The Sunday Leader

When ‘Genocide’ Became Just ‘Horrific’ Crimes

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Sri lankan Delegation at Geneva

By declaring both in the national Parliament and at the informal member-discussions on the US draft resolution at Geneva, Sri Lanka has shown near-unanimity in rejecting UNHRC probe’s core recommendation on setting up a domestic ‘hybrid court’ with international judges to probe ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’. With this one stroke, the new, ‘western-friendly’ government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has demonstrated that on ‘core issues’ of collective national concern, their silence of the previous decade of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was also a wholesome attestation of the ‘national will’ to end LTTE terrorism.

The ‘international community’ (read: West) should be mistaken if they thought that the January/August votes in Sri Lanka was on ‘accountability issues’, and against the ‘stubborn stance’ of the Rajapaksa regime. Instead, they were in the natural course. History has taught us how Winston Churchill after victory in the Second World War and Indira Gandhi after the ‘Bangladesh War’, lost elections locally.

It was no different in the case of post-war Sri Lanka, too,and like elsewhere, they owed to a variety of circumstances. In its time, post-war Sri Lanka too did precisely that, owing to domestic constituency concerns centred on bread-and-butter issues, at time extendable to cover the impact of perceived corruption and nepotism at high places. President Rajapaksa did not know when and where the inevitable anti-incumbency had set in, possibly apprehending that it was however already round the corner and he had to advance polls, to be able to be in the race. It had nothing to do with the UNHRC or accountability issues.

Truth be told, some past rulers of Sri Lanka, including the indomitable Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, were running short on ideas and popularity after running a successful first term. According to Sri Lankan opinion-makers at the time, CBK, who had given political lead to the re-capture of Jaffna from the LTTE, a historic marker in Sri Lanka’s ‘war on terror’, was expected to lose her second-term vote. The poll-eve LTTE attack on her, in which she lost sight in one eye, made the difference to the results, it was later argued.Maybe because in contemporary US, President George Bush Jr. could win a second round on the lasting American hang-over from 9/11 terrorism, the new-generation administration there tended to see things in black and white, with no grey shades in between. Even there, his father, Bush Sr. could not win a second term on the strength of the first Iraq War that he fought against Saddam Hussein, and won. It was not about war victories – or, defeats – of which the US has had a continual series throughout the Twentieth Century. It was about the ‘horrific’ nature of 9/11.Against all this, civilization-centric South Asia is a different ball-game. Smaller nations in particular that had nothing but ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ alone to hedge in international contexts, in good times and bad, cannot suffer domestic leaders who are seen as ‘compromising’ on the ‘core values’ of the modern-nation State, as taught to them by the ‘more civilized’ West. If nothing else, they cannot be expected to move as fast and as differently as the West wants them to be – in the name of selective aspects of ‘accountability issues’ of the kind.


UN accountability

It is sad that an ‘independent, international probe’ such as the one that the UNHRC undertook has drawn the line between “our ‘accountable’ institutions/ persona and theirs”. It has rather boiled down to ‘our accountability’ and ‘their accountability’. Even while castigating the Sri Lankan State and armed forces, starting with the commanders, for ‘horrific crimes’ without listing out any specifically, the UNHRC probe team, and their additional group of ‘international human rights’ advisors, have not held them accountable to be ‘independent’ and impartial. It was precisely the kind of good work that they were supposed to do, as against the purportedly partisan past probe(s) ordered by the Government nearer home. It’s precisely an exact opposite report as against expectations and promises that the probe team has since produced. Yet, the West seems wanting to hail it as a stellar performance. ‘Performance’ it was, but ‘stellar’, if at all it were, on whose say-so and why would be worth another ‘independent, international probe’, if one could be promised.

First and foremost, the forgotten Darusman Report, which purportedly formed the basis and possibly basic document for the current probe, had termed the ‘accountability issues’ as ‘genocide’. There is no such term found, even to reject the Darusman finding, in the current report. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office and UNHRC chief, Prince Zeid, acknowledged that the change-of-government in Sri Lanka made the difference on the credibility front. The probe report too says as much. Only a day or two before the probe report was presented to UNHRC and after Zeid had indicated its contents in his inaugural speech, Ki-moon’s office claimed that UN’s ‘patience’ had paid off. The question thus arises if the change of phraseology in the probe report had anything to do with Sri Lanka’s domestic politics than domestic ‘war crimes’? This is not to say that the incumbent ruling duo had anything to do with the UN-US kind of machinations, but they too cannot escape an explanation to their post-report claims that their presence at the helm alone had made the difference.


