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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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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Calling in the marines

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 30, 2013

Why struggles for justice and the independence of the judiciary cannot be outsourced to the international community

20130130_Calling in the marinesAs I said last week, it is easy to become disheartened with the way that things are moving in Sri Lanka. One disappointment follows another, and each is more extraordinary than the last.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice was particularly disturbing. It demonstrated just how little space there is for dissent. Even the mild disturbance created by Shirani Bandaranayake when she ruled that the Divi Neguma bill had to be referred to the provincial councils or passed with a two thirds majority was intolerable to the administration. She had to go. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing on her part. She was removed on the grounds that she might try to cover up the corruption of her husband, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa claims to have done himself!

Since very few of us are willing to agree with everything that the Government says all of the time, it was appalling to see the lengths to which it is ready to go to impose its will.

No doubt that was the objective of the exercise.

Our distress was compounded by the failure of the Opposition under Ranil Wickremasinghe, who appeared to be far too busy plotting his next move against Sajith Premadasa to bother with something as mundane as the independence of the judiciary. Having successfully ousted his rival from the deputy leadership of the party – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen – he finally managed to pen an article on the impeachment for the Sunday Times this week, but readers may not have had the stamina to get past the rather laborious exposition of his knowledge of the history of English country houses and meetings of the Commonwealth to locate his point.

Once again, the widespread information campaign that was so badly needed to counter the propaganda put about by the Government has been left to others.

Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalising’ what must be a national struggle.

Honestly, who cares about the Commonwealth?

If Ranil Wickremasinghe tries very hard, it may decide to move the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting away from Sri Lanka. But what use is that? I don’t believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be in the slightest bit upset.

Quite the reverse, he is at his most comfortable when under fire from abroad.

No doubt the Government is totally hypocritical when it calls people traitors for taking their problems to international fora. We all know that Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing in the late 1980s, when the UNP administration was butchering Sinhalese youth.

It is also wrong. There is nothing traitorous in informing the world about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

It can even be useful in some circumstances.

I don’t believe that it had any impact on the anti-JVP campaign. The architects were either convinced that Sri Lankans would never prosecute them for their excesses or too desperate to care about what might happen once it was all over. On the whole, they were right – not morally but factually. If they were punished, it was almost exclusively by extra-judicial means.

Even today, as the JVP calls for an inquiry into the discovery of a mass grave from that era in Matale, there is little chance of it being granted and no chance whatsoever of that resulting in jail time for the politicians who ordered such activities.

The JVP will not push on the issue, for to do so would be to remind people of its own role in the slaughter.

But imagine what would happen if it did. Imagine it calling on the international community to investigate, as many people are doing today with regard to the deaths of Tamils in the Government’s war against the LTTE. Would justice be done?

No.

Even after the passage of more than twenty years, and with an SLFP-led coalition in power, there is nothing the international community could do about it.

Why? Because the international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka.

It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremasinghe wouldn’t do it.

The international community has zero moral authority, as everybody in Sri Lanka is very well aware.

We know that other countries have dirty wars of their own. Indeed, if we needed reminding that some things remain the same even after the replacement of George Bush by Nobel Peace Prize winning Barack Obama at the top of the world’s greatest democracy, Dirty Wars is the name of a documentary that premièred at the Sundance Festival in Utah last week.

Sri Lankans love to blame the Western media for focusing on abuses in this country while remaining silent about what their own governments get up to, but this is rather myopic. Everything we know about the crimes of Western nations has been brought to our attention by Western journalists.

According to an interview with the producers, the documentary looks at how the War on Terror, which started overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now become covert. We know everything there is to know about the night raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which has even been made into a rather captivating Hollywood film, but there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan that year. Nobody talks about them. The documentary recounts the story of one in which an elite squad of American soldiers killed a senior policeman and his family while they were in the middle of a birthday party, and tried to cover it up. While the survivors watched, they dug the bullets out of the bodies, then announced to the world that they had stumbled onto the aftermath of an honour killing.

How very honourable!

The American ‘kill list’, which had only seven names on it after 9/11, now includes thousands. That is thousands of people that Barack Obama has said that it is perfectly acceptable to murder, never mind whether they are holding up white flags.

It also talks of the American drone programme, which allows them to do so without getting close enough to see a white flag. Indeed, George Bush established a policy, which Barack Obama has endorsed, of dropping bombs on people even when they aren’t on the ‘kill list’. In certain areas of Pakistan and Yemen – countries with which the United States is not at war – all young men are assumed to be terrorists and can be killed as and when convenient.

This is also top secret. Barack Obama personally intervened to stop the Yemeni government releasing a local journalist who photographed the remnants of American cruise missiles that he says regularly kill civilians.

American funded warlords in Somalia are shown on camera saying in a completely matter-of-fact manner that they execute foreign prisoners on the battlefield.

The War on Terror goes on in another equally repugnant form.

Given this well known background, if the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response.

There really is no short cut.

To succeed in the pursuit of justice, it is the minds of Sri Lankans that have to be changed. If they start to want prosecutions, it will happen.

It is a national struggle, and trying to involve the international community can only make it harder.

Likewise, ‘internationalising’ the effort to restore the independence of the judiciary is also going to create more problems than it solves.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed how uninterested he is in the opinion of the international community by announcing the impeachment of the Chief Justice just days before Sri Lanka faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Deceiving ourselves may make us feel better, at least for a while, but it isn’t going to result in any actual change.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 30th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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