Primacy of Accountability

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.

An international investigation is long overdue

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.

Defining moment

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.

Reckoning must begin

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.

Remembrance and Resistance

Today the Tamil nation unites in an act of collective remembrance. From gatherings in diaspora locales to silent moments of thought in the occupied homeland, Tamils pause to remember all those who gave their lives in protracted struggle against the genocidal onslaught of the Sinhala state. What began as commemoration of those who fell in a war of liberation is today the defining moment of solidarity in the cause of national resistance. Marking not the finality of death, but the solemnity of sacrifice, the symbolism of this single day, like no other, is a thread that unites the Tamil nation across the world’s borders and reiterates at once its identity and its unyielding defiance in the face of genocide.

Cameron's coup

Sri Lanka had intended its hosting of the Commonwealth leaders’ summit last week to burnish its international standing and, in particular, decisively crush the growing worldwide campaign for accountability for its wartime atrocities and ongoing human rights abuses. In actuality, the summit turned into an unmitigated public relations disaster, with these very issues eclipsing the conference and drawing wall-to-wall international media coverage. This unexpected and welcome outcome can be directly traced to the boycotts of the summit by leaders of Canada, Mauritius and, reluctantly, India, and,...

India in Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa’s regional ally or aspirant global power?

As India’s External Affairs Minister arrived for the CHOGM summit today, he sought to underplay the significance of the Indian Prime Minister’s absence. Manmohan Singh was forced to withdraw in response to concerted political pressure from Tamil Nadu where the State Assembly has unanimously passed two resolutions demanding an Indian boycott. Whilst Tamil Nadu insists that India must make justice for the Tamils central to its policy in Sri Lanka, Delhi thinks otherwise. Wedded to an out of date Cold War framework in which great power interests are calibrated by spheres of influence, and subsequently driven by paranoia about Chinese investments in the region, it desperately seeks influence in Sri Lanka and is willing to collude with Colombo’s crimes to that end. But this conciliatory approach is bound to fail. The central obstacle to Indian interests on the island is the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian order that produced the Rajapaksa presidency. Until India works to undermine and contain this, it will not be able to realise any of its commercial, political or diplomatic objectives on the island.

Engagement legitimises repression

Writing in the Tamil Guardian on Thursday , British Premier David Cameron set out his government’s rationale for rejecting the growing calls, both at home and abroad, for him to boycott the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka next week. Whilst noting the Sri Lankan government’s “ poor record on human rights and cruel treatment of the Tamils ” – an understatement given the steadily mounting evidence – and the grave “ allegations ” of war crimes and sexual violence, Mr Cameron’s argument, in sum, is that to secure the “ change ” he wants to see, “ the right thing to do is to engage ” with Colombo. We disagree. In fact, it is precisely Britain’s policy of essentially unconditional engagement that has enabled, and emboldened, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime to thumb its nose at international demands for accountability and justice, and to intensify its repression of the Tamil people.

Britain and Sri Lanka: best friends forever?

Amidst mounting criticism from an array of voices, the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary continue to insist that they will be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo next month, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office going to extensive lengths to defend this decision. Calls for a boycott are gathering momentum, including an explicit promise of support from Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary. Meanwhile the Indian Prime Minister is said to be reconsidering his attendance as protest grows in Tamil Nadu, including protests against...

Vote for liberation

The landslide victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election was an act of sheer defiance by the Tamil people. Their emphatic endorsement of the TNA at the ballot box - whose campaign highlighted the core Tamil political demands and the Tamil armed resistance for independence - was a resolute affirmation (through the only means available to them) that the political aspirations outlined in the Thimphu declaration of 1985, continue to be the basis of the Tamil struggle. This was not a vote for the TNA. It was a vote for resistance. It was a refusal to accept the government's mantra of 'development, rehabilitation and reconciliation' and an unequivocal assertion to the international community of the absolute minimum political demands of the Tamil people. Ironically, through the process of voting in the election, the Tamil people categorically rejected the NPC as any basis to a political solution. Four years after the government celebrated the military defeat of the LTTE, as the quashing of the Tamil nation's call for freedom, this could not be further from the truth. The people have spoken and their message is clear – they have not surrendered. The Tamil people demand the right to self-determination.