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The Beginning

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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.

The journey here was by no means easy. The passage of the resolution last week was the culmination of the tireless efforts and determination of a few individuals, for five years, including officials from the US, UK and co-sponsoring states, the High Commissioner, a coalition of international human rights organisations, and Tamil actors, particularly from the diaspora, who have doggedly pursued the quest for justice and accountability. In order to achieve the necessary consensus however, compromises have been made along the way. The intense discussions over recent weeks regarding the text of the resolution, and the eleventh hour efforts by Sri Lanka's allies to stall an international investigation made it evident to all engaged in the process, and those around the world who tuned in to watch events unfold live, the need for this.  Whilst the behaviour of Sri Lanka's allies is unremarkable, India's abstention and vote in favour of postponing the debate, though thoroughly predictable given past conduct, remains deplorable and unbecoming of the aspiring world power it claims to be. Thus as we argued last week, the well intended efforts of the resolution sponsors to accommodate India's whims whilst seeking to secure an international inquiry were always to be in vain. On the question of Sri Lanka, India is less non-aligned than aligned with a murderous regime.

The significance of this moment however, should not detract from and fails to negate the resolution's inability to bring an end to the ongoing violations and the intensifying crisis in the North-East. As US and UK officials have commented repeatedly over recent weeks, the situation is deteriorating. The persistent and sustained calls from the North-East for immediate relief and protection from the Sri Lankan state remain unmet, as Sinhalisation and militarisation of the Tamil homeland escalate at an alarming rate. Meanwhile as Sri Lanka has already made clear, meaningful and genuine cooperation are not to be forthcoming. Determined to resist international norms, Sri Lanka has categorically rejected the resolution. Thus, quite apart from the pursuit of justice for past crimes, arresting ongoing violations requires focus and further international action as a matter of urgency. Targeted sanctions and criminal prosecutions of alleged war criminals traveling outside the island, should be pursued, in parallel to the investigation by the High Commissioner's office.

In the immediate aftermath of May 2009, we forewarned of the inevitable confrontation that would ensue between Sri Lanka and liberal order. The military defeat of the LTTE – purported by liberal orthodoxy to be the panacea to the island's conflict - would not lead to Sri Lanka taking the road to ethnic reconciliation and liberal peace. Quite the reverse, the absence of an armed Tamil resistance to the Sri Lankan state, would allow the government to pursue Sinhala Buddhist hegemony unchecked. Today we stand vindicated. We also meanwhile wrote of renewed resolve amongst the Tamil diaspora to take the struggle forward as a coalition of activists, united in purpose, and focused on greater engagement with key power centres. This too has been the case, so much so, it is at times easy to forget how far we have come to reach this point - that which was extraordinary and aspirational, is now routine and commonsensical.

Five years ago as Tamils in the homeland were brutalised, the diaspora, collectively criminalised as terrorist sympathisers, protested day after day in capital cities around the world. Today, the very people who led the protests of 2009 many of whom who are second generation Tamil youth, together with those in the North-East who have suffered the greatest losses, such as the mothers and wives of the disappeared, have emerged as key driving forces of the struggle. Five years on, a coalition of Tamils from the homeland and diaspora, gathered at the UN in Geneva, to (successfully) secure international action on Sri Lanka, liaising closely with international actors. Amidst unfathomable loss and hopelessness, far from being paralysed by grief or anger, Tamils rose up and continued the struggle with unwavering resolve. This is just the beginning.

Illustration by Keera Ratnam

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