Kath Noble

Sri Lanka’s defeat

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 27, 2013

The lessons the Government won’t learn from the vote at the UN Human Rights Council

UNHRC voteThe UN Human Rights Council sessions ended last week with the passage of another resolution on Sri Lanka. It was a victory for the United States, which secured 25 votes in favour compared to 13 against, with eight abstentions and the representative from Gabon being recorded as AWOL.

Life having continued as normal in Colombo, the Government is bound to learn all the wrong lessons from the experience.

For a start, it will think that it can continue to allow the Bodu Bala Sena to run around inciting hatred against Muslims, since Muslim countries overwhelmingly backed Sri Lanka. Half of the votes the Sri Lankan delegation could muster were from Muslim countries – Pakistan, the Maldives, Indonesia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Mauritania – as well as half of the abstentions. Only Libya and Sierra Leone – both recent ‘beneficiaries’ of Western military intervention – voted with the United States.

The Bodu Bala Sena, which is entirely comprised of people who consider any comment on what goes on in Sri Lanka by non-Sri Lankans as tantamount to an invasion, will pretend that it hasn’t noticed. Since it claims not to notice much more obvious things – such as that Sinhalese not only aren’t in danger of being wiped out but are actually increasing their share of the population in Sri Lanka, even without the help of retrograde bans on contraception – this should come as no surprise. Noticing the voting pattern in Geneva would make it difficult to continue with its ridiculous and totally destructive campaign, and that would mean going back to obscurity.

Unfortunately, the Government is not much more intelligent.

Muslim countries may not choose to express their concern via the Human Rights Council – or not yet, anyway – but they are certainly worried. They said as much in a very carefully worded letter to the Government just days before the vote in Geneva.

Mahinda Rajapaksa must take note, before Sri Lanka is completely isolated internationally.

Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book – ‘Long War, Cold Peace’, launched in Colombo at the weekend – is a timely reminder of why international isolation is not just the Government’s problem.

As he puts it, ‘When the war ended in May 2009, the Eelam movement was more globalised than ever. The struggle between Sri Lanka and the Tamil separatist project would continue in the global arena, on an international scale, and the country’s future in the next stage would be greatly influenced if not decisively determined in the international theatre. This included the preservation of the military gains on the ground. There had to be a shift of national emphasis and priority, to the international front. Just as the country and state matured to the point where it shifted to the correct policy stance on the war, overhauled its military machine and placed the right personnel in the right places, the same or a similar task would have to be undertaken in the domain of Sri Lanka’s external relations.’

Separatism would have been dead and buried if Mahinda Rajapaksa had done what he promised and followed the military defeat of the LTTE with a generous political settlement. But he chose to delay, if not drop the idea altogether.

As a result, Sri Lanka is in trouble.

Anybody who doubts it should ask themselves how else there could once again be self-immolations taking place in Tamil Nadu.

Protesters haven’t only just heard allegations of war crimes. They were made even while the fighting was taking place, and a call for an international investigation was included in the resolution that the European Union wanted to pass in the Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka in May 2009. What has changed is the global consensus on what to do about them.

The Government no longer occupies what Dayan calls the ‘moral high ground’.

During and immediately after the conflict, the world compared its actions to those of the LTTE and took decisions accordingly. It got away with a lot because it was up against a ruthless terrorist organisation that killed both Tamils and Sinhalese, ordinary villagers, human rights activists and political leaders as well as members of the armed forces, and in particular also the leaders of other countries.

With the annihilation of the LTTE, the Government ran out of excuses. Globally, the consensus is that it is not living up to expectations.

This is what last week’s vote in Geneva confirmed.

The Government will no doubt be tempted to treat it very lightly, since it is the second resolution that the United States has succeeded in passing on Sri Lanka.

