The idea that Sri Lanka's opposition parties should unite to topple President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government has surfaced yet again, with much discussion of a common Presidential challenger and speculation over likely candidates. Underlying this, is the assumption and claim, that the main opposition, United National Party (UNP) is the liberal antithesis of Rajapaksa's authoritarian, violent and Sinhala nationalist rule. However, quite apart from the UNP’s own history of rule, its politics of late suggests there are good reasons to be sceptical. Its recent clamour over human rights and other liberal values, belies a deafening silence on central issue of crisis for Sri Lanka – justice and accountability for wartime mass atrocities, and a political solution which addresses long-standing Tamil political demands. In fact leading UNP figures are explicitly supportive of the Rajapaksa government on these issues. Whilst the international community ought to take a closer, more critical look at the UNP's conduct, past and present, before assuming it to be the panacea to Rajapaksa rule, it beholds the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), having secured its electoral mandate on justice, accountability, and the Tamil right to self-determination, to ensure these are the foundation of any alliance.
The killings of three Tamil men last week, who the Sri Lankan military claims were attempting to revive the LTTE, has spread terror amongst the Tamil population. The culmination of weeks of heightened military activity in the North-East, including mass arrests, interrogations and widespread house to house search operations, the killings serve as a collective warning and reminder to the Tamil people of the state's response, capability and preparedness to curtail any Tamil resistance. As public executions do else where, the killings seek to enforce control through violence and fear. Under the guise of counter terrorism measures, the Sri Lankan state is terrorising the Tamil population, on a scale not seen since the end of the armed conflict. Inducing fear, which disintegrates not only Tamil political space, but also social space, is the primary goal.
The Sri Lankan government's proscription last week of 15 Tamil diaspora organisations and over 400 individuals was a brazen attempt to instil fear into the Tamil people. Over and beyond those specifically named or officially affiliated to the organisations, given the organisations' mass membership, the proscription criminalises a quarter of the Eelam Tamil population, and all Tamils living on the island who engage with them. It is the mass banning of Tamil civil society. Sri Lanka's broad definition of 'terrorism', including those demanding Tamil political rights and those that criticise human rights abuses by the state, effectively encompasses any threat to Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Any remaining faint hopes of reconciliation, are made even more unlikely. Ultimately and entirely in keeping with the Sri Lankan state's overarching and long-standing project of consolidating its hegemony, the proscription - ironically only made significant by virtue of the nation's very inextricable connectedness - is an attempt to dismantle the Tamil nation and thereby seek to extinguish the nation's political aspirations.
The UN Human Rights Council's adoption of a resolution last week calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into Sri Lanka is a key milestone in the protracted Tamil struggle. The Council which in May 2009 praised Sri Lanka for its 'victory', now calls for it to be subject to an international inquiry. Whilst the intensification of Sri Lanka's militarised repression in the North-East, even during the Council's 25th session, underscores the inability of the resolution to lead to any immediate change on the ground, the significance of this moment - hard fought and long overdue – is nonetheless profound. Almost five years after the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamils, in what international experts have described as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide, the international community has come to acknowledge what Tamils had consistently argued was the case: Sri Lanka lacks the will to deliver justice to the Tamil people, international intervention is essential.
This week the text of the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka will be finalised and voted on by member states. Amid the intense deliberations of the past weeks in Geneva, the crux of the problem in the island has been laid bare. Even as diplomatic missions, international NGOs, numerous Tamil actors and some Sinhala ones have campaigned for mandating an international independent investigation into Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities and ongoing abuses, the arguments of those calling for a more tolerant and accommodative approach have been thoroughly discredited by Colombo’s own conduct: not only has the government rejected out of hand calls for accountability for some of the worst atrocities of the century, it has, in a direct snub to the UNHRC, intensified its repression and terrorising of the Tamil people.
The third week of the UN Human Rights Council's 25th session begins today with palpable sense of renewed impetus towards the need for concrete action. The second draft of the resolution calling for accountability in Sri Lanka has evidently been strengthened. The High Commissioner's office is called upon to establish a stand alone investigative mechanism. The strengthening of the text is without doubt welcome however ambiguity remains around the core issue of an international investigation into mass wartime atrocities. As the continued calls from international and Tamil voices for a Commission of Inquiry highlight, questions remain over the nature and scope of the investigation envisaged in this latest text - will it have the necessary mandate, sufficient resources and right direction to go beyond mere fact-finding but gather evidence towards a judicial process and prosecutions.
Last week's opening of the UN Human Rights Council's 25th session gave rise to strong and welcome calls from key member states for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s mass atrocities. That Sri Lanka is not going to investigate the horrific crimes for which its leaders are responsible and that accountability depends entirely on an international mechanism of inquiry is now indisputable. Yet the initial draft text of a resolution on Sri Lanka – the third such resolution in as many years – has evoked a variety of responses from those who have been campaigning for accountability and justice for the past five years, ranging from cautious welcome to deep disappointment and dismay. There is clear and overarching agreement: the resolution is weak, and needs to be strengthened.
As the armed conflict on the island of Sri Lanka drew to an end in May 2009, over 70,000 Tamils were massacred in what has since been acknowledged as gross violations of international law, with the Sri Lankan government overwhelmingly responsible for the mass slaughter. Almost five years since, no one has been brought to account, over 140,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for, and the repression of Tamils who remain in the North-East, now living under effective military occupation by a virtually ethnically pure Sinhala military, is intensifying. No sooner did the fighting cease in 2009, than did Tamils, along with international NGOs, begin calling for an international independent investigation. Sri Lanka cannot investigate itself: the allegations are too grave, and the state's record on providing justice to the Tamils too abysmal for any internal inquiry. Indeed, as the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted in her report released last month, the Sri Lankan government has failed to credibly investigate any allegations. As the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council commences in Geneva today, looking set to see the third Sri Lanka-specific resolution in as many years, meaningful international action towards justice and accountability is yet to be seen, whilst impunity catalyses on-going abuses. A resolution calling for an international commission of inquiry is long overdue.
UN Human Rights chief Navaneetham Pillay’s forthcoming report to the Human Rights Council, extracts of which appeared this weekend in a Sri Lankan newspaper, makes a clear and unambiguous call: for an international investigation into the mass atrocities of the final months of the island’s civil war. The High Commissioner’s call will be welcomed by the diverse array of actors, both ‘local’ and international, who have been steadfastly campaigning for five years for accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity in which at least 70,000 people were systematically slaughtered in 2009. In particular, it will be enthusiastically welcomed by the Tamil people, for whom the mass killings – described by an earlier report by a UN panel of experts as amounting to ‘systematic targetting' and 'persecution’ of them – constituted genocide by the Sri Lankan state.
Almost five years after the fighting ceased, impunity still rules. Quiet diplomacy, expert reports, video footage of atrocities and two UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions have failed to force Sri Lanka to fall in line. Instead, emboldened by the lack of international action and the military defeat of the LTTE, an increasingly brazen Sri Lankan state is rebuffing the international community, whilst systematically dismantling the Tamil nation and its homeland in the North-East. Sri Lanka's lamentations of insufficient time and space belie a reality where the more time and space granted, the worse the situation becomes for the Tamil people. The end of the armed conflict, far from bringing them the promises of peace, left them at the mercy of a Sri Lankan state drunk on its Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism. Amidst this intensifying crisis, Tamils both at home and abroad, along side all those who believe in justice and accountability, have high expectations for the year to come. As all eyes look to the UNHRC next month, on which key states have pinned warnings and deadlines, the calls for an international inquiry are at fever pitch.