The UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka last week rightly invoked mixed sentiments. On the one hand, the passing of the second resolution in two years and the advocacy efforts that accompanied it underlined that Sri Lanka remains firmly on the international agenda and that the coalition of state and non-state actors pursuing accountability for the slaughter of tens of thousands and continuing rights abuses is expanding. On the other hand, the quest for consensus on the Council, and in particular the support of India, resulted in a significant weakening of the resolution’s force and the introduction, as Delhi’s pound of flesh, of elements deeply antithetical to the goals of accountability and justice, and injurious to the political aspirations of the Tamil nation.
For these reasons the resolution has elicited a range of Tamil responses, from a disgusted rejection to an enthusiastic welcome. Across the various responses, however, there is clear agreement on two things: that accountability for the mass killings of 2009 is a foremost demand of the Tamil people, and that this can only be secured through decisive international action. The futility of the Council’s call on the Sri Lankan government to investigate the systematic atrocities committed by its forces, and its extending of another chance to do so, is well recognised by all those campaigning for accountability, as well as by Sri Lanka’s allies. It is aptly captured by the title of Amnesty International’s 2009 study of Sri Lanka’s history of sham inquiries: ‘Twenty years of make believe’. As underlined by Colombo’s hysterical rejection of even this flawed resolution, only an independent international investigation can ensure genuine and credible accountability. As such, the gains of the diplomatic horse-trading in Geneva are Sri Lanka’s, but the price will be paid by the Tamils in the island.
The UNHRC resolution is but a moment in the protracted struggle to ensure accountability and justice for some of the worst mass atrocities of this century. As the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Michele Sison, put it, “life does not stop on 21 March.” In that sense, the events of the past few weeks hold a number of important lessons. Firstly, it is clear that support for the goal of accountability for Sri Lanka’s genocidal violence against the Tamils is growing across the world. Nowhere is this more demonstrable than in India, whose government did the most to shield Sri Lanka in Geneva. The spontaneous mass protests by university students, the efforts of Tamil Nadu’s major political parties, the coverage by the country’s mainstream media and the voices of many others reveal the depth of support. Moreover, as Tamil and international campaigners in Geneva found, the resolution has the support of many countries, including some not presently on the Council. In short, international action has more popular support than ever before.
Secondly, however, the search for a multilateral international effort on accountability cannot be pursued solely through the UNHRC or other fora that accord Sri Lanka’s allies de facto vetoes. Rather, as we argued ahead of the 22nd session, the international community should now also actively explore other mechanisms and modalities. International institutions are not necessary for acting in concert.
Meanwhile, as demonstrated again in Geneva this year, even when fully cognisant of the horrific atrocities inflicted on the Tamil people, even states espousing principles of democracy, liberal values and the rule of law will readily sacrifice these in tactical, if mistaken, calculations. India and Australia are examples. As Australia and other ‘receiving’ states will see, refugee flows will not be stemmed by ‘security’ collaborations with murderous regimes. As India, Britain and other members of the international community will discover, no amount of ‘friendly gestures’ will secure the cooperation of a nationalist, triumphant and paranoid state.
Sri Lanka well knows the campaign for accountability will never cease and neither will the Tamils reconcile themselves to Sinhala hegemony, no matter how intense the repression. And, as has been the case from the outset in the seventies, it is Sri Lanka’s repression that will continue to ensure Tamils’ aspiration for independent statehood remains undiminished. Sri Lanka’s conduct in the Tamil homeland even as the wrangling continued in Geneva makes clear that the island’s crisis will intensify in the coming months and years. The ramifications will be felt internationally - what these are, however, depends on whether or not the international community takes decisive action against Sri Lanka.