Whither LTTE?

The practised partisanship of international probes of the kind stands out when it sets a different set of accountability rules for the recognised State player, a global entity, against the non-State LTTE. If left unchallenged, particularly by the rest of the global community, it could mean greater encouragement than already for non-State actors fighting terrorist wars on ‘select’ recognised States but the rules governing the ‘Big Brothers’ in the global/western circuit, post-9/11 are entirely different.It is thus that the UNHRC probe report ‘recommends’ that the international community, starting with the UN, do not encourage ‘overseas postings’ for those personnel of the Sri Lankan armed forces found guilty of ‘war crimes’. There is no corresponding ‘recommendation’, if it could have been any, to ‘encourage’ UN member-states to hand over those individuals already named by the post-war Sri Lankan State, and/or those likely to be named in future probes – if ‘hybrid’ in particular – to stand trial back home. The very idea that such a though had not even possibly crossed the minds of the probe team members would show how conditioned they had been on what to look for – and what not to. In the same vein, but in a relatively positive note, what would the probe team – or, its expert advisors, or the prime US/UN movers and the rest – have to say if any probe – domestic or hybrid – proved the ‘horrific’ criminality of any or many of the 12,000-odd, post-war ‘LTTE surrendees’?

The question thus arises if the ‘international community’ want the Sri Lankan State to honour its post-war commitment of non-action against the surrendered LTTE cadres after their physical and psychological rehabilitation? Or, would the West be ready to stand by any government in Colombo that would want to proceed against them in criminal courts, based on investigations, even if by a ‘hybrid’ team?

It is not unlikely that if the current probe report is not allowed to die down in one ‘consensus’ resolution after another and over a period, non-West members of the UN-UNHRC system could begin asking questions. Post-report, a section of the Sri Lankan civil society, which had formed the backbone of the West-inspired campaign against the Rajapaksa regime otherwise and on other issues, is asking how and why nations such as the US, Canada and Australia had not been named ever for such ‘accountability’? Blowing the whistle for them is respected former Foreign Secretary, Bernard Goonatilleke .Incidentally, another section of the civil society has questioned the Maithri-Ranil leadership as to why they did not refer to the report of the Justice Maxwell Paranagama Commission on ‘missing persons’. Among the signatories were two former Sri Lankan envoys to UN offices in Geneva, including the UNHRC.

While academic-turned-ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka has left-leanings, his Tamil and woman counterpart, Tamara Kunanayagam had also been appointed – and sacked after the 2011 US resolution-passage – by the Rajapaksa leadership. Incidentally, the commission had put the number of missing persons at a relatively reliable 7000-plus, the original figure put out by a post-war UN field report, until the Tamil Diaspora went to work.


Putting TNA too in a spot

Intentionally or otherwise, and possibly not having ever understood the trajectory of Sri Lankan ethnic politics, and the positions and the propaganda capabilities of the stake-holders, the West has put a ‘friendly’ Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in a tighter spot than ever before in the post-war past. From here, there is no escaping or moderation for the TNA leadership.

In the past, moderate Tamil political leaderships, before and after the war and the LTTE, had always taken the middle and ‘workable’ path to begin with. But over time, they had ended up yielding ground to the hard-liners among them. The LTTE was thus both a trigger-happy, gun-toting hard-liner at one level, pressuring the other Tamil leadership(s), and a ‘relative moderate’ by yielding at the end to self-styled ‘Diaspora Tamil nationalists’.

The Diaspora hard-liners used to visit Sri Lanka and Jaffna, when it used to be winter in London once upon a time. Now they do so when it’s winter in the US, Europe, Canada and Australia. They have had some retainer group back home, who too continue to pull out their woollens when it begins snowing elsewhere. They used to pressure the moderate leadership but only up to a point. Yet, on issues of ‘ethnic concerns’, the TNA leadership too has ended up yielding to orchestrated hard-lines as their moderate predecessors had done before the ‘arrival’ of the dreaded LTTE.

Post-war, the TNA has repeatedly won elections in the Tamil areas, purportedly on a ‘moderate’ ethnic platform. A closer reading of its manifesto and political claims and statements every time would show that it’s only their methods that are moderate, not necessarily their motive. Sure enough, no TNA leader has thus far claimed ‘separatism’ as their near or faraway goal. None is expected to do so in the foreseeable future.

