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How does rights advocacy fail?

The latest report on Sri Lanka by the New York based human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, has caused something of a political furore amongst expatriate Tamils. The report, entitled – ‘Funding the Final War: LTTE intimidation and extortion in the Tamil diaspora,’ makes some damming claims, both about the LTTE and Tamils living in Canada and the United Kingdom. It argues that the LTTE is extorting funds for its final war under the cover of a fear - ridden atmosphere created through intimidation and violent reprisals.

According to HRW, Tamils living in the west have been subject to ‘death threats, beatings, property damage, smear campaigns, fabricated criminal charges, and even murder as a consequence of dissent.’ This pervasive atmosphere of fear and repression, HRW claims, forces all Tamils, regardless of political persuasion, to provide funds for the LTTE. At certain points the report qualifies some of its more damming allegations against the LTTE with the observation that many Tamils do willingly support the LTTE.


'This is not a cowed and moribund community, but one that is well integrated, massively skilled and deeply committed to what they see as their homeland. '

The focus of the report, however, and its major argument is that a minority of Tamils, argued to be a substantial minority, opposed to the LTTE are being forced to fund the LTTE through fear of violent reprisal. One informant in the report is attributed with the claim: ‘I think that most people who are giving money are not giving money for the cause. They give because of fear.’

Whilst the LTTE is portrayed as an essentially violent and anti democratic organisation that counts the forcible recruitment of children as one of its principal modalities of operation, the characterisation of Tamils living in the UK and Canada is hardly more flattering. They are, apparently, a community cowed into a moribund silence through the violence unleashed by the LTTE and its agents. Despite the occasional qualifications that stress that actual incidents of violence within the Tamil community are rare, the overriding characterisation is of a ghettoised people living in fear of their own mobs. According to HRW, the Tamils have learnt to keep their heads down and are completely lacking in any form of moral or political agency.

The controversy created by the HRW report is only to be expected, given the central role that human rights principles play in the legitimacy claims made by political actors, including the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Neither can ignore the normative power of human rights as a standard through which political conduct is judged.

Moreover, the language of human rights is particularly important for the Tamil nationalist movement. The Tamil struggle is a demand for self - determination, a concept philosophically dependent on the understanding of individuals as rights bearing creatures. The demand for Tamil self - governance relies on an understanding of political rights, unlike Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that makes frequent recourse to the supposedly ancient history of a chosen people.

The centrality of human rights language both to the Tamil struggle and within the larger international arena places advocacy groups such as HRW in a very powerful position. However, HRW’s most recent report, especially when placed in the context of its wider reporting on Sri Lanka over the past two to three years, suggests that it is more interested in attacking and undermining the LTTE, to the advantage of its enemies, than in actually promoting a human rights culture within the Tamil independence movement per se.

Tamil expatriates’ fierce criticism of the HRW’s latest report is understandable given the disparaging and almost slanderous terms in which it describes their political and social life in the west. As a consequence of their criticism, HRW begrudgingly admitted that the extortion activities detailed in its report are being carried out by ‘a small number of individuals claiming to be from the LTTE.’

However, from this limited and qualified data set a gargantuan leap is made to assert that the LTTE as a whole is funding its ‘Final War,’ through systematic extortion in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. This suggests that the collection of evidence was guided not by the usual standards of accuracy and objective inquiry, but by the author’s determination to prove that the LTTE was indeed a brutal and cruel organisation completely beyond the bounds of human rights norms.


'The portrayal of the LTTE as the main culprit of human rights abuses creates a grossly inaccurate misrepresentation of Sri Lanka’s multifaceted and difficult human rights situation.'

The portrayal of the LTTE as the main culprit of human rights abuses, a theme echoed by the overall tenor of HRW material on Sri Lanka over the past two to three years creates a grossly inaccurate misrepresentation of Sri Lanka’s multifaceted and difficult human rights situation. For example, in characterizing the climate of fear allegedly produced by the LTTE both in Sri Lanka and abroad, the report bluntly ignores the complex and dangerous ‘shadow war’ that has been underway in the north-east of the island. It makes the blanket assertion that the LTTE inflicts violent reprisals for ‘statements, activities or even social interactions that may be critical of the LTTE.’ It is then suggested that the LTTE has even killed Tamils ‘solely for working in educational, social or religious programs funded by the Sri Lankan government.’