Indeed, the only difference is the result of changes in the composition of the Human Rights Council. In 2012, 24 countries voted in favour compared to 15 against, with eight abstentions. This became 25 in favour and 13 against in 2013, with eight abstentions and the absence of Gabon. Meanwhile, Russia and China had left the Human Rights Council, while in the Eastern Europe group two small actual or aspiring members of the European Union had joined, and Japan and South Korea had joined the Asian group.

It was on the first occasion that Mahinda Rajapaksa should have understood the need for a change of approach.

That is when the major shift took place. The Sri Lankan delegation had secured 29 votes in favour compared to 12 against, with six abstentions, in the Special Session of May 2009.

The tendency in Sri Lanka is to focus on the role of India, which played such a crucial role in support of the Government at the May 2009 Special Session, only to vote with the United States in 2012. Indeed, India is the most important single country for Sri Lanka’s external relations, as its only neighbour and the regional superpower with such long-standing ties in so many fields. However, India was but one of many countries that deserted the Government in 2012.

Crucially, the majority of both the Latin American group and the African group joined India in siding with the West.

What needs to be done to recover this natural constituency is as usual best summed up by Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘No one, even among Sri Lanka’s friends, would countenance either an insensitive or slow alleviation of the problems of IDPs and related humanitarian questions or an absence of an immediately post-war political solution based on autonomy and equality for the Tamil people. The lesson was that the Sri Lankan state had to catch up, get with the new calendar and new times, and learn to speak a new language. ‘Bush-speak’ had no acceptance outside the USA even during his administration and now it is rejected within the USA itself and has no resonance anywhere in the world. Sri Lanka’s dominant discourse had to change or it would lose the global struggle by simple default. With the victory of Obama, macho nationalism, religious majoritarianism, unilateralism and ‘anything goes in the struggle against terrorism’ were out. The attempt to combine ethics and power (‘ethical realism’) was in.’

Looking at what has happened since then, it would appear that the experience had the opposite effect on Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Government has moved more recklessly than ever in exactly the same direction.

If Muslim countries were to abandon Sri Lanka, the descent into hell would surely be even further accelerated.

A notable feature of this year’s sessions of the UN Human Rights Council was the emergence of a number of pressure groups within the country. For example, there were media events by an organisation claiming to be working on behalf of relatives of the disappeared, which focused on disappearances carried out by the LTTE. There was also a major demonstration in support of the Government in Jaffna. Whether these efforts are genuine or managed is not the point – they show what lies ahead. Before long somebody is bound to call for an investigation into the war crimes of the IPKF.

Such initiatives are very much part of normal life in Colombo.

That too is a defeat for Sri Lanka, which should now be focusing all of its attention on rebuilding the country, both physically and psychologically.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 27th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.


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Not so quiet on the Indian front

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 20, 2013

On the politics of Tamil Nadu and the efforts of its politicians to influence the rest of the country

KarunanidhiIn the third week of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, Karunanidhi played what he hopes will be his trump card. Unless India not only votes against Sri Lanka but also ensures that the resolution includes a commitment to a war crimes investigation, his party will quit the coalition government.

Whether or not he gets what he wants in this instance, he knows that there is a limit to what can be achieved by means of threats alone. Threats couldn’t have persuaded Manmohan Singh to intervene to stop the war in 2009, for example. That’s why Karunanidhi didn’t make any. Instead, he launched a fast that lasted from breakfast until a slightly late lunch, at which point he professed to be completely convinced that the Sri Lankan military had stopped using heavy weapons in the No Fire Zone.

And that was at a time when Karunanidhi was rather more powerful than he is today, having since lost an assembly election rather badly.

Today, to get anything more than a resolution in Geneva, he is going to have to mobilise public opinion.

How easy this is in Tamil Nadu is obvious from the way in which Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been competing on Sri Lankan issues of late, and the result is an awful lot of blind hatred. Protests regularly spin out of control – it is not just that they become violent, but that they also pick illegitimate targets, such as Sri Lankan tourists and most recently a monk archaeology student (‘Buddhist monk is roughed up by a group of Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu’, Colombo Telegraph, 16th March 2013) and a monk pilgrim (‘Another Sri Lankan Buddhist monk is attacked in Chennai Central’, Colombo Telegraph, 17th March 2013). They are terrorist, albeit so far yet to do any serious damage.

