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The futility of human rights monitoring

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The most significant consequence of Sri Lanka's formal decision this week to withdraw from the Norwegian mediated ceasefire is the termination of the mandate for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). This has intensified calls for a United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission to formally continue the human rights work that had, by default, fallen to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. The demand for a UN mission has become the standard liberal response to Sri Lanka's fast deteriorating human rights situation.

However, it is unclear whether the language of human rights and humanitarianism can actually capture or address the issues that are driving Sri Lanka's dismal slide to lawlessness and brutality.

To argue that the solution to Sri Lanka's problems might not be found in the language and techniques of human rights and humanitarianism seems in the current climate at least counter intuitive, perhaps even demonstrating a callous disregard for the victims of this violence.

However, the point here is not to argue that violence and brutality are inevitable, simply to suggest that the human rights / humanitarian paradigm cannot provide the means to explain the dynamics of violence and consequently is incapable of establishing the conceptual foundations for a different, positive form of politics.

Despite the deep ideological divisions on the Sri Lankan political scene all shades of opinion can nominally agree that the current situation in which politics is conducted through assassination, extortion, bombings, rapes, enforced starvation, displacement, ethnic cleansing and abduction is abnormal. It is not that politics has been marred by brutality rather politics is coercion, fear and violence.

The human rights / humanitarian paradigm appears at first sight to be eminently capable, if not absolutely essential in these conditions of abnormal politics.

The current situation is one where human rights are violated with gay abandon and in which humanitarian norms have lost all force as guiding or restraining principles.
However, there is a circularity to the human rights / humanitarian paradigm that explains its inability to provide a viable strategy that can move Sri Lankan political dynamics away from abnormal politics.

The human rights / humanitarian paradigm describes the current situation in terms of violations of its norms: so many abductions, so much displacement, the numerical dimensions of humanitarian need. However, it also explains the current crisis in terms of its own norms - thus producing circularity:

Q: What is the problem in Sri Lanka?
A: The LTTE and the Sri Lankan government are committing human rights violations.

Q: Why is this?
A: Because they are human rights violators.
Using the same terms to describe and explain a problem produces circularity that can be compared to explaining flooding in terms of too much water.

Q: What is the problem?
A: The room has flooded?

Q: Why is this?
A: Because there is too much water.
Just as the flood is caused by some other problem that cannot be explained solely in terms of water levels so Sri Lanka's problems require a language that moves beyond the metrics of human rights violations and humanitarian needs.

A significant proportion of human rights violations in Sri Lanka are related, in the organic and causal sense, to the ongoing civil war. Nothing demonstrates this better than the reduction in human rights violations in the months immediately following the ceasefire agreement of February 2002.

The ceasefire recognized the civil war as a military conflict between two protagonists and consolidated a mutually agreed balance of forces. It was thus an expressly political and pragmatic document that it in its immediate wake produced a noticeable improvement in the human rights / humanitarian metrics.

The ceasefire, initially at least, checked and contained the activities of the army backed paramilitary death gangs that had stalked the Jaffna peninsula spreading murder, gang rape and abduction in their wake.

It gave the Vanni a respite from constant aerial bombardment, displacement and saw the ending of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's cruel, not to mention illegal, embargo that had brought the population to near starvation and deprived it of medical essentials including pain killers and anti snake venom. (As an aside, the needless distress and indignity suffered in death by Vanni civilians is one of the many inhuman aspects of Chandrika's war not fully captured by humanitarian metrics.)

In return for greater stability and security in the north levels of insecurity in the south declined and the economy started to recover from the negative growth it experienced in 2001.

The brief period of military security gave the LTTE the confidence to engage with international actors on key issues such as under-age recruitment, police reforms and development amo-ngst others. Although all sides have since expressed dissatisfaction with the process, the current situation is clearly by all metrics a deterioration from a dynamic of limited if not entirely satisfactory engagement.

