27 November 2007
For a long time now, many Tamils have been puzzled as to why the international community, specifically powerful Western liberal states, continue to support the Sri Lankan government despite its racist and oppressive policies and its genocidal actions against the Tamil people.
Reasons put forward on behalf of various members of the international community have ranged from needing stability in Sri Lanka given its strategic location, to requiring access to the island’s natural deep water harbor in Trincomalee, to supporting stability in the global economy.
However, none of these are actually significant enough to justify the disproportionate international focus and support Sri Lanka has received in recent years.
In today’s geopolitical context Sri Lanka’s location or Trincomalee harbor does not provide a strategic advantage for any of the great powers. Similarly, Sri Lanka’s role in the global economy is too small for it to be a key influencing factor.
So, what is it that Sri Lanka has that is attracting international attention? Nothing. Rather, it is what the international community thinks it has to protect us, the Tamils, that is making, ironically, back the Sri Lankan state.
During the peace process there was talk about Sri Lanka being a test bed for the international community. As many incorrectly believed at the time, the international community was not testing a new model for peace building in Sri Lanka but a new framework for security - for states.
Right to protect
That new framework is called Responsibility to Protect or Right to Protect (R2P).
R2P is described as an evolving concept about the duties of governments generally to prevent and end unconscionable acts of violence against the peoples of the world, wherever they occur.
The R2P principles were first proposed in December 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) and the Government of Canada in a report titled "The Responsibility to Protect”.
Four years later, at the September 2005 UN World Summit, R2P was adopted by United Nations.
According to R2P, states have a primary responsibility to protect their own populations and the international community has a responsibility to act whenever governments fail to discharge this responsibility.
In other words, when a state manifestly fails to protect its population, the international community is said to share a collective responsibility to respond.
Need for a new concept
The 1990s saw a series of catastrophes instigated by states against their own populations in places like Rwanda and the Balkans.
However, it was evident that the international community, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was unprepared to deal with situations like this. States, including great powers, reacted erratically, incompletely, counterproductively or not at all.
However, these states also faced a dilemma as they could no longer watch another Rwanda-style outrage and continue their claim to be the protectors of human rights.
When the genocide in Rwanda occurred the international community did nothing. However, when mass killings seemed likely in Kosovo in 1999, the international community decided to attempt a new tool in its policy box – they called it Humanitarian Intervention.
However humanitarian intervention undermines the concept of sovereignty of the state and thus a foundational principle – at least on paper – of the international system.
A condition of any one state's sovereignty is its corresponding obligation to respect every other state's sovereignty: the norm of non-intervention is enshrined in Article 2.7 of the UN Charter.
A sovereign state is empowered in international law to exercise exclusive and total jurisdiction within its territorial borders.
Other states have the corresponding duty not to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.
The international community used to see intervention in the domestic affairs of states as harmful and leading to the destabilization of the order of states.
But the new cause of ‘human rights’ actually required intervention i.e. the deliberate, collective breaching of state sovereignty.
The R2P concept was aimed at bridging that contradictory gap.
Support for Sri Lanka
According to International Crisis Group, an influential think tank, the responsibility to protect embraces three specific responsibilities:
- A. The responsibility to prevent: to address both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting populations at risk.
- B. The responsibility to react: to respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures, which may include coercive measures like sanctions and international prosecution, and in extreme cases military intervention.
- C. The responsibility to rebuild: to provide, particularly after a military intervention, full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation, addressing the causes of the harm the intervention was designed to halt or avert.
Thus, with R2P, the key emphasis is on prevention.
R2P does not see conflict prevention as a national or local issue and suggests failure to prevent can have wide international consequences and costs.
However, also according to R2P, preventive measures which do not intrude on sovereignty should be exhausted before intervention is even contemplated.
And the preventive measures prescribed by R2P, unlike humanitarian intervention, actually strengthens the state system by assisting in building the state’s capacity (including military capability), remedying grievances, advancing good governance, promoting human rights, ensuring rule of law, providing development assistance - and even offering inducements for such good behaviour.