Where this is heading should be a matter of grave concern for New Delhi.

Leaving that aside for the moment, public opinion in the rest of India bears very little resemblance to that in Tamil Nadu – a fact that some people have clearly noted as a problem, judging by their increasing efforts to reach out across state boundaries.

Last week, I was presented with an opportunity to experience some of this outreach in the form of a documentary screening and meeting on ‘War crimes and genocide in Sri Lanka’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University, organised by a group called Students for Resistance in collaboration with the Save Tamils Movement.

The documentary itself was fairly extraordinary.

Almost everything in it was said by nameless, faceless people sitting in unidentifiable rooms in unidentified places. Frankly, they might not even have been Sri Lankan. Whether they were or ever had been in Sri Lanka was also not obvious. Viewers were simply asked to trust the producer, which of course a lot of them did, the audience being almost entirely comprised of young activists.

Readers would eventually be able to judge for themselves, as the video would no doubt find its way onto the internet – it is called ‘Buried Justice’.

Since there was no attempt to present actual evidence, the claims made could go beyond all previous efforts. The number of dead, for example, was inflated to 200,000 in the last few months of the war alone.

Most interesting from the point of view of understanding the provenance of the documentary was the assertion that the LTTE never used force against its own people. One of the nameless, faceless interviewees acknowledged that some people dressed in LTTE uniform did come around when they were hiding in bunkers in the No Fire Zone threatening to shoot them if they tried to get away, but he claimed that they weren’t speaking ‘our Tamil’, implying that they were infiltrators sent by the Army – probably associated with the ‘traitor’ Colonel Karuna.

I noted in my last column the way in which some Sinhalese are pushing conspiracy theories that blame the LTTE for everything bad that has ever happened in Sri Lanka, including the burning of the Jaffna library and even the Black July riots. In parallel – as always – some Tamils are trying hard to absolve the LTTE of responsibility for the crimes that it did actually commit.

As always, it is not clear whether it was the Tamil chicken or the Sinhalese egg that came first.

Far more revelatory than the documentary were the comments by the three speakers – none of whom were from Tamil Nadu – and the response from the audience.

While appalled by what was said to have taken place in Sri Lanka, nobody exhibited any very special concern about it. As one of the invited speakers put it, ‘All states behave like that.’ He also pointed out that ‘similar things’ are happening in India today.

They were interested in the Geneva resolution only to the extent that it could be used to force a war crimes investigation on India too.

In other words, their reaction was very different to that of Western audiences to the much more measured documentary by Channel Four. (No doubt this is because Western governments direct the worst of their violence towards people in places as far away from their constituencies as possible, preferably in countries that their voters can’t even locate on a map.)

Also unlike in the West, a member of the audience expressed surprise at the tremendous amount of ‘information’ that was available. He attributed this to Sri Lanka being a small state that had to accept the presence of NGOs, which are much more strictly controlled and limited in India, and this prompted a discussion on how to replicate the kind of ‘solidarity movement’ that Tamils have established to engage with the wider world. Nobody suggested that what had happened in Sri Lanka was a ‘war without witnesses’, since they believed that they had in fact witnessed an awful lot more than they considered to be the norm in such situations.

As is often the case with young activists, they were sympathetic to the idea of armed uprising. However, they weren’t as hypocritical as many of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu – they were clearly more interested in armed uprisings in their own country than in somebody else’s.

They were also ready to criticise. One of the invited speakers made a point of denouncing the LTTE both for its practice of targeting civilians and for silencing competing voices from its own community.

In addition, a member of the audience who had studied in Tamil Nadu highlighted the futility of talking about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka while paying absolutely no attention to the way in which Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are treated in India.