More importantly, the TNA has continued to swear by a ‘political solution within a united Sri Lanka’. It also ends there, with details varying at every other turn. To recall, the post-war TNA, having commenced the forgotten political negotiations with the then Rajapaksa government and making some limited progress through 18 rounds and as many months, suddenly smelt an ‘international opportunity’ and put ‘accountability’ and the ‘South African model’ high on their negotiations agenda, where they had not found any place earlier. Though the government handed it crudely, that also ended the step-by-step political negotiations.

Yet, questions are beginning to be asked if the ‘Diaspora hard-liners’ are using the TNA as the ‘more acceptable face’ of ‘Tamil separatism’ to do business with more moderate sections of the international community, starting with the Government of India even while retaining a more direct linkage in and influence over the pressure-point political constituencies thereabouts, starting with the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu.

This is not to say that the mainline TNA leadership is part of party to any such Machiavellian initiative(s) of the Diaspora hard-liners. Ambiguity has caused some TNA leaders dearly in the elections. Yet, in Justice C. V. Wigneswaran (retd), at present the directly-elected TNA Chief Minister of Tamil majority Northern Province, the ‘hard-liners’ have a more respectable voice than ever before in the post-war period.

CM Wigneswaran has since got not one, but two NPC resolutions caused, piloted and passed, demanding ‘international investigations’ into ‘accountability issues’. Western interlocutors and even the TNA leadership that had counted on him to lend greater credibility and legitimacy to the party’s ‘moderate’ positions should be asking themselves about the very constitutionality to his resolute initiatives of the recent months on the ‘resolutions’ front.

TNA’s much-celebrated and equally respected Leader of the Parliament in the national Parliament, R. Sampanthan, reportedly maintained a stoic silence when PM Ranil defended his government’s stand against a ‘hybrid court’. His trusted party colleague and parliamentarian, has repeatedly asserted since that the ‘accountability issues’ do not meet the existing international criteria for ‘genocide’.

Already, the Diaspora hard-liners and their social media networks are running after the TNA duo and other moderates. It’s not only in Sri Lanka that elections keep coming – there will be more of the same to various Provincial Councils, in ones and twos, in the coming months and years. Elections are also due in very many western countries, where the Tamil Diaspora constituencies count much more than even back home in Sri Lanka.

These electoral realities confer on diplomatic posturing of every kind from and in every nation in the ‘democratic world’, a great respectability and greater relevance to human rights concerns and accountability issues than individual constituencies of the Tamil Diaspora might actually command. The influence and the result of it would be felt in common global fora like the UNHRC. The West having taken contestable issues of the HR kind away from the UNSC focus with its veto-wielding nations cannot escape it when ‘accountability’ cuts in more ways than one, and in more ways than they thought that they could guide – and manipulate.

Sri Lanka might just be the beginning of the end. Or, it could be the end of the beginning….

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

4 Comments for “When ‘Genocide’ Became Just ‘Horrific’ Crimes”

  1. raj

    Former UN HR commissioners says that Sri Lankan government does not want to see the justice. She also said that countries are acting on the economic and geopolitical interest more than human rights.

  2. salam

    “civilization-centric South Asia ” when were you civilized??
    you kill your own people uncivilized brutes bipeds.
    the west was not read even by Marx. your tank is empty Power has set the pace you must know the journalist and legal tank in her.- 2nd time hindian you better run there can be no tweaking.

    Ja ja spread the stupidity.

  3. Ram

    Has this article NOT been overtaken by events. ?

  4. H.L. van Straten

    A very learned article no doubt, but alas it drowns out the real issue at stake here, I feel. It adds to the confusion instead of clearing things up.

    The as yet unsolved challenge of mankind as a whole is to find an effective deterrence against indiscriminate state violence.

    Who speaks out for the innocent victims in say the Crimean conflict, in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, in Irak, in Afganisthan, in the massacre that took place in Indonesia in 1966/67? And who speaks out for the men, women and children non-combatants on the beaches in eastern Sri Lanka in 2009 who were indiscriminately fired upon by the national army? Their voices are muted forever and their memory is a constant ache for those who somehow survived.

    Somehow those responsible for such acts against humanity should be held to account by an international independent humanitarian agency, so that state actors begin to realize that their brutal acts cannot be committed without a final reckoning in the long run.

    That would be a great leap forward for mankind. Without it, man’s inner nature will often remain cruel, savage, unpredictable and civility a pipe dream.

    So, USA, Russia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka etc., have the courage to face your inner demons and have them independently examined to change your behavior in the future for the sake of real humanity and peace.

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