United Nations 2015
Tamils: abandoned and betrayed… again
Part 2: Tamil representation and self-determination
What has been the response in Britain and Sri Lanka to the recent betrayal by the United Nations Human Rights Council? What does this setback mean for the struggle for Tamil self-determination? Manny Thain assesses the situation in this second of two articles. (Click here for Part 1, which looked in detail at the UNHRC’s resolution and report.)
Everyone on the side of human rights and justice recognises that the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/30/L.29 falls very far short of guaranteeing a genuine war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka. Agreed unanimously without a vote, it went even further in the direction of compromise with the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe government of Sri Lanka than the report on which it is based. Let alone an international investigation, out went even any talk of a ‘hybrid court’. In its place was put a domestic process. It was merely mentioned that the UN considers the participation by ‘Commonwealth and other foreign judges…’ to be important. Any investigation will not have to provide a written report on its progress until March 2017.
Not only is this a betrayal of the Tamils, it also represents a serious setback for the establishment Tamil organisations which have put all their efforts into lobbying politicians and institutions at the top. They have seen the severe limitations of their strategy exposed. Yet, many seem locked on this course, compounding the mistake.
The lead has been given by the TNA. Its statement (widely reported on 3 October) begins as follows: ‘The Tamil National Alliance welcomes the passage of today’s resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council… Today’s resolution reflects a difficult consensus, and involved the weakening of some paragraphs in the original draft resolution and the strengthening of others… Nevertheless, the resolution – if implemented – provides a genuine opportunity for real progress on accountability and reconciliation. We are grateful to the co-sponsors of the resolution [the government of Sri Lanka] for engaging with the TNA throughout the process, and accommodating our concerns and views.’
Negotiations often involve making compromises in order to reach agreement. However, we have to look at what concessions have been made, for what gains, and by whom. Callum Macrae reported on the Channel 4 News website (2 October) that three of the parties that make up the TNA ‘deeply regret that references to demilitarisation of the north-east and an increased role for the OHCHR which were included in the initial draft of the resolution have been removed’.
This is a clear indication that it was the TNA – or, rather, its leadership group – that compromised, and that the side which has been strengthened is the government of Sri Lanka. To put this forward in a neutral way – ‘the weakening of some paragraphs, the strengthening of others’ – is, at best, misleading.
The TNA leaders say they are ‘grateful’ to the government of Sri Lanka for ‘accommodating’ their ‘concerns’. Yet the key issues of demilitarisation and international oversight were deleted – and this was agreed by the TNA. The weakness in its position is shown in its own conclusion: ‘As stakeholders in the process of accountability in Sri Lanka, we will fully support the implementation of the recommendations of the OISL report and the resolution.’
These are empty words. Firstly, the recommendations of the OISL (Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka) are in complete contradiction to the body of its own report. Secondly, the UNHRC resolution ignores the OISL recommendations and gives control to the government of Sri Lanka.
This unprincipled compromise is being echoed around the world. As recently as 18 August 2015, the British Tamil Forum (BTF) and its co-groups internationally, along with the British Tamil Conservatives and the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), issued a joint statement to Zeid al-Hussein, UN Commissioner for Human Rights: ‘We submit this memorandum to responsibly convey to you that neither a domestic mechanism nor a hybrid mechanism would be able to deliver justice to Tamil victims in Sri Lanka. We firmly believe that justice can only be meted out by referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.’ (The underlining is in the original.)
The memorandum repeatedly emphasises this seemingly firm stance: ‘When the State itself is implicated in international crimes, it cannot play any role in the administering of justice pertaining to those crimes.’ Again: ‘By this very definition of genocide [Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention], the Sri Lankan State, controlled almost exclusively by the Sinhala ethnic group, will not be able to adjudicate any charge of genocide by the Sri Lankan State against the Tamils, whether as part of a hybrid mechanism or a domestic mechanism.’ And again: ‘Given the history and politics of Sri Lanka, a domestic or hybrid mechanism will not meet these standards and thus the only fair option is an international process led by the United Nations.’
Then, on 16 September, the OISL was published. As our previous article showed, the OISL fell far short of calling for an independent, international investigation into war crimes. In fact, it recommended the very ‘hybrid mechanism’ denounced by the BTF/TGTE/Conservative letter. The UNHRC resolution then backed a domestic (Sri Lanka-based) process, by far the worst option.
Instead of recognising this betrayal and thereby reorienting their work towards mobilising Tamils in a mass campaign for their rights, many of these organisations are actually retreating further. The BTF, for instance, put out a statement: ‘We urge the international community to ensure that the ensuing processes are not compromised or hijacked by a Sri Lankan domestic process in which the victims have no faith.’ (Tamil Guardian, 5 October)
That is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The ‘international community’ – through the OISL and the UNHRC resolution – has already given the green light to the government of Sri Lanka precisely to hijack and compromise the process.
