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     Those who forget the past...

On accountability

Later on, issues of accountability can be raised. But what we in the West need to do now is not to go into Sri Lanka to judge and accuse, but to go in and assist. There isn’t time for anything else.

— Michael Ondaatje

Global & Mail, May 28, 2009

The furore over the special session on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva is interesting to observe and study on a number of counts. If the war against the LTTE sharply divided those in favour of it and those against it, the post-war process of investigations into and accounting for alleged war crimes as a building block of a truth and reconciliation mechanism divides even more. A flurry of emails during the course of the week flagged a number of pertinent concerns in this regard.

There are those who believe that the investigation into the allegations of war crimes, especially by the government, is vital and urgent. The more time that passes goes the argument, the greater the risk of evidence and witnesses disappearing. On the other hand, there are those who believe that meeting the existential needs of what is one of the largest concentrations of civilians displaced by war in the world is more urgent.

Adequate water, proper sanitation, access to healthcare and pre and post natal care for pregnant mothers, care for the elderly and even basic nutrition for adults and children in particular are pressing concerns and challenges in IDPs camps. With the inevitable spread of information on ground conditions in these camps comes more local and international scrutiny on promises by government to look after those in their care.

Bona fides

There is enough reason to question the bona fides of the government in this regard. My last column dealt with the starvation of IDPs in camps, despite the government’s repeated assurances that this was not the case. There is also enough reason to engage, to balance the negotiations over aid conditionalities with the imperative of providing urgent support to over a quarter of a million people. It is here that I am at significant odds with the likes of the EU, Canada and Britain to hold the government accountable for war crimes.

There are a number of arguments – from the realpolitik and strategic to the emotional and nationalist – that rendered the special session on Sri Lanka at the HRC, at this juncture, quite daft, inappropriate and ironically, strengthening domestically the very government the animosity was directed against and intended to shame.

One finds the curious incidence of agreeing with the hawks and racists in the regime whose central argument – that those in the international community who see fit to hold this government accountable for war crimes must first investigate their own complicity in war crimes – is one that cannot be intellectually, morally and politically cast aside. Israel’s sheer chutzpah to champion the investigation of war crimes by the Sri Lankan government is made in the context of its own vehement refusal to cooperate with an on-going UN investigation into its own war crimes.

Extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo for the US, the false information upon which the war against Iraq was justified in the UK and the murder of civilians by thousands of highly paid mercenary forces in Iraq are just three dominant aspects defining a coalition of Western powers leading the war against Iraq.

Reality and truth

When reminded of these inconvenient truths and their multi-faceted legacy that deeply informs the perception of these Western powers, the knee-jerk reaction to dismiss and decry is indistinguishable from the violent obduracy of terrorists to see any reason or counter-argument to their established sense of reality and truth. As Thomas Carothers in an article presciently titled The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion published in Foreign Affairs in April 2006 notes;

Every country facing a terrorist threat struggles to find the right balance between security and respect for civil liberties. But unless the Bush administration resolves the staggering contradiction between its unapologetic proclivity to violate individual rights in the name of fighting terrorism and its preaching to others that liberty is an antidote for terrorism, its democracy-promotion agenda will continue to rest on a shaky foundation. Meanwhile, the democracy backlash will continue to grow.

The Bush administration has been replaced by one infinitely more civilised, but the legacy of America’s policies and practices over the past eight years is acutely felt globally, and will take more than meaningful action over the audacity of hope to address and transform.

Bad timing

Strategically too, the timing was very wrong. Even if the counter-argument is that there was no better time or occasion for a special session on Sri Lanka at the HRC, it does not take away from the fact that any effort to mobilise international consensus to hold a government that decisively defeated an terrorist outfit with almost mythical powers just one week before accountable for war crimes was simply preposterous and doomed to fail.

Emotionally, the measures against the government considered at the HRC caused no traction whatsoever domestically. Voters in the south, predominantly Sinhala Buddhist, who today deify the President and venerate the armed-forces simply have no interest whatsoever in holding their heroes accountable for alleged war crimes. It is also a sense of national pride at stake, for what really does the international community want the majority of Sinhala Buddhist voters to do at this juncture?

Are they serious in harbouring the belief that the genuflection of the Rajapakse regime by civil and political society today holds any space or opportunity in the foreseeable future for investigations of the nature proposed? Are they completely oblivious to the genuine sense of relief that fuels the support of a regime?

Utopian ideals

The blind pursuit of unattainable goals based on utopian ideals is sadly no substitute for hard choices that need to be made by the international community to support Sri Lanka’s post-war future as a democracy. On the one hand, it needs to be attentive towards reports such as that published in The Times newspaper in England on Friday, noting that confidential United Nations documents acquired by it record an average of 1,000 civilians killed each day from the end of April until May 19, the day after Pirapaharan was killed.

That’s a mind-boggling allegation of over 20,000 Tamil infants, children, women and men killed by the Sri Lankan army. On the other hand, given the fickle nature of unnamed UN sources and the lack of any other independent source of verification to date, this is not a figure that can be regarded as accurate and impartial. Yet, persistent allegations of the indiscriminate murder of Tamil civilians constitute at the very least, a massive challenge for reconciliation and peace-building.


The message of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay for the special session on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council underscored the need to “address the root causes, the longstanding human rights conditions, to ensure a comprehensive process of accountability for human rights violations by all concerned. A new future for the country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace, where respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms can become a reality for all, hinges upon such in-depth and comprehensive approach.” It is unlikely that even at the zenith of its popularity today, the government suggests now as it once did earlier this year that this was a war with zero civilian casualties.

Civilians were killed. We cannot escape this. Yet, it is our burden to investigate, hold accountable and forgive. It is not the place of a few hypocritical Western powers to demand this of us. 









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