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An international investigation is long overdue

As the armed conflict on the island of Sri Lanka drew to an end in May 2009, over 70,000 Tamils were massacred in what has since been acknowledged as gross violations of international law, with the Sri Lankan government overwhelmingly responsible for the mass slaughter. Almost five years since, no one has been brought to account, over 140,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for, and the repression of Tamils who remain in the North-East, now living under effective military occupation by a virtually ethnically pure Sinhala military, is intensifying. No sooner did the fighting cease in 2009, than did Tamils, along with international NGOs, begin calling for an international independent investigation. Sri Lanka cannot investigate itself: the allegations are too grave, and the state's record on providing justice to the Tamils too abysmal for any internal inquiry. Indeed, as the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted in her report released last month, the Sri Lankan government has failed to credibly investigate any allegations. As the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council commences in Geneva today, looking set to see the third Sri Lanka-specific resolution in as many years, meaningful international action towards justice and accountability is yet to be seen, whilst impunity catalyses on-going abuses. A resolution calling for an international commission of inquiry is long overdue.

Sri Lanka, as it has persistently sought to do, will attempt to block any avenues to justice for the Tamil people. Its cries of 'foreign interference' and 'imperialism', together with its liaisons with equally unscrupulous states, are disingenuous efforts to stall concerted international action. It is the Tamil people, abroad and at home, that have led the calls for an independent, international investigation, arguing that what took place in 2009 and what continues to unfold in the Tamil homeland of the North-East, is a genocide. This was the resounding mandate given by the Tamil people to the TNA during their landslide provincial council election victory last year and was duly reflected by the Council's passing of a resolution calling for precisely that. It is also the unanimous call by Tamil politicians, activists and civil society in the North-East and the world over.  As the session begins today, there is no doubt that the Tamil people, together with Tamil voices in Tamil Nadu in India, international NGOs, and an increasing number of member states, want to see genuine accountability through an international investigation.

The overwhelming and vehement rejection of any such resolution by Sinhala polity, media, judiciary and the wider public highlights the deepening ethnic polarisation taking place on the island. Indeed, in recent weeks, it is plainly evident that Tamil unity on the need for a resolution calling for an international investigation, is well matched by Sinhala unity on a rejection of it. Whilst Tamils debate how to make such a call stronger, including looking into the crime of genocide and increasing the mandate for international intervention in order to provide immediate relief to Tamils in the North-East, the prevailing Sinhala discourse is on how best to deflect, stall or weaken any investigation, with government and opposition parties putting aside their differences to work together on this common goal of safeguarding the state from foreign scrutiny. This deepening divide underscores why nothing short of an international, and therefore truly independent process will be able to satiate the desire for accountability and justice, which is central to any future peace or stability on the island.

It is worth reflecting, that in this fifth year of 'peace', as states look to draft and agree on the details of a resolution this session, reports of intimidation, sexual violence, abductions and killings of Tamils by the Sri Lankan military remain the order of the day. Tamil resentment at this is rising. Defying government threats and intimidation, Tamils in the North-East, have been vociferous in their call for international action, and in their condemnation of what they deem is the Sri Lankan state's on-going genocidal activities through coercive birth control and militarised colonisation of Tamil lands. Just last month, the Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution condemning the ongoing ethnic reconfiguration of the North-East. Yet the state's machinery continues with its onslaught on the Tamil people. Without decisive international action, Sri Lanka’s crisis will deepen and intensify, and as the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded in its briefing note released last week, without such action, there is a risk of renewed conflict.

It is in this context of mass atrocities, impunity and simmering crisis on the island, that the UNHRC member states will meet over the next four weeks to discuss what to do with Sri Lanka. Having established in the international arena that Sri Lankan government has proved itself unwilling to credibly investigate the allegations, most recently through the High Commissioner's report, there can be no compromising on the mechanism of international inquiry needed to ensure accountability and delivery of justice. There is no grey when accounting for mass atrocities on this scale. Justice is either pursued and delivered in its entirety, or it has not been sought at all, and impunity is left to reign supreme. Anything short of a robust international mechanism with a mandate to enforce, impose and carry out an investigation into crimes that occurred during the armed conflict as well as crimes that continue to take place today, and ultimately deliver concrete avenues of justice based on its findings, is a green light to the Sri Lankan state to continue rolling out Sinhala hegemony across the Tamil territory. A resolution, inclusive of the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry is a crucial step, not only in advancing accountability, but also in restoring in Tamils' much worn faith that the international community can ensure and safeguard a just and peaceful future for them.

 

Illustration by Keera Ratna