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The problem with the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka

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The below is compiled from comments by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam to the Geneva Press Club on March 21, 2014 during a panel discussion, ‘Is the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC part of the problem?’ Mr. Ponnambalam is President of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF).

The purpose of my intervention is to outline the Tamil people’s expectations of international processes and institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council, given the prevailing situation in the Tamil areas of the North-East. Fundamentally, any international action with regards to Sri Lanka needs to effect distinctive change on the ground. As far as the Tamil people are concerned, this is the only criteria by which one should judge whether any act on our behalf is a positive step, a negative step or, quite simply, irrelevant to us.

  It is widely acknowledged that war crimes and crimes against humanity took place against the Tamil people. However, we, the Tamil people who live in the land, who actually faced these, and are witnesses to what actually happened, take the view that it is not only war crimes and crimes against humanity that took place, but a systematic genocide, and one that is ongoing. Whilst during the war there were several acts of genocide that we believe can be proved, particularly as some of us are witnesses, including myself, when we use the term genocide we mean not only the loss of life, but the systematic dismantling of the Tamils and their identity as a nation. The loss of life is but one aspect of this.

 What do we mean by ‘nationhood’? What are the criteria that qualify the Tamil people for nationhood? If there are a people with a distinct identity, language, culture, who live in an identifiable territory and have their own indigenous economy that can sustain their way of life – as do the Tamil people – then they constitute a nation. Crucially, when one qualifies for nationhood, legally, one also qualifies for the right to self determination. This is the cornerstone of the right to self determination: a people qualify to govern themselves, to exercise their sovereignty.

 The Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka, however, sees the existence of the Tamils, who qualify for nationhood and therefore self-rule, as a threat to their ideology of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist country. Thus, over the last several decades they have systematically sought to dismantle the Tamil identity, not just by violence, but also by undermining the Tamil economy, carrying out land grabs, and pursuing a Sinhalisation project in Tamil areas. Just because the war ended five years ago, and the tremendous loss of life is greatly reduced, that does not mean the conflict has ended. In fact it is ongoing. There is not a single Tamil political party that won’t argue that our identity is being systematically destroyed today. The Tamil people – regardless of political backgrounds and viewpoints – are in agreement on this, that each of those pillars that qualify us for nationhood is being undermined and destroyed.

 It is in this context that we say to the international community that we expect this reality to be brought to an immediate stop, and for those who committed these crimes to be brought to book. Speaking as someone from the ground we expect, first and foremost, an independent international investigation that, at a very minimum, investigates not only war crimes and crimes against humanity, but also genocide. To be clear, we are asking for an international investigation as the only way to find out what actually happened. Therefore, imposing restrictions on the sort of investigation that can take place is fundamentally wrong. We believe this is fundamental to accountability.

 The question then is how are we going to obtain the evidence needed for such accountability? The fact is that such evidence rests within the people there, and is in that soil. Therefore, a safe environment where such evidence can be obtained is crucial. Today, however, as far as the Tamil people are concerned, there is no safe environment in which to speak freely. There are perhaps a few individuals, such as us in this podium and those who attend the Human Rights Council, who are prepared to take grave risks. But to establish the truth you must create an environment that is safe for ordinary people to provide evidence. We believe this can only happen through the formation of a transitional administration that controlled by the UN or another international body capable of providing the necessary protection to the Tamil people. Otherwise, gathering evidence is not going to be possible.

 It is in this context, and amid such expectations from the Tamil people, that a resolution is being tabled at the Human Rights Council today. Unfortunately, this resolution does not address the key concerns outlined above. For example, if we look at way the resolution represents the conflict in Sri Lanka, the word Tamil is not even mentioned. Instead of talking of an ethnic conflict, it talks of religious minorities being targeted. The issue in Sri Lanka, as is widely accepted, is that of an ethnic conflict, where the Sinhala nation has sought to systematically undermine and destroy the identity of Tamils as a nation. Yet this resolution, brought by the world’s most powerful country and supported by other influential states, avoids even acknowledging the Tamil identity, even though many, including the UN expert panel’s report, make clear the suffering of the Tamils. It is hard to believe this is an oversight.

 So, if this resolution actually has nothing to do with the Tamil people and their suffering, than what is it about? We know the geopolitical struggle where the present Sri Lankan regime has fundamentally altered Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, from a traditional pro-western stance ever since independence, towards China. If the intention of this resolution is to produce sufficient internal embarrassment and pressure to make the government unpopular and thereby bring about regime change, let me be very clear: the Rajpaksa regime is the most extreme manifestation of a much wider and much deeper problem; it is a pure and crude culmination of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that has been transforming Sri Lanka into an ethnocracy. Every single government before has done the same thing. The main opposition, which whilst in power was armed by the international community such that when Rajapaksa became President, he could conduct the war, is today quite clear it does not want the military to be investigated.

 Secondly, despite the wide acknowledgement that war crimes and crimes against humanity took place, the draft resolution does not explicitly refer to these. Instead it talks vaguely of ‘human rights violations and related crimes’. Thirdly, not only does the resolution, once again, give tremendous importance to the Sri Lankan government to investigate itself, in calling for an international investigation to be conducted by the High Commissioner’s Office, it falls well short of the sort of accountability mechanisms that we believe are fundamentally required here.

 Thus, we have real concerns that as things stand with the current draft resolution, we are going to have yet another year and yet another report, as opposed to tangible and positive change on the ground that will prevent, or in some way deter, the Sri Lankan government from the sort of actions it has been carrying out. As far as I and my party are concerned, we believe the Human Rights Council is a legitimate venue, and in fact, we have long been campaigning for resolutions to be brought before it. However, there must be a will to go beyond it, as we are fully aware that the Council has severe limitations.

 So, whilst there is no question that we want a resolution to be passed, our issue is with regards to the mandate that such a resolution will give. As the current draft stands, we believe it is so weak that it will simply embolden the current regime to carry on with its actions, give it a great sense of impunity, and weaken to an unbelievable level the capacity of the Tamil people to resist it. Yet, we believe that the moment has not passed and there is still time to strengthen this resolution to reach a point where it actually is relevant and can actually make a difference. However, there is a real sense of urgency: at the rate at which the identity of the Tamil nation is being dismantled, in two or three years, there will be simply no point in coming back to the UNHRC then.