This not only misrepresents but also, sinisterly, helps to conceal the ongoing violence against civilians perceived to be sympathetic to the LTTE by anti-LTTE paramilitaries. The recent abductions of TRO workers, the killings of journalists in Trincomalee who reported on paramilitary activity, the ‘execution style’ murder of two women, sisters of a former ‘Karuna group’ cadre who had switched sides to the LTTE, and many more have not figured at all on HRW’s Sri Lanka radar.

The violence unleashed by paramilitaries and Sri Lankan armed forces against Tamil activists over the past few months has led over 15, 000 people to cross from army held territory in Jaffna to LTTE held areas in the Vanni. a fear - ridden atmosphere created through intimidation and violent reprisals, indeed. But this reality too is however completely occluded by HRW’s selective reporting on the island.

Tamil perceptions of bias and inaccuracy in HRW’s advocacy in Sri Lanka have been fuelled by the organizations’ reports over the past few years, which have had an almost exclusive focus on the issue of the alleged recruitment by the LTTE of under eighteens, to the near total exclusion of all other human rights issues.

This reporting has not only missed the wider issues of child rights (regarding access to education, healthcare, clean water and adequate nutrition for example), it has also presented a Dickensian caricature of the LTTE as an entirely sinister and predatory organization. For example, an HRW statement issued barely two weeks after the Tsunami accused the LTTE of recruiting children affected by the natural disaster.

Firstly, amid now widely recognized issues of the state’s blocking aid to Tamil areas and of privileging the south over the north and east, the focus is notably narrow. Indeed, for many observers, the HRW statement seemed timed to deflect international attention from Sri Lanka’s denial of humanitarian aid and access to Tsunami affected areas in the Northeast of the island.

Moreover, this portrayal of the LTTE as rapaciously extractive was starkly contradicted by the experience not only of expatriate Tamils, but also of many other international actors and aid workers, who witnessed first hand the vital role LTTE cadres played in containing the humanitarian disaster created by the tsunami and in progressing post tsunami rehabilitation.

The Tamil diaspora activists, who have led the criticism of HRW, should be important partners for human rights advocacy groups. The former are members of long settled communities who have overcome enormous material and psychological hardships to integrate well into their host societies. Tamils have achieved success in a wide variety of fields including medicine, law, banking, computing and journalism and are well versed in the norms and traditions of Western liberal cultures.

Nevertheless, since the 2002 ceasefire large numbers of Tamil expatriates have visited the Vanni and contributed their skills and knowledge to reconstruction and rehabilitation work in LTTE controlled areas. This is not a cowed and moribund community, but one that is well integrated, massively skilled and deeply committed to what they see as their homeland.

However, through its inaccurate misrepresentations of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, HRW has forfeited any possibility of fruitful engagement with the Tamil polity. Many Tamil activists are now convinced, purely on HRW’s output material, that the organisation is actively working with the Sri Lankan government to undermine the LTTE and, by extension, the Tamil independence movement.

They point out that even before the latest report on alleged LTTE extortion and fundraising was launched in New York, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was quoting it in a speech in London. The Foreign Minister’s early and strategically important access to the publication when placed alongside the evangelical and zealous anti LTTE tone adopted by the report’s author suggest that HRW will continue to play an important role in the Sri Lankan government’s drive to gain international support for a military push against the LTTE.

The implications of this highly selective defence of human rights are two fold. Firstly, it brings into serious question the efficacy of human rights as a vehicle for pursuing the Tamil political struggle, even though it is understood broadly as predicated as resistance to discriminatory and chauvinist state policies. Secondly, and more, importantly, it weakens the moral force behind the human rights criticism directed against the LTTE, both amongst the Tamils and, as a consequence amongst the organization. It is, thus, the norm of human rights itself that is ultimately brought into question and weakened as a consequence.