The eyes of the world were on Scotland last week, as the Scottish people voted in a historic referendum on independence. The majority of Scots (55%) chose to keep their homeland as part of the United Kingdom with the promise of more devolved powers, turning down the opportunity to secede. Whilst the outcome has, quite rightly, been embraced by all as the collective will of the Scottish people, the process inspired and re-energised nations elsewhere struggling for independence. That the question of independence was freely expressed, debated and decided through a democratic process was observed with a feeling of hope and bittersweet envy by, amongst others, Catalans, Kurds, Kashmiris, Balochs, West Papuans and Eelam Tamils - whose own aspirations are denied, even criminalised and violently suppressed.
The start of the UN Human Rights Council's 27th session this week saw the welcome reaffirmation of resolve to pursue accountability for mass atrocities in Sri Lanka through a UN inquiry from the newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al-Hussein and the US and UK missions. Amid the crises unfolding in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, the High Commissioner's pointed statement highlighting the importance he places on the OHCHR Investigation into Sri Lanka (OISL) is a significant pledge to fulfill the commendable legacy of his predecessor, Navi Pillay. Equally resolved however was Sri Lanka in its determination to oppose it. Reiterating its categorical rejection of the inquiry, Sri Lanka renewed its refusal to cooperate with UN investigators. Its seemingly desperate attempts to block the functioning of the inquiry, only serve to vindicate the basis on which member states led and supported the resolution in March mandating an international inquiry – Sri Lanka will not deliver accountability and justice for the deaths of over 70,000 Tamils during the final stages of the armed conflict itself.
Almost at the centenary of the first anti-Muslim riots by Sinhala mobs in 1915, the violence unleashed against Muslims in the Aluthgama last month marks a new step in the advance of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in Sri Lanka. While the active complicity of the military and police in the organised attacks by Sinhala nationalists on Muslim businesses and homes is well recognised, what is striking is not only the government’s open contempt for Muslim leaders’ frantic protests and appeals, but the wider demonstrable support for the nationalist BBS (Buddhist Power Force) movement. Much of the analysis...
The idea that Sri Lanka's opposition parties should unite to topple President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government has surfaced yet again, with much discussion of a common Presidential challenger and speculation over likely candidates. Underlying this, is the assumption and claim, that the main opposition, United National Party (UNP) is the liberal antithesis of Rajapaksa's authoritarian, violent and Sinhala nationalist rule. However, quite apart from the UNP’s own history of rule, its politics of late suggests there are good reasons to be sceptical. Its recent clamour over human rights and other liberal values, belies a deafening silence on central issue of crisis for Sri Lanka – justice and accountability for wartime mass atrocities, and a political solution which addresses long-standing Tamil political demands. In fact leading UNP figures are explicitly supportive of the Rajapaksa government on these issues. Whilst the international community ought to take a closer, more critical look at the UNP's conduct, past and present, before assuming it to be the panacea to Rajapaksa rule, it beholds the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), having secured its electoral mandate on justice, accountability, and the Tamil right to self-determination, to ensure these are the foundation of any alliance.
The killings of three Tamil men last week, who the Sri Lankan military claims were attempting to revive the LTTE, has spread terror amongst the Tamil population. The culmination of weeks of heightened military activity in the North-East, including mass arrests, interrogations and widespread house to house search operations, the killings serve as a collective warning and reminder to the Tamil people of the state's response, capability and preparedness to curtail any Tamil resistance. As public executions do else where, the killings seek to enforce control through violence and fear. Under the guise of counter terrorism measures, the Sri Lankan state is terrorising the Tamil population, on a scale not seen since the end of the armed conflict. Inducing fear, which disintegrates not only Tamil political space, but also social space, is the primary goal.
The Sri Lankan government's proscription last week of 15 Tamil diaspora organisations and over 400 individuals was a brazen attempt to instil fear into the Tamil people. Over and beyond those specifically named or officially affiliated to the organisations, given the organisations' mass membership, the proscription criminalises a quarter of the Eelam Tamil population, and all Tamils living on the island who engage with them. It is the mass banning of Tamil civil society. Sri Lanka's broad definition of 'terrorism', including those demanding Tamil political rights and those that criticise human rights abuses by the state, effectively encompasses any threat to Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Any remaining faint hopes of reconciliation, are made even more unlikely. Ultimately and entirely in keeping with the Sri Lankan state's overarching and long-standing project of consolidating its hegemony, the proscription - ironically only made significant by virtue of the nation's very inextricable connectedness - is an attempt to dismantle the Tamil nation and thereby seek to extinguish the nation's political aspirations.
The UN Human Rights Council's adoption of a resolution last week calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into Sri Lanka is a key milestone in the protracted Tamil struggle. The Council which in May 2009 praised Sri Lanka for its 'victory', now calls for it to be subject to an international inquiry. Whilst the intensification of Sri Lanka's militarised repression in the North-East, even during the Council's 25th session, underscores the inability of the resolution to lead to any immediate change on the ground, the significance of this moment - hard fought and long overdue – is nonetheless profound. Almost five years after the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamils, in what international experts have described as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide, the international community has come to acknowledge what Tamils had consistently argued was the case: Sri Lanka lacks the will to deliver justice to the Tamil people, international intervention is essential.
This week the text of the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka will be finalised and voted on by member states. Amid the intense deliberations of the past weeks in Geneva, the crux of the problem in the island has been laid bare. Even as diplomatic missions, international NGOs, numerous Tamil actors and some Sinhala ones have campaigned for mandating an international independent investigation into Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities and ongoing abuses, the arguments of those calling for a more tolerant and accommodative approach have been thoroughly discredited by Colombo’s own conduct: not only has the government rejected out of hand calls for accountability for some of the worst atrocities of the century, it has, in a direct snub to the UNHRC, intensified its repression and terrorising of the Tamil people.
The third week of the UN Human Rights Council's 25th session begins today with palpable sense of renewed impetus towards the need for concrete action. The second draft of the resolution calling for accountability in Sri Lanka has evidently been strengthened. The High Commissioner's office is called upon to establish a stand alone investigative mechanism. The strengthening of the text is without doubt welcome however ambiguity remains around the core issue of an international investigation into mass wartime atrocities. As the continued calls from international and Tamil voices for a Commission of Inquiry highlight, questions remain over the nature and scope of the investigation envisaged in this latest text - will it have the necessary mandate, sufficient resources and right direction to go beyond mere fact-finding but gather evidence towards a judicial process and prosecutions.
Last week's opening of the UN Human Rights Council's 25th session gave rise to strong and welcome calls from key member states for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s mass atrocities. That Sri Lanka is not going to investigate the horrific crimes for which its leaders are responsible and that accountability depends entirely on an international mechanism of inquiry is now indisputable. Yet the initial draft text of a resolution on Sri Lanka – the third such resolution in as many years – has evoked a variety of responses from those who have been campaigning for accountability and justice for the past five years, ranging from cautious welcome to deep disappointment and dismay. There is clear and overarching agreement: the resolution is weak, and needs to be strengthened.