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Eyes wide shut

Illustration by Keera Ratnam / @wavesofcolour

As Volker Türk addressed the UN Human Rights Council last week, his message could not have been clearer. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights delivered only an “update on progress” concerning reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. He concluded that little such progress had taken place. Instead, the human rights chief said Sri Lanka had implemented “regressive laws and authoritarian approaches”, whilst the security forces continued to engage in rights abuses. Almost 15 years after the mass atrocities at Mullivaikkal and after decades of continued ethnic conflict, the UN human rights chief echoed what Tamils have repeatedly demanded. Accountability must be delivered and the root causes of the island’s turmoil must be addressed.

The concerns outlined by Türk have been extensively documented and widely acknowledged.  Land grabs and efforts to erode the Tamil homeland have stepped up, with more Buddhist sites purposefully constructed in the North-East. Families of the disappeared, who marked more than 7 years of protest last month, have faced state intimidation, arrests and violence. Abductions, unlawful detention and torture, including sexual violence, have all continued. These issues, which have plagued the island for decades, have not abated. 

Yet many in the international community continue to ignore the numerous warning signs. A malaise seems to have set in amongst policymakers globally, where routine but bland statements of concerns on human rights in Sri Lanka are published, but little tangible response follows. That reluctance to meet words with action has instead opened the space to normalise Sri Lanka’s climate of abuse and impunity. Whilst the UN is ringing alarm bells, military hardware is being gifted by the US, trade deals are being signed by India, and economic bailouts are being granted by the IMF. All whilst abuses continue and the unaddressed causes of conflict on the island fester.

This type of engagement with Colombo will not reap any stability. Whilst some in the international community continue to foster cordial relations, in pursuit of their own interests and in the apparent belief that economic prosperity will bring peace to the island, it is an empty optimism that has borne few results. Following that policy in the aftermath of the 2009 genocide has proven how much of a failure it has been. The island has little resemblance with the multi-ethnic and tolerant, liberal market democracy that has been ostensibly sought after. An economic crisis has wreaked havoc, whilst military officials accused of war crimes still roam free and Tamils continue to flee ongoing rights abuses. Indeed, as the current crop of candidates for Sri Lanka’s upcoming elections has demonstrated, the toxic Sinhala nationalism that caused so much instability remains embedded into the Sri Lankan polity and as unabashed as ever before.

The words of the UN human rights chief, who represents an organisation that by its own account seriously failed in Sri Lanka, therefore need to be heeded. Colombo has proven it will not take any meaningful efforts to hold perpetrators to account. The latest announced commission is simply another tactic by the state to block any international action and has been widely denounced by survivors and human rights organisations alike. The High Commissioner himself noted that “the environment for a credible truth-seeking process remains absent”. In its place, he called on the international community to act through universal jurisdiction and targeted sanctions - a demand that has been repeatedly put forward for years. Moreover, if the cycles of violence, conflict and instability are ever to be broken, the crisis at Sri Lanka’s core needs to be tackled. Sinhala extremism must be rebuffed and a meaningful solution to the ethnic conflict, that takes into account the longstanding Tamil demand for self-determination, must be pushed through.

For survivors of Sri Lanka’s genocide, the lack of action from member states has become despondently familiar, driving home how toothless these international mechanisms and fora are. Though they continue to appeal for global action, many know that their fate remains in their own hands. Türk’s address confirms that just as it did during the massacres at Mullivaikkal, the international community knows exactly what is taking place on the island and the suffering the Tamil people continue to face. It is simply choosing to ignore it.

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