Time to Move On
The countries that are forcing Sri Lanka to investigate alleged war crimes do not have an enviable human rights record themselves.
Instead of reopening old wounds, the big powers should help Sri Lanka in its post-war reconstruction efforts.
It is said that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others. Perhaps this rule is not applicable to world politics where those living in glass houses are at the forefront of throwing stones at others. What happened in the 25th session of the UNHRC in Geneva at the end of March validates this hypothesis. In one of the sessions, superpower U.S. presented a resolution against Sri Lanka that called for an international probe into war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan Army during the last months of the three-decade long civil war. The UK strongly backed the US’ efforts and the resolution was passed by 23 votes to 12.
The Sri Lankan civil war was a highly violent affair that spanned over 26 years (from 1983 to 2009) and was fought between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam). The LTTE, better known as the Tamil Tigers, comprised Tamil separatists who demanded freedom from the Sinhala-majority country in the form of a separate state in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. Relations between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority were never amicable and had, in fact, turned violent on many an occasion. But the incident that provoked a full-fledged civil war is known as Black July in Sri Lankan history. According to some estimates, as many as 3,000 Tamils were killed in a horrible pogrom in Colombo in July 1983. The massacre was a result of an earlier attack by the LTTE on an army convoy. Thirteen soldiers were killed in the attack.
The civil war that broke out in the wake of the prosecution campaign claimed up to 100,000 lives according to the UN. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army adopted a no-holdsbarred attitude and launched vicious attacks against each other. The Lankan Army, being an organized force with state-of-the-art weaponry, had the upper hand. To defy the army’s advantageous position, the LTTE came up with a hard-to-counter weapon: the suicide bomber. It was the LTTE that introduced this deadly phenomenon in South Asia and used it for killing many important personalities, including former Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and a number of high-ranking military officials. The LTTE also used women as suicide bombers. This was established when former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a female belonging to the LTTE cadre. With Gandhi’s assassination, the LTTE became the only terrorist organization in the world to have killed two world leaders. It has also been accused of abducting children and manipulating them into becoming soldiers.
By 1997, the organization had become so violent that it was included in the list of foreign terrorist organizations by none other than the U.S. itself. Nine years later, the European Union took the same step, proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist outfit. From the start of the civil war in 1983 to its end in 2009, several unsuccessful attempts to establish peace were made by both sides in
the form of ceasefire agreements. A neutral body, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, has documented 3,830 ceasefire violations by the LTTE as against 351 by the security forces during February 2002 to May 2007.
When the war finally ended in 2009, as a result of a massive assault launched by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it had effectively torn down the entire country. Thousands of lives were lost and the economy was in tatters. In fact, Sri Lanka registered a negative growth rate in 2001. It is against this background that the final offensive against the Tamil Tigers, in which 40,000 Tamils were allegedly killed, should be seen.
The demand of the international community that Sri Lanka conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations of war crimes rings particularly hollow when seen in the context of warnings given to the LTTE by the UN in the last phase of the civil war. It is true that the United Nations Security Council had made an offer to the LTTE that allowed “a UN-assisted evacuation of the remaining civilians in the conflict area, and join the political process." Did the LTTE agree? It did not.
The Sri Lankan government announced the end of war on May 16, 2009. A few days earlier, on May 13, 2009, the UN Security Council had condemned the LTTE, denounced its use of civilians as human shields, and urged it to acknowledge the legitimate right of the government of Sri Lanka to combat terrorism by laying down their arms and allowing tens of thousands of civilians to leave the conflict zone. On May 14, 2009, the UN’s Acting Representative for Sri Lanka, Amin Awad, had reported that 6,000 civilians “had fled or were trying to flee the war zone, but the LTTE was firing on them to prevent them from escaping”.
It is against this background that the ‘war crimes’ allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan forces should be viewed.
The saddest aspect of this situation perhaps is that those at the forefront of the campaign against Sri Lanka do not have an enviable record when it comes to human rights.
During last year’s Commonwealth Summit in Colombo, UK Prime Minister David Cameron chastised the Sri Lankan government for not doing enough. While Cameron was being supremely patronizing, did it ever occur to him that one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, had played a rather shameful role in attacking Iraq? According to some reports published in the British media, Blair had examined ways of “justifying an invasion of Iraq” with his senior staff back in July 2002. As for the U.S. and post-war human rights violations, only one word should suffice: Abu Gharaib.
When attacking a foreign country can be validated on the basis of dubious intelligence reports and justified on flimsy grounds such as ‘establishment of democracy’, then a government’s right to crush a secessionist movement by any means to keep the physical borders intact should also be respected.
Since 2009, there has not been a single suicide or bomb attack in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy is growing at a rate higher than that of all other South Asian nations. Foreign inflows have increased and development work is taking place in all parts of the country. However, this does not mean that everything is fine in Sri Lanka. The Tamil problem still exists and the Tamils have many grievances. But the government is trying to bring them into the mainstream. A number of development projects are underway in the war-affected areas. New roads, highways and railway tracks are being constructed.
More importantly, a political process has started in the areas once controlled by the LTTE. Local bodies’ polls were held in Jaffna and Vavuniya soon after the war ended and were won by the Tamil National Alliance – a coalition of moderate Tamils. The TNA also won the elections of the Northern Provincial Council held in 2013. It was the first ever election for the semiautonomous body that was set up in 1987. Although a lot is yet to be done, things are moving in the right direction albeit slowly. Instead of reopening old wounds, the world community, especially the big powers, should help Sri Lanka in its post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.
The writer is assistant editor at SouthAsia. She focuses on issues of political and social interest.