Sri Lanka’s minister of economic development Basil Rajapaksa, one of the president’s brothers, candidly remarked, according to Butenis’ January 15, 2010 cable, “I am not saying we are clean; we could not abide by international law—this would have gone on for centuries, an additional 60 years.”
Defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa admitted the same to US Senate Foreign Relations staff members. Ambassador Butenis implicated all the Rajapaksa brothers in government, as well as other senior civilian and military leaders in conducting war crimes.
World attention concerning the war crimes committed by the Sinhalese-chauvinist government(s) has occurred because of the alternative medium Wikileaks, but also due to a group of Sinhalese and Tamil journalists who escaped from Sri Lanka and formed the organisation and website jdslanka.org. The Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) obtained a short video of 17 frames taken by a Sri Lanka soldier showing eight or nine naked prisoners, bound and blindfolded, being executed at Kilinochchi. JDS presented the film to UK’s Channel 4. After forensic verification of the film, which was taken January 2, 2009, Channel 4 broadcast it on August 25, 2009. Then in June 2011, Channel 4 broadcast the devastating documentary, Sri Lanka Killing Fields.
2. Despite the GOSL maintaining a “zero tolerance policy on torture”, the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) has determined that torture is apparently accepted and practiced by the government. In its November 28, 2011, report on Sri Lanka, it was found that many allegations of torture and ill treatment were common, also “enforced disappearances, sexual violence, unacknowledged detention” [as well as] “threats to civil society, journalists, lawyers, and other dissenting voices”.
CAT rapporteur Felice Gaer asserted that Sri Lanka has the world’s largest number of disappearances. Sri Lankan cabinet advisor and previous attorney general Mohan Peiris conceded that of the 6000 people arrested annually, there were “only 400 torture allegations”.
CAT underlined “the prevailing climate of impunity” and “the apparent failure to investigate promptly and impartially wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed.”
CAT also criticised the LLRC for its “apparent limited mandate” and “alleged lack of independence”.
While the US government has a long history of torturing people and even offers instructions about how to torture at its School of the Americas in Georgia, its ambassadors do sometimes inform the Department of State when other governments conduct torture. Again thanks to Wikileaks, the world knows about a May 18, 2007, cable sent by Robert Blake, then ambassador to Sri Lanka. He reported how government-connected Tamil paramilitary groups, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal and Eelam People’s Democratic Party, “keep critics of the GSL fearful and quiet”.
These anesthetised Tamils torture and/or kill many of their own people, who sympathised with the Tigers or who seek basic rights from the government. The paramilitaries also kidnap and sell Tamil women into prostitution and sell children into slavery. Leaders Karuna and Douglas Devananda were former leading Tiger guerrillas who now enjoy government posts. Karuna even joined the leading government party and became a minister.
3. On September 16, 2011, 16 NGOs asked the HRC president of the 19th session to invite both the Sri Lankan government and the UN secretary-general to place the UN expert panel report on the agenda, as well as the LLRC. This is significant grassroots pressure as the groups include some of the best known, such as Amnesty International, but also others from Third World countries, such as the African Democracy Forum. Furthermore, the current HRC president is a woman from Uruguay, Laura Dupuy Lasserre.
Following the May 2009 HRC emergency session in which Uruguay voted for the Sri Lanka-prepared resolution, a new president has been elected in Uruguay, José Mujica. Not only is he a socialist but he was a guerrilla in the Tupamaro liberation movement. Once captured, he spent 15 years in prison, some of it under torturous conditions, including two years confined at the bottom of a well. It might just be that Uruguay will press for a bit of justice.
4. One institutional voice asking for the UN expert panel report to be taken seriously is the European Parliament. In a “joint motion for a resolution”, February 9, 2012, the parliament agreed to “support efforts to strengthen the accountability process in Sri Lanka”, including the establishment of a “UN Commission of inquiry into all crimes committed, as recommended” by the panel. Although the EP has no binding powers, it can prod and further inform the public.
5. For the first time (to my knowledge) an internationally renowned Buddhist has spoken out publicly against fellow Buddhists’ treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka. In an apparently undated letter (sometime in February 2012), Thai activist-economist-philosopher Sulak Sivaraksa has appealed to the “Sinhala Buddhists first of all to acknowledge the crimes that they committed against their own Tamil sisters and brothers and ask for forgiveness from the Tamils. Rejoicing at the war victories, when thousands have been killed, ‘disappeared’, maimed, raped and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and detained, is totally against the dhamma” [the way].
Sivaraksa has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. He received the 2011 Niwano Peace Prize for furthering world peace. He is considered a “Thai institution”.
These positive points I have listed can give us some hope that more and more people are not to be fooled about who the culprits are regardless of how the world’s governments do their best not to assure accountability while maintaining impunity for their war criminals, which otherwise would mean many of their own leaders would be imprisoned.
What to do
I conclude with a few pointers about how we can go forward.
Several Tamils I have come to know tell me that Tamils from Eelam are among the “most inward looking people” while complaining that other people are not interested in their welfare.
Furthermore, most of the Tamils in the diaspora rely on Western governments, and perhaps India, to fight their battles. They ask them to have the Sri Lankan government judged, condemned and punished, and even go so far as to ask for support to create a new legal nation, that of Tamil Eelam, within the state of Sri Lanka. But this political-economic world has no place for pipedreams and fairytales.
I take from the many millions of righteous rebels in the Arab Spring movement—those not doing the West’s errands—as an example of what could be done. I take also from what many of us were doing in the 1960s-70s in the US and around much of the world. I take also from what the folks are doing in the Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) movement today.
- Drop illusions of winning through political parties’ parliamentary power. Stand up to all terrorist states.
- Organise from the grassroots. Go door-to-door. Learn and educate.
- Use fewer speeches, fewer rallies and connect organising with speeches and rallies.
- Join in with other peoples’ struggles. Engage in solidarity work especially with the Palestinians whose struggle is nearly identical to your own. Israel is to Palestine what Sri Lanka Sinhalese governments are to the Tamils.
- Combat the growing racism/fascism in the West against Muslims and Arabs.
We have wondered over the deserts and the seas. We have been hungry and thirsty. We have been murdered and tortured. We are of the working class, of the castes. We are many races, ethnic groups, nationalities, religions and non-religion. We share a common vision: freedom and equality; bread and water on the table; a shelter over our heads. We must fight together if we are to live in peace and equality.