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Genocide, independence and international law

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Until about a month ago, most people paid no attention to the two liberation struggles of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both are de-facto states that, having declared their wish to be independent of Georgia in 1992, have been running their own affairs, with the support of Russia, ever since.


Both regions have their own state structures and governments – self-rule in Abkhazia has been conducted via their own parliament. But despite these two peoples’ demonstrable desire to rule themselves, the West would not accept their claims and instead insists their homelands belong to Georgia.


A month ago, in a major miscalculation, Georgia launched a massive and ruthless military operation with the intention of occupying South Ossetia and dismantling the de-facto state there. The attack was legitimised as “defending Georgia’s territorial integrity”.


Unexpectedly, Russia has intervened militarily, driven back the Georgian forces and now, in response to a clear appeal by the governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has recognized these states. The Russian decision was unanimously backed by the Parliaments in Moscow.


These developments, coming just months after the people of Kosovo won their liberation struggle – over the strong objections of Russia, but with the enthusiastic support of Western states – demonstrate how international ‘principles’ are manipulated by the world’s most powerful states to suit whatever their interests are at the time.


Of crucial importance for the Tamils, these ‘principles’ include ‘genocide’, territorial integrity’, ‘democracy’ and even ‘self-determination’.


The Tamil people will instantly recognise the sentiments expressed by South Ossetia’s Foreign Minister when Russia’s recognition of their statehood was announced: “In less than 100 years, the Georgian military has three times carried out genocide against the Ossetian people. ... Why are they killing us? Because we simply want to live as equals with all the other nations.”


The language used by various leading states in discussing South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and before that, Kosovo - will also ring a bell with the Tamil people: Russia says it intervened in South Ossetia against Georgia to prevent ‘genocide’. The West intervened in Kosovo against Serbia to prevent ‘ethnic cleansing’.


Democratic Will?


Recognising Kosovo’s independence, the West said, correctly, that “over 90%” of the people there want independence. The Russians have, also correctly, pointed out that the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia want independence.


But notice how Russia was unconcerned about the Kosovars’ views, when they opposed that their independence from Serbia.


And notice how yearning of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for independence and freedom aren’t even mentioned by the West in the present crisis.


Instead, the West’s only concern is about the territorial integrity of“little” Georgia – and about the welfare of Georgians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia!


Britain’s Guardian newspaper, for example, has praised Georgia as “an independent state - unstable, immature, chaotic, corrupt, but hopeful.” There is, again, simply no consideration of the views of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia trying to free themselves from Georgia’s chauvinist rule.


The Western states have condemned Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and rejected, without the slightest consideration, the desires of the peoples there.


These desires, it is worth noting, were democratically endorsed.


To begin with, South Ossetians and Abkhazians assert their right to self-determination having voted at referendums at elections to their own parliament.


In 1991, then Russian leader Gorbachev called for an “All Union” referendum on the continuation of the Soviet Union. Although Georgia boycotted the referendum, in Abkhazia, 52.3% of the population (virtually all the non-Georgians) took part in the referendum and voted by 98.6% to stay with Russia.


Within weeks of the referendum, Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union. A power sharing agreement was reached between the Georgians and Abkhazians but this failed in 1992.


In 1992 the Abkhaz contingent in the Supreme Council of Georgia (i.e. the elected representative of their people) declared independence for Abkhazia from Georgia. This resulted in war and the mass migration of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia (about half left, making Georgians about 21% of Abkhazia’s residents).


Similarly, in South Ossetia, the European Union refused to recognise referendums for secession in 1992 and 2006 - even though the South Ossetians voted by 98% for independence in 2006.


Even before the 2006 vote, the EU had warned that it would consider the referendum meaningless; European Union Special Representative to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, declared “the results of the South Ossetian independence referendum will have no meaning for the European Union.”


In short, the EU had no interest what the South Ossetians themselves wanted.


Abkhazia is a full fledged democracy. Parliamentary elections were held in 2004 - where the Russian-backed candidate lost and a coalition government with 90% of all votes was formed.


Notably, both political parties in  Abkhazia supported secession from Georgia.


And interestingly, Abkhazia is a multi-ethnic country - Abkhaz, Armenians and ethnic Russians in the region all voted for self-rule, and against Georgian rule.


All this puts into context how ‘democracy’ is certainly not a principle the Western states or Russia are actually committed to. Or rather, the results of elections only matter if these suit their interests.


If the views of people matter, then the case for the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, just like those of Kosovo is utterly incontestable.


‘Special Case’?


When Kosovo declared independence from Serbia –on the principle of self-determination - the various countries of the EU (except Spain, battling Basque demands for self-rule) decreed that Kosovo deserved to be exempt from ‘international law’, on the basis of Serbia’s racist oppression and Serb leaders' rejection of a negotiated final status for the territory.


But Kosovan independence in 2008 is notably the culmination of a decade of unilateral military intervention by NATO in Serbia since 1999.


In 1995, when the Dayton peace accords were being negotiated, the US and EU rejected Kosovo’s pleas for independence because of ethnic persecution by the Serbs.


Four years later, the West invaded, supposedly to defend the Kosovars. The basis? Genocide! The Serbs had launched a major offensive into Kosovo, driving over 250,000 people from their homes.


President Clinton's Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, later declared: "The appalling accounts of mass killing in Kosovo and the pictures of refugees fleeing Serb oppression for their lives makes it clear that this is a fight for justice over genocide."


President Clinton also argued “NATO stopped deliberate, systematic efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide”. He later compared the Serbian aggression against Kosovo to the Jewish Holocost.


However, this month the US supported a massive Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, which drove almost the entire population from their homes.