The breakdown of the ceasefire and the consequent deterioration in human rights / humanitarian standards cannot be explained in terms of the metrics alone. There is an increase in human rights violations not because the LTTE and the Government suddenly rediscovered their human rights violating tendencies but because the ceasefire has broken down and both sides are pursuing a military option.

The ceasefire broke down for a number of reasons but principally perhaps the international backers lost sight of the mutually recognized military balance that had created the conditions for the ceasefire in the first place.

Instead a narrow minded determination to contain and weaken the LTTE led to a deterioration of the military balance, eroded political parity and the culminated in a resurgent and vibrant Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism revival that is again pursing war - with international backing.

The current pattern of human rights violations reflects the new dynamics of war. Abductions and extortions of Tamils in Colombo, Jaffna and the East are a consequence of this government's greater reliance on paramilitary groups. These acts are carried out by army backed groups and the ransom money is used to fund paramilitary activities, mainly in the East. Tamil politicians are being assassinated to clear the space for paramilitary politicians.

These activities cannot be explained in terms of the anti human rights tendencies of Douglas, Pilliyan or Karuna alone. Rather abductions in Colombo are fuelling paramilitary activities in the east, precisely so as to free up the army to capture the north.

Abductions were not a major feature of Chandrika's regime as she did not need a large paramilitary group to control and pacify the east and could fund paramilitaries like the EPDP in the north through the ministries channeling the generous financial assistance given to redevelop military-controlled Jaffna.
Counting, condemning and monitoring abductions and assassinations simply describes the dimensions of the problem, it cannot explain why they occur or produce a viable strategy for building a different kind of politics.

In short, the distressing dimensions of Sri Lankan human rights / humanitarian matrices simply reflect larger military and political strategies. The matrices will not improve until these larger issues are addressed. These larger issues require political concepts such as justice, security and stability that have become almost alien to Sri Lankan political thinking.

Thinking about justice cannot turn on the individual citizen but must incorporate the historic and ongoing oppression of the Tamil people and their exclusion from meaningful access to public, legitimate power.
Security cannot just mean, as it presently does, the security of the Sinhala state and polity and the larger international community but must be the physical, political and economic security of the Tamils.

Finally stability refers to the long term stability of any solution that must include the idea of military balance. A political condition that effectively addresses these issues of justice, security and stability would also be one where there was a noticeable and qualitative improvement in human rights / humanitarian matrices.
However, the matrices would simply describe the situation, they cannot help create it.

The ceasefire was the first meaningful step in this direction and as such brought a brief respite in the deterioration of the human rights matrices. It addressed the questions of security and stability and might have provided a means to addressing questions of justice.

UN monitoring as envisioned by its advocates does not address any of these issues and will therefore be unable to check the rising tide of human rights violations.

No doubt the international community hopes that independent human rights monitors would be able to collect information that could be used to bring or threaten war crimes charges against both the government and the LTTE. The possibility of war crimes could conceivably act as a threat that shapes the behavior of both protagonists.

However, neither protagonist is fighting the war to avoid war crimes trials. Both are fighting to win and are convinced - with good reason - that war crimes charges can be avoided through military victory. All past political experience suggests that war crimes trials are simply victor's justice that can be completely avoided by the very powerful, notably the United States of America.

The international community's moral authority is also severely tarnished by the activities of its most powerful members. Both sides in Sri Lanka can justifiably point to the aberrations of the 'war on terror.' Moreover, the Sri Lankan states can - and successfully does - use this particular rhetoric to deflect all criticism.

Conversely the West's unqualified military and political support for Sri Lankan state terror means that the LTTE's refusal to recognize the moral authority of these states will - and demonstrably does - resonate with the Tamil polity.

The international community's reliance on the human rights / humanitarian paradigm will exclude fundamental issues of justice, security and stability from political consideration and thus fuel the war which will then fuel a further deterioration of the human rights / humanitarian matrices fuelling calls for UN monitoring.

Thus will the cycle continue.

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