Those who forget the past...
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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;
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.