Russia’s intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has, however, been condemned by the West as against international law.


It follows that NATO intervened in Kosovo to gain advantage in the geopolitical competition with Russia. Kosovo is effectively a NATO ally.


Russia refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence in February 2008 – citing the “territorial integrity” of Serbia and warned, then, that the West’s recognition would have implications for the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


And so it has. Pro-Russian South Ossetia and Abkhazia, similarly, are clearly part of Moscow’s remerging sphere of influence in the region


Thus, although at the time, the European Union was keen to label the secession of Kosovo as an “exception”, it is now difficult to see how this is so.


Russia has always been seen as staunch defender of ‘territorial integrity’ – particularly given the problem of Chechnya. Russia has not traditionally been much interested in promoting democracy or preventing of genocide.


But following the Kosovo secession backed by NATO, Russia has quickly moved to support the self-determination of the Akhbazians and South Ossetians, where it is Russian, not NATO troops, who will “underwrite” the peace.


Historically, the US has backed dictatorships and genocide in other parts of the world. For example, the US strongly supported Indonesia’s invasion and annexation of East Timor in which up to a third of the East Timorese people were wiped out.


Then in the late nineties, when the US saw itself as the sole supervisor, they condemned Indonesia’s occupation and secured East Timor’s independence.


Territorial Integrity?


But the principle of ‘territorial integrity’ arises from a specific need – formalised after World War II - to discourage nations invading each other.


But there is a huge difference when the ‘threat’ to territorial integrity arises from within, from a people wishing to secede from the rule of another. Here ‘territorial integrity’ conflicts directly with the UN convention on civil and political rights, on the UN’s declared right of a people to self-determination, and so on.


The international developments of 2008 have a direct bearing on the Tamil people’s struggle for their self-determination and secession from Sri Lanka.


The Tamil people have a strong case for Eelam. They meet all the requirements to exercise self-determination - they have a distinct ethnic identity, a contiguous, historic geographic territory, a history– i.e. they constitute a ‘nation’. They also have capability of self-governance and the will to self-determination.


Leaving aside international laws of self-determination, even when compared with the ‘special case’ rationales presented by the West in Kosovo and Russia in South Ossetia (and Abkhazia), the Tamils have an ample argument: oppression and popular will.


It is worth briefly revisiting some of the Tamil arguments for self-rule.


For sixty years the Tamils have suffered relentless marginalisation by the Sinhala dominated state. We have suffered bouts of communal violence and pogroms.


In July 1983 three thousand of our community were butchered – while the world stood by and even supported the Sri Lankan state with money (World Bank etc) and arms (US, Britain, etc). It is worth remembering the Tamil guerrillas were denounced as ‘Communists’ – after the Cold War ended, they became ‘terrorists’.


The figures for Kosovars killed by Serbian forces were less than 5,000 (as reported to Human Rights groups), though the actual figures of Kosovan deaths “directly or indirectly” attributed to war are estimated at 12 000.


When comparing the figures of Tamil and Kosovan casualties, it is instructive to note  Kosovo has a population of circa 1.9 million (87% of whom are ethnic Albanians), compared to the Tamil population of 3.2 million in Sri Lanka.


The NorthEast Secretariat for Human Rights (NESOHR) has thus far recorded the killings of 37,000 Tamil civilians (in the North East alone) from 1974 to 2004, and estimates, including deaths of internally displaced Tamils outside the North East, the total at 75 000.


Since 2005, international human rights groups have recorded several thousand more deaths at the hands of the Sinhala-dominated security forces.


(These figures do not, of course, include the 22,000 Tamil Tigers killed in the armed struggle for self-rule)


In 2007 alone, the West-backed Sinhala army drove more Tamils from their homes in just the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka than the number of Kosovar displaced cited as justification for NATO intervention against Serbia in 1999. The total number of Tamils displaced within Sri Lanka or fled abroad is 800,000.


Convenient rules


Given that some genocides are ignored or supported and others invoke intervention, it is clear that the international community's decision to accept genocide is taking place is a politically motivated one; ‘genocide’ then becomes a label of international politics, conveniently applied to justify violations of ‘international law’ by powerful states.


So is ‘territorial integrity’; various countries, including especially, the US and the West, Russia and India, have repeatedly asserted the inviolability of Sri Lanka’s ‘territorial integrity’.


It is worth remembering India helped Bangladesh become independent by attacking Pakistan and hiving off that country. India also intervened in Sri Lanka in the eighties, violating Sri Lanka’s sovereignty with airdrops over Jaffna.


The point here is that sooner or later, just as Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are presently useful to powerful states, sooner or later, intervention of one sort or another against Sri Lanka will at some point become useful.


It is then that it will conveniently be remembered the Tamils are enduring slow genocide – just as the suffering of the East Timorese, the Kosovars, the South Ossetians and Abkharz all became useful at some point.


The ideal route to independence would, of course, be by mutual agreement with the Sinhalese – just like the Eritreans and Ethiopians decided a decade ago. However, the Sinhalese are not going to even treat us as an equal people.


We must survive the slow genocide the West-backed Sinhala state is carrying out, expatriates must continue doing what we can to ensure the suffering of our people in the Northeast is minimised.


We need to repeatedly assert our demand for Eelam – irrespective of the confident assertions of international actors that most of us don’t want independence and actually want to live within the chauvinist Sinhala state.


We can take much heart from the successes of the Kosovars, South Ossetians and Abkhazians in securing their independence from oppressive and racist states.


In short, the lesson for the Tamils is to redouble their efforts and ensure the Tamil nation survives genocide, while building and reiterating their case for independence.

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