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More time and space is more of the same

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The report by the United Nations High Commissioner’s Office, released last week on Sri Lanka, is another welcome voice to the chorus of heavy-weights slamming the state's crimes against the Tamil people in 2009 and its on-going failure to account for them – but it must be more. The atrocities of 2009 are now well-established, unavoidable truths, however, still there has been no hard action. Instead, acquiescing to Sri Lanka's hollow rhetoric, the state is granted time and space to sort itself out. A year after the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka calling for the most basic of measures, Navi Pillay's report makes clear that it has not. Four years of the international community, albeit begrudgingly, sitting on its hands in wishful waiting has not led to peace, reconciliation, accountability or justice. Instead Sri Lanka has continued its attack on the Tamil identity, people and homeland off the battlefield. The more time and more space Sri Lanka is granted, the more it will consolidate its Sinhala Buddhist hegemony on the island, and the more brazen and audacious it becomes. 

Justice and accountability will only be achieved through an internationally orchestrated inquiry. There is no historic precedent to a domestic inquiry achieving this in Sri Lanka. The state has a long and tortuous history of failed commissions, succinctly dubbed by Amnesty International, as ‘20 years of make-believe’ - that was four years ago. During this time, there has only been an increase in the country’s dogged evasive behaviour. As the High Commissioner's report highlights, the state's judicial system and law enforcement agencies do not have the credibility to assure justice or accountability.

All that has emanated from Sri Lanka is a prolonged and repetitive series of obfuscations and outright denial. The very notion of an investigation into abuses continues to provoke an unanimous backlash amongst the Sinhala nation. Spurred on by the masses, Sri Lanka has become increasingly hostile to actors that call for accountability, churning out the ‘terrorist’ label to slur not only Tamils, but non-Tamil critics of the state. This venomous invocation, accompanied by cries of usurping the country’s sovereignty, will continue to be deployed as a deterrent for any international measures towards accountability. Sri Lanka's wolf-cries of imperialism cannot be an excuse for inaction.

A negotiated political solution that addresses legitimate Tamil grievances has only become more elusive. The government continues to stall talks with Tamil parties, employing a misleading bombast of negotiation via the 'South African Initiative', which has been slammed by Tamil parties, notably the Tamil National Alliance and the Global Tamil Forum as disingenuous engagement. Over a year later, the initiative has not yielded any tangible results, and it will not.  There is no imminent solution to be found in South Africa. There can be no meaningful engagement when the Sri Lankan state's starting point is the complete negation of a Tamil nation, and the abject refusal to acknowledge the notion of Tamil autonomy, let alone the nation's right to self-determination.

Tamils are not viewed as equal citizens in the Sri Lankan state, but a minority, which if it knows its place, may be bestowed tolerance. Any state act, be it reconstructing a war-torn road or releasing Tamil students held under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, is seen as a boon, with the Tamils expected to revere it as such. As the High Commissioner's report illustrates, this is not just the view of the Rajapaksa family, even civil servants reportedly saw the rebuilding infrastructure in the North-East, as an act of benevolence by the state, rather than a fulfilment of its obligations towards its citizens. Time and space will not alter this mindset, it will only give the state the opportunity to further entrench it into state structures.

The fourth anniversary of the end of armed conflict is dawning. The international community now possesses an impressive arsenal of reports, video footage and eye-witness testimony, and the High Commissioner's report is yet another welcome addition. The international community must now deploy it towards ensuring concrete and tangible action. Anything less than resolute will be rewarding Sri Lanka and granting them further reprieve  - a concession that will not go unnoticed by other unruly states. More time spells more unrestrained Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, and more space allows for uncontrollable impunity. Sri Lanka's macabre excesses and unruly defiances need to be reined in, swiftly and uncompromisingly.

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