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Collective punishment wins international consent

The confidence building measures of 2002 have been reversed. Roads into Tamil areas not under the control of the Sri Lankan military are routinely closed, preventing goods and people from getting in and out. This is an unofficial, albeit intermittent, resumption of the decades economic embargo that was lifted – at least on paper - with the signing of the 2002 ceasefire agreement.



Mass arrests in cordon and search operations are back on – over 200 Tamil and Muslim people were detained after one such operation in Trincomalee last week while another 100 Tamils were arrested during an operation in Colombo. Such large-scale detentions, where often the people are released after a few days with no charges being laid, are all intended to terrorise the population being targeted – the Tamils.



And violence against Tamils civilians has escalated. Not as well documented (except by the Tamil press) as the attacks on the security is the murders of Tamil civilians in many parts of the northeast and, now, even Colombo. Businessmen, traders, farmers and civil servants – over 85 Tamil civilians from all walks of life have been killed in the past few weeks.



The international monitors of the SLMM last week triggered a storm when they official stated a well known fact: Sri Lankan security forces are conducting extra-judicial killings.



Then there is the Trincomalee communal violence, which left over 20 dead, some 75 hospitalised and compelled thousands to flee. The predominantly Sinhala security forces stood by throughout.



While all these might suggest the country is back at war, that apparently is not the case. “We still have a valid ceasefire agreement. No party has ended it,” SLMM chief Lt. Gen. Ulf Henricsson, said, before confusingly adding: “but of course it is not a ceasefire right now.”



Meanwhile, the government launched air strikes in the east, in retaliation for the suicide bomb attack on Lt. Gen. Fonseka in Colombo. The government claimed these air strikes in Trincomalee, Muttur and Batticaloa were targeted at LTTE positions, but it was mainly civilians who were killed, injured and displaced in their tens of thousands as a result of the bombardment. While the LTTE admitted one of its camps had suffered damage, no cadres had been killed.



The Tamil National Alliance protested the “indiscriminate air, sea and land bombing and shelling” and said “the immense sense of insecurity that has been created by the indiscriminate and blatantly anti-Tamil actions of the GOSL armed forces has also resulted in over forty thousand Tamil civilians leaving GOSL controlled areas and taking refuge in LTTE controlled areas.”



So perhaps there is another objective. Any reasonable person might not be faulted for believing that the Sri Lanka government, while not officially returning to war – to quote Norwegian mediator Eric Solheim, “this is very far from what Sri Lanka suffered during (the) war. At that time at the maximum 1,000 people were killed in one week. So this is definitely not war” – is engaged in a form of collective punishment against the Tamil population.



The notion of collective punishment rests on assigning collective responsibility for an action attributed to a representative member of that group. People are to be held responsible for others’ actions on the basis they tolerate or support either tacitly or directly without actively taking part in these actions Therefore the group is punished for the actions of the few because the many did not prevent the former from engaging in those actions. In short, guilt by association.



The severity and effectiveness of holding a group collectively responsible for the actions of a minority may vary greatly, but it is aimed at (and often succeeds in) instilling fear and passivity among group members. Some have argued it is almost always a sign of authoritarian tendencies in a home society that seeks to impose collective responsibility and punishment.



At this point is should probably be noted that collective punishment is forbidden by international law. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids collective punishment and states that a person shall not be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. In particular, Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states: “Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited” and protected persons in this case refers to civilians.



Yet in Sri Lanka, the government is praised by the international community even as it collectively targets sections of the civilian population as it is deemed to be ‘refraining’ from attacking the LTTE. When, after a claymore attack on soldiers, the military failed to protect Tamils and Muslims, the international response was uniform: they condemned the claymore attack and made no comment on the civilians.



Speaking of the attack on the military, the US said: “This is clearly an act of terror, which we condemn. … We express our sympathies and condolences to the victims of this attack and will continue our efforts to work with the parties in Sri Lanka, the friends of Sri Lanka, including the Norwegians, and all those who want to see a solution to this conflict through dialogue and through negotiation and not through violence.”



Similarly, last week, while many governments including the US, EU, Japan, India and China condemned the attack at the Army Headquarters, there was not a single statement criticising on Sri Lanka’s bombardment of Tamil villages in retaliation. The SLMM’s ruling criticising the shelling has also been contemptuously rejected by Sri Lanka, but there is no international response to that either.



Sri Lanka may or may not be sliding back to war – depending on who you ask. In either case, the lack of a response from the international observers to the death and displacement of Tamil civilians can only reinforce doubts about the ability or willingness to underwrite the security of Tamils. And the lack of security for Tamils in Sri Lanka is at the heart of the Tamil liberation struggle.