A witness recalls the horrors of her walk towards the Sri Lankan Army controlled territory on the penultimate day of the conflict, the 17th May.
“I walked, following many others, thousands. As I walked I saw the scale of the destruction, there were pools of blood and many wounded or dead. I saw a truck laden with people that had been hit by a shell not long before - the wounds were fresh. There was a mother dead, her baby still alive beside her.”
What then followed was months in an IDP camp, months punctured by torture, and upon release, the constant fear of persecution. This, 4 years on from those final days of death and surrender, is the reality of life for many Tamils in Sri Lanka.
On this anniversary, we remember those who lost their lives and those who survived them and we ask, what progress has been made in the fight for justice? The answer is sobering – far too little. This in spite of incontrovertible evidence of the crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against its own citizens, this despite the manifest failings of the Sri Lankan state to provide justice, this despite much international condemnation by states, INGOs, and, especially of late, the international legal community.
That the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) committed war crimes is now uncontroversial, excepting of course the Sri Lankan state’s own fervent protestations to the contrary. In this past fourth year, the UN Internal Review Panel Report, the “Petrie” report was published. It invoked but also strengthened the findings of the Panel Of Experts (PoE) report from 2011: the Petrie report revised the PoE’ tentative, conservative estimate of civilian casualties from 40,000 to 70,000. Furthermore the report broke fresh ground in recognising the failings of the UN and member states to prevent the atrocities in Sri Lanka, atrocities that the report recognised the UN had contemporaneously known were being perpetrated predominantly by the Sri Lankan state. In February of this year the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a damning report on the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee and the National Action Plan (LLRC and NAP respectively), mechanisms that had already been widely recognised as a farce, a mockery of justice. Broader acceptance of the Sri Lankan state’s crimes and its failure to bring justice, as well as formal recognition of UN failings - these are developments. But the lack of action in response to such crimes is chilling. Condemnation in words is met by a lack of action, perceived as tacit justification, even exoneration.
The lessons of the past ought to change behaviour today. As the months pass, the Petrie report begins to seem more and more like an apology for past failings, an acceptance of old crimes, when it ought to be a rallying call, motivating action now. Silence in 2008 and 2009 failed to protect. The humanitarian imperative trumped the human rights concerns and the UN chose silence. It was to be a costly decision in terms of lives lost. Today still other considerations are allowed to trump human rights concerns, and the urgency of the current situation seems lost on policy makers. Indeed there is much talk of time, time to influence, time for transition. Standing in for Mr Cameron in Prime Minister’s question time this week Nick Clegg averred “what we'll be doing by attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka is using the opportunity to cast a spotlight on the unacceptable abuses in Sri Lanka”. At the UPR in November 2012, several states, attempted to mitigate the Sri Lankan human rights abuses by appealing for leniency given the context of a country emerging from a protracted civil war. But time is not on the side of the survivors of 2009 and all who have suffered since. 4 years have passed in which evidence has been destroyed. 4 years for the Sri Lankan state to brand its image on the Tamil north and east. 4 years in which the State has continued its genocidal project, of which 2009 was a climax but not the end.
In April 2013 TAG Advocacy wrote a piece of commentary on “Advocating the use of the G word: Genocide” in which we accounted for the reluctance to openly speak of a Genocide in Sri Lanka in the run up to the UN HRC, Mar 2013. We noted, “The fear is that the G word will turn away the more hesitant supporters”. In that article we concluded,
“those who advocate playing it softly, who…fear to speak of genocide, not only deny justice to the survivors, they grant Sri Lanka more time and space to continue to act with impunity.”
The battleground today is one of words, of competing narratives. Whilst the fact of the deaths of thousands of Tamil non-combatant is not up for debate, the framework within which those deaths are read is. If they concede any deaths at all, the GoSL frames them in terms of collateral damage in a just war. But consider those fateful final months in context, before and since, piece together eye witness, survivor accounts, and it is soon horribly apparent that the civilian casualties were not the hapless victims of cross fire, but the intended target of military action, a war against civilians, a genocide.
The GoSL’s skill in framing the conflict is considerable. Their narratives parroted in diverse places, by diverse people. The conflict was alternatively framed as part of the global war against terrorism, as a just war, and the post 2009 period as one of transition, of reconciliation, reintegration, rehabilitation, regeneration. Attendance at the UN Human Rights Council serves to grant the state respectability, legitimacy, a state alongside other states. It provides a stage in which Sri Lanka can pretend to liberal values, in which to vaunt the hollow justice of the LLRC, the NAP, to suggest progress and development. The international community is the greatest threat to Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka is protecting itself from that threat through conducting influence operations, setting the conditions to continue to act with impunity. Sri Lankan state narratives of the past and present must be exposed and countered if there is to be any hope of justice, and through justice peace.
As we move into this fifth, ‘post-conflict’ year, we continue to call for justice, for justice’s sake and in order to protect those who are at risk from the Sri Lankan state today. The international community has a responsibility now, having failed once, to protect today, in the form of justice and an Independent International Investigation. States have a responsibility to act in a principled fashion on the diplomatic arena, members of the Commonwealth should not only boycott the Heads Of Government meeting in Colombo but should call for Sri Lanka’s expulsion. Meantime survivors ought to be protected, state’s asylum policies should accurately reflect the risk to Tamils in Sri Lanka. In assessing that risk 2013 should not be considered in isolation from 2009.
We must work to counter and frustrate the GoSL narratives through replaying the past, and exposing the on-going abuse. We need to continue to speak out about the extent of militarization, demographic re-engineering, and state sponsored violence against anyone deemed to threaten the integrity of the Sinhala Buddhist nation state. We need not only to speak out but to envision innovative ways to arrest the progress of the genocidal state. As the Commonwealth and the UN voting patterns indicate there are many countries where the events of 2009 are little known. Initiatives such as the worldwide distribution of the “No Fire Zone” documentary are critical to both raising awareness and preserving memory. As the Sri Lankan state continues to destroy memory – by bulldozing cemeteries, forbidding Remembrance events and brainwashing children through ‘lessons’ literally by the military, the preservation of memory becomes of critical importance.
And in particular we need to capture for posterity the memory of survivors. It is they who must decide what the charges against the perpetrators will be. It is their testimony that drives us in our quest for Justice. Words such as these:
“For the government every Tamil is also a Tiger. Killing the Tigers meant for them also killing us. There was no line they made so they killed us all together because they oppose us and don’t want us to live like they do.”
When asked “would you consider the arms usage of the SLAF proportionate towards the sole aim of destroying the LTTE?” a survivor said,
‘I don’t think so. I think there was a clear mission to destroy all of us because we were Tamil.’
Such words echo repeatedly in the testimonies that shape our quest for justice. And it is our knowledge of the courage of those who lost their lives that will drive us in the decades to come.
Statement by Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) on Mullivaikkaal remembrance 2013.