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No peace without justice and self determination

The below is compiled from comments by Krisna Saravanamuttu to the Geneva Press Club on March 21, 2014 during a panel discussion, ‘Is the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC part of the problem?’ Mr. Saravanamuttu is elected representative of the National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT) and spokesperson of the International Council of Eelam Tamils (ICET).


Today we hear a lot about the process of violence that continues five years after the war. We hear about military occupation, rape, the appropriation of land, the imprisonment of political prisoners, the denial of civil liberties under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the deterioration of health, food and social security.

I would suggest, however, that these issues do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, these issues emerge out of the broader context of failure by the international community to uphold the cardinal principal of international human rights law, of international humanitarian law.

We know this based on the United Nations’ own reports. The 2012 Petrie report set out an internal review of the UN activities in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the war. What we found was absolutely shocking. We know that high level UN staff were directly involved in suppressing the death counts that were coming out. We also know that there was a political decision made to scrutinise the activities of the LTTE and disproportionately focus criticism on the LTTE, while ignoring any real criticism of the government.

This is something that set the stage for the massacres that eventually happened in Mullivaikal because, had the world had known the reality of what was happening at that time, a reasonable argument could be made that more might have been done to stop the massacres, to stop the genocide.

We know that senior UN officials like Vijay Nambiar were involved with this type of political manoeuvring. We heard through the admission of people like John Holmes, the ex-humanitarian chief for the United Nations, that essentially the international community was waiting for the defeat of the LTTE and they hoped that it would happen with the lowest death count possible. This fits with a broader discourse, the ‘Tamil Tiger terrorist’ discourse, which ensured that the government in 2009 had a license to kill. It had a license to kill civilians, it had a license to absolutely disregard the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. And so this is the context from which we come here to the UNHRC today and from which we seek justice from the international community.

But we are also looking at a broader context of what happened during the peace process between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka. The United States was one of the co-chairs of that peace process, and it is rather unfortunate that, at that same time, the US was providing Sri Lanka with both material and strategic support for its counter-insurgency. So there is a clear conflict of interest here. We often hear the rhetoric about the LTTE not being serious about a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but we wonder how serious the other actors were, if they continued to prepare the state for war. And we all know how that war eventually came to a conclusion. Today, five years after the war, we know that the US Pacific Command has increased training with Sri Lanka. Conducting business as usual with a country like Sri Lanka, as if it were a normal country and not one accused of genocide, is an egregious act of complicity.

And so this brings us to the current political moment where we are debating the merits of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. Others here have already expressed our utter disappointment with the resolution, and with the current position the international community is taking. We are of the opinion that unfortunately this resolution reframes the debate, and distorts and dilutes the real issue. We are not talking anymore about national oppression, about genocide. Somehow the discourse has changed into a problem concerning religious minorities and human rights violations, a problem that can easily be more rectified under a liberal democratic Sri Lanka, perhaps under another government. However, as far as we are concerned, the Rajapaksa government is not the primary problem. It is the Sri Lankan state that is the problem, a state which has committed genocide against our people for over six decades.

So we are not here to talk about an incremental approach, or to have a debate about geopolitics and international order. We are talking about nothing less than the survival of our people today. Attempting to reframe the debate instead of bringing this system of genocide to an end is indicative of moral blindness but also political shortsightedness. Prolonging oppression is not only unethical, it is pragmatically counterproductive, because it perpetuates the conflict that is going on in the island.

Striving for peace divorced of justice is as good as institutionalising the Tamil nation to the overwhelming state oppression by Sri Lanka’s genocidal regime. We do not want to see the island, perhaps a decade from now, going back down the road of violence. To understand what we are talking about we have to contextualise the violence of the LTTE. The LTTE was a product of state oppression that eventually led to the taking up of arms. This same oppression exists today. We want to see this oppression to end and we want the international community to rectify some of the mistakes of the last few years.

We know that peace cannot happen without justice, and the time is now for the international community to act. Genuine peace, reconciliation and even regional stability can never happen unless there is a genuine, legitimate political solution that addresses the Tamil people’s fundamental grievances, one that also recognises our cardinal principles of nation, homeland and self-determination. Our people’s entire history has been a history of compromise, but on these principles, there cannot be even an inch of compromise. I want to reiterate this point.