The Save Tamils Movement is certainly guilty as charged. I first encountered them during a stint in Chennai in 2011 when I was researching an article about the refugees (‘Stuck, for a generation‘, 31st July 2011), where they demonstrated every interest in discussing my opinion of the LTTE – which had by then ceased to exist – and none at all in anything else.

And the refugees are still in exactly the same condition today.

In Tamil Nadu, none of this matters. The refugees certainly don’t matter, since they are largely from the poorer segments of society, and worse – in the eyes of politicians and their hangers-on sitting comfortably in Chennai – they ran away from the struggle. The crimes of the LTTE don’t matter either.

Frankly, Tamils don’t matter to these people.

I believe that the only thing that really concerns them is the future of Tamil nationalism – more specifically, how the cause of Tamil nationalism can best be advanced while causing the least disruption to their own lives.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of India is not very sympathetic.

Students for Resistance, who are the regular partners of the Save Tamils Movement at Jawaharlal Nehru University, represent the very fringe of student activism, in a campus that is a long way from the centre ground of Indian politics. But even they know better.

What Manmohan Singh decides to do about Sri Lanka must eventually take this into account, whatever Karunanidhi’s games.

This article was published in The Island on 20th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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And the cold war goes on

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 13, 2013

Why a war crimes investigation will have to wait

Student Fast in ChennaiPressure for a war crimes investigation continues to mount. With the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council entering their second week, activists descended on key national capitals, urging governments to pass a resolution that calls for international action.

As usual, India has been the site of the most extreme interventions. As Karunanidhi’s DMK held a meeting of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation in Delhi and called for a general strike in Tamil Nadu, a member of Seeman’s NTK self-immolated and eight students of as yet unidentified affiliation launched a fast-unto-death in Chennai. Then a group of thugs ransacked an office of Mihin Lanka in Madurai, and Vaiko’s MDMK laid siege to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission, burning effigies of Mahinda Rajapaksa and shouting about genocide.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International gave Manmohan Singh a petition with 14 lakh signatures.

I argued in my last column that all of these efforts to raise the issue of war crimes are targeting the wrong people – it is not the Indian government that needs to be convinced of the need for an investigation but Sri Lankans.

Predictably, a lot of readers wrote to say that the international community has to step in because there is no chance of justice being done in Sri Lanka.

I should start by saying that I believe that war crimes took place. I believe that the LTTE committed them in abundance and I believe that the Army committed some too, and I believe that one set of wrongdoings cannot be weighed up against another, especially when those wrongdoings involve a third party – the ordinary people of Sri Lanka. Readers need not bother to ask for proof, since I have already said that these are only beliefs, albeit beliefs that have been formed on the basis of experience and common sense and information that is in the public domain.

But suppose somebody in the defence establishment decided that Prabhakaran’s 12-year old son shouldn’t be left alive in case he ever decided to front what they are so fond of calling the LTTE rump. Justice would require him to be punished.

Suppose the Army deliberately shelled civilians to force them to brave LTTE reprisals and break out of the No Fire Zone. Justice would require them to be punished too.

We may understand why such things are done and even sympathise with and feel gratitude towards the people who take on the responsibility to fight on behalf of others, especially when they have to face an opponent as ruthless as Prabhakaran, but they are not right. We should not pretend otherwise.

We must be able to distinguish between war crimes and the awful consequences of war. We must recognise that war crimes do not just happen – they are the result of conscious decisions by individuals.

In the end, this is how to protect those who need protecting.

What kind of punishment those who need punishing should receive is open to discussion, but this is contingent upon them being punished at all.

As of now, very few Sri Lankans are willing to discuss even much more straightforward incidents than these two scenarios.

This brings us back to the question of how justice could possibly be done in Sri Lanka.

In fact, I believe that it is highly unlikely. And in the immediate future, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever.