After the ceasefire in 2002, Sri Lanka entered into a new phase in its protracted civil war at a time the international community had come up with this new framework and was looking for likely test beds.
If we review the actions of the international community in Sri Lanka since February 2002, we can identify the evidence of R2P thinking very much at work.
For example, the international community led by US, EU, Japan and Norway – the Co-Chairs - took a twin-track approach to address the root causes and direct cause of the internal conflict.
‘Legitimate Tamil grievances’ were identified as the root cause of the conflict and this was why Sri Lanka was pressured to devolve power to Tamils. (We still hear these being urged, somewhat weakly).
However, the LTTE was identified by the international community as a direct cause of internal conflict and from the word go the Western states sought to ‘remove this direct cause’ by isolating and undermining the organisation.
In contrast to how the LTTE was treated, and as per R2P principles, the Sri Lankan state was radically strengthened.
Under the guise of capacity building the Sinhala-dominated military was rapidly rearmed, thereby quickly destroying the military parity that led to the peace process in the first place.
International funds flowed to the corrupt and racist state in the name of development assistance. (It still, incidentally, continues to do so, albeit in slightly different forms.)
To ensure Sri Lankan state does not go down the route of Serbia, for example, inducements were offered for it to adopt international suggestions for governance reform etc. The Tokyo donor conference pledge of US$ 4.5 billions should be seen in this context.
Essentially, the international community bribed the Sri Lankan state into not behaving in an uncivilized manner. (The Tamils, however, were not given international aid unless they first agreed to behave – by giving up their demand for self-rule!).
Unfortunately for the international community, they chose a poor test subject in Sri Lanka.
Abby Stoddard in her book ‘Ethnonationalism and the Failed State’ says that a failed state results when the leadership and institutions of the state are weakened and discredited to the point where the state can no longer fulfill its responsibilities or exercise sovereign power over the territory within its borders.
This radically weakening of capacity of the state leads to its classification as a failed state.
It should be remembered that the measures prescribed by R2P to strengthen the state considers only weak or failed states that do not have control over their territories and functions.
Measures to advancement of good governance, encouragement of rule of law and state capacity building will only work if the state infrastructure is weak and the political leaders are unable to execute reforms or prevent mass scale human rights violations.
But Sri Lanka is not a failed state. It is actually a powerful and stable, if racist, state.
The President and the Parliamentary government has the authority and the capacity to impose their will over territory the state controls and the state has firm control over its military.
Thus, and especially when the Sri Lankan state has no manifest interest in liberal values, including the principles of good governance, strengthening it is actually counterproductive.
Indeed, rather than actively working to address the racism that is the root cause of the conflict, the Sri Lanka state is clearly exploiting the military and monetary assistance it is receiving from international backers to advance its genocidal policy.
However, if the Tamils hope that Sri Lanka’s continued intransigence would prompt the international community to switch from ‘right to prevent’ to ‘right to react’ and militarily intervene in Sri Lanka to save us, we would be dead wrong.
Unlike Humanitarian Intervention, R2P recognizes that action by external forces in a country facing internal rebellion or secessionist violence could add momentum or ‘legitimacy’ to those fighting the state - as it has done so in Kosovo.
As a deliberate measure to protect the state system (i.e. prevent new states emerging), R2P proposes that those wanting to help from outside must recognize and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries concerned and confine their efforts to finding solutions within those parameters.
It further adds, even where preventive measures have failed and right to react must be exercised by the international community, the objective should be to not change constitutional arrangements or undermine sovereignty, but to ‘protect’ them.
It is now impossible to pretend that the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Tamils are not rooted in the Sri Lankan constitution, a self-reinforcing (‘entrenching’) constitution that enshrines Sinhala domination over the Tamils.
However, with the international community set on promoting a framework that protects and reinforces this constitution, Tamils simply cannot hope for a just solution or help from the international community.
Thus if the Tamils hope for saviours to emerge from over Sri Lanka’s borders, they will be bitterly disappointed. This leaves us no choice but to look for our saviours within and not outside.
In other words, for us, the ‘Right to Protect’ must be something we take up for ourselves, in our own interests.
It is called the Right to Self-determination.