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Lessons from Mullivaikkal

Illustration by Keera Ratnam wavesofcolour

As Eelam Tamils prepare to mark 15 years since the Mullivaikkal genocide next week, the international community seems to be grappling with a rise in violence and instability across the globe. From Sudan to Myanmar, and particularly in Gaza, conflicts are raging, and civilians are dying in massive numbers. International humanitarian law continues to be routinely, and in many cases blatantly, violated. As policymakers look at ways to tackle this wave of turmoil, they should reflect and act on the failures from Mullivaikkal.

The grave nature of the crimes committed during that period was never in doubt. Contrary to what some have dubbed it, this was not a ‘war without witness’. Even as the bombs were falling on No Fire Zones there were harrowing photographs and videos of casualties, detailed witness testimonies and almost real-time satellite imagery. In the aftermath of the massacres, UN reports and resolutions have confirmed gross violations of international law took place, with figures estimating that over 169,000 were killed. As is increasingly being recognised, and as Tamils have long known, this was a genocide.

Almost 15 years since the atrocities, little has been done to serve justice for them or to ensure those crimes are never repeated. Colombo has predictably sought to derail any attempts at accountability, with decades of domestic mechanisms serving as an effective whitewash. International avenues have also fallen short. Tamil survivors were told to put their faith in the UN Human Rights Council, but years of empty resolutions have left them disillusioned and angry. Only the US and Canada have placed travel or asset bans on Sri Lankan war criminals, and that too has only been on a handful of individuals. There has been no international criminal tribunal, no state-wide sanctions, and no prosecutions. International justice has failed.

This impact may seem insignificant at first, but the refusal to deal with crimes of such magnitude on a small island on the Indian Ocean fifteen years ago set a devastating precedent around the world. The effect is still being felt today. Militaries from around the world have studied the ‘Sri Lanka model’. States were shown that the starvation and mass displacement of civilians could go unpunished, and the repeated targeting of humanitarian areas or designated safe zones could be overlooked. Military and political figures may face quiet discontent on the global stage, but ignoring international laws and norms would bring no heavy punishment. As long as a facade of ‘reconciliation’ is kept up, even a military occupation can continue. Sri Lanka’s genocide became a blueprint for others.

It is hard not to believe that Sri Lankan war criminals were handed a carte blanche. Just last week the Sri Lankan commander accused of directing the execution of Tamils was seen alongside the US Ambassador to celebrate the Tamil and Sinhala New Year, as US marines trained Sri Lankan troops on the other side of the island. Indeed, despite Sri Lanka’s refusal to reckon for its crimes, Colombo seems more accepted by Western states than ever before in the last 15 years.

This has brought deadly consequences, however. Around the world, states have emulated Sri Lanka’s approach. Myanmnar’s junta follows a scorched earth policy with a similar chauvinistic Buddhist ethos, whilst deadly cluster munitions seem to be routinely deployed in Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the ongoing offensive in Gaza, and the latest assault into Rafah, echoes the experience of many Eelam Tamils. Left unchecked, Sri Lanka’s genocidal policy has gone global.

On the island too, the lack of accountability has brought with it continued instability. A new report by the ITJP found that Tamils continue to be tortured, including under the current regime. Even teenagers face abduction, torture and rape. There has been no peace dividend, nor will there be until those responsible for the genocide are held to account and a permanent political solution is put into place. Those are the lessons that should be applied around the world. 

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