That is not the point. My question to all of the people who argue that the international community must step in is why they think that their strategy has any more chance of succeeding – how exactly is India or the United States or any other country going to deliver justice?

It is my contention that the international community is even less likely to get the job done.

I am quite sure that Mahinda Rajapaksa is far too wily a politician to have ordered any war crimes, but he is not about to give up anybody who did either.

And look at what the international community has achieved in other countries.

Charles Taylor of Liberia is the only leader to have been convicted of war crimes, but these were committed in Sierra Leone not in his own country. He fled to Nigeria in 2003 when it became obvious that he was losing the second of Liberia’s civil wars, and in 2006 the newly elected president called for his extradition. The Special Court for Sierra Leone sentenced him in 2012.

Meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2011 as NATO prepared to bomb Libya in support of a group that was waging a civil war against him. He lost and was murdered before he could be brought to a court.

Slobodan Milosevic too lost a war. He was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 1999 while NATO was bombing Serbia to force it to sacrifice Kosovo. They claimed that this would make Serbian troops behave better, although the exact opposite has since been discovered to have been the case. Having lost the war, he went on to lose an election, but even the man who beat him didn’t want to send him to The Hague. It was done against the wishes of the president by the cabinet in the face of threats to withhold aid, for which Serbia was heavily dependent on the West. Even then, Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before a verdict could be reached, and the following year the International Court of Justice concluded in a case brought by Bosnia that there was insufficient evidence to link him to war crimes, although he didn’t do enough to prevent them from happening.

Finally, there is Omar al Bashir of Sudan, who is the only incumbent to have been targeted. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died in Darfur in the violence that followed the negotiated end to Sudan’s second civil war, and a warrant for his arrest was issued by the International Criminal Court in 2009. However, this move was strongly criticised by the African Union, the Arab League and the Non-Aligned Movement, amongst others, and he remains in charge of his country to this day.

To sum up, the international community has not even been able to punish leaders who lost their wars, except in one case for war crimes that were committed in another country.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is simply beyond their reach.

Meanwhile, as I sat down to write this column, a neighbour of mine from Kenya pointed out that her country has just elected Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as president and vice-president, both of whom have been charged by the International Criminal Court. They are accused of crimes against humanity in the aftermath of a disputed election in 2007, and even the BBC says that the indictments may actually have swung the vote in their favour.

In other words, even people who have done nothing very much in comparison with Mahinda Rajapaksa have benefited from being pursued by the international community.

And he must know it.

For these reasons, the very best that we could expect from this pressure for a war crimes investigation is that the Government decides to sacrifice a few junior officers, while heavily compensating their families. And this would really not constitute justice.

Meanwhile, the worst that we can already see happening is the ever greater polarisation of debate on the issue.

Those who dismissed the LLRC as a whitewash are now beginning to understand exactly what a whitewash looks like. It is not just a matter of the Government ignoring recommendations to investigate specific allegations, which has long been its standard operating procedure. The Army’s Court of Inqury has now also rolled back some of its conclusions, including most significantly the admission that there were ‘considerable civilian casualties’ in the final phase of the conflict, and not only at the hands of the LTTE. More extraordinarily still, various individuals are beginning to challenge well established and accepted narratives of the war, such as the burning of the Jaffna library and even the Black July riots.

Very soon we will be told that it was actually the LTTE who shot JFK.

In such circumstances, it is going to be a constant battle to prevent the cold war from getting hot again.

Of course the crazies in Tamil Nadu will not care about that. They don’t have to live in Sri Lanka, so they are free to take entirely abstract positions without cluttering their minds with anything so mundane as facts. Reality doesn’t matter to them.

I just hope that it matters to some people.

Whether the Government wins or loses the vote in Geneva is not very important. It certainly deserves censure, for all of the reasons that I have discussed in these columns over the last year. However, if this is done using the threat of a war crimes investigation, it will be to the detriment of the ordinary people of Sri Lanka – the third party in whose name all of this activism is being done.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 13th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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