Tamils and Tories
This is a reflection of an ongoing evolution of the Tamil establishment organisations. They have been steadily moving away from mobilising active campaigns among Tamil people, both in Sri Lanka and the diaspora. Instead, their whole focus is directed towards doing deals at the top. This process has probably gone furthest in Britain where the BTF leaders have completely gone over to one particular establishment political party, the Conservative Party/the Tories.
On 9 May, the BTF even sent congratulations to Tory prime minister David Cameron on his victory in the general election held two days earlier – won with only 24% of the votes, the lowest since the first world war! In the message, the BTF wrote: ‘We are heartened to note that there will be continuity in the management of the UK economy and a strong foreign policy ensuring justice and fairness around the world. The Tamil people are grateful for your leadership in standing by them in their quest for justice… Once again we congratulate you on this victory and pledge our support for your plans for the future of Britain.’
In what way is Britain’s foreign policy – by successive governments – progressive? The vast majority of MPs backed the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has blown apart the Middle East. Cameron led the charge in the bombing of Libya, destabilising North Africa, and now wants to do the same in Syria. Only a few weeks ago, his chancellor, George Osborne, was the honoured guest of the Chinese regime. He visited Xinjiang province, where Uighur Muslims face brutal oppression. And we all know through bitter and bloody experience that the Chinese regime is no friend of the Tamils!
The economic and geopolitical interests of the political establishment always trump the ‘justice and fairness’ mentioned in the BTF letter. The same is true on the domestic front. Most Tamils in Britain live in the poorer areas of the big cities. Most work in low-paid employment, many in the informal retail sector, often on zero-hours contracts.
As part of working-class communities, they are all being hit hard by the Tories’ cuts to housing benefits, the privatisation of essential public services, cut-backs in health, social and council-run services, rocketing tuition fees, sky-high rents, etc. For the BTF leaders to give their full support to the political party and government piling misery on millions of working-class people is outrageous. It shows how out of touch that organisation has become.
The BTF’s appointment of arch right-winger Lee Scott, former Tory MP for Ilford North, as its ‘Ambassador of Justice for Tamils’, is the icing on this unpalatable cake. As an MP, Scott supported all of the last Con-Dem coalition government’s cut-backs and austerity programme.
Camera on Cameron
It is noticeable that the statement issued on 2 October by Cameron said: ‘Britain is committed to standing up for those affected by Sri Lanka’s civil war, and has been instrumental in the UN investigation and adoption of this resolution. I welcome the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to ensuring those responsible are held to account and I encourage them to continue to work with the UN. When I visited Sri Lanka I was struck by the huge potential of the country and I urge president Sirisena to develop the work he has already started – to build a peaceful, prosperous and united country where every community has a voice.’
What is most telling is that Cameron does not even mention the Tamils. The last time he visited Sri Lanka was during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013. At the time he made a big show of visiting Jaffna, primarily to play to the world stage and to the Tamil electorate in Britain. When he addressed the world’s media back then, he said he was struck by the terrible conditions faced by Tamils in detention camps. Two years later, he recounts how he ‘was struck by the huge potential of the country’.
At the time, he promised to push for an independent inquiry. Only when pressed by Tamil Solidarity, did he say that an ‘independent international’ inquiry would be necessary if the government of Sri Lanka failed to deliver. Cameron promised to put human rights issues to the fore of discussions with the Rajapaksa regime, and that a hard-hitting UN resolution would be passed the following year. Those promises disappeared as soon as the camera lights were switched off. Like all the other international ‘leaders’, he is now more than happy to settle for a domestic investigation – and, no doubt, new export licences for arms to the Sri Lankan army, contracts for British-based companies, etc.
Sirisena’s balancing act
The Sirisena/Wickremesinghe government has repositioned itself in a more pro-western and pro-Indian alignment. It is trying to balance between those powers and China. At the same time, it is trying to balance between hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists and other sections of the Sinhala elite. Therefore, on the one hand, it makes soothing noises at the UN for ‘national reconciliation’. On the other hand, it tries to placate those around former president Mahinda Rajapakse – among many others in the political/military leadership – by assuring them that they will not be prosecuted.
This is a very precarious balancing act and there is the potential for deep splits to open up in Sri Lanka’s political establishment. The very tenuous coalition is hanging together, at present. At the UNHRC on 14 September, Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka foreign minister, gave the official line: ‘The victory of the United National Front for Good Governance at the parliamentary election last month enabled president Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a national unity government. Traditional rivals in Sri Lankan politics – the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – thus came together, heralding a new culture of consensual politics in the country and creating much needed political and policy stability.’
But what is meant by ‘consensual politics’? In this case, it is a consensus between the two main establishment parties, along with their allies in parliament. Neither of these represents the real interests of the mass of the population of Sri Lanka – from any of the ethnic/religious groups. Quite the opposite: there is no genuine representation for the majority. As with the Tories in Britain, the UNP and SLFP represent those at the top – with big-business interests first and foremost.
Right of self-determination
All of this raises crucial issues for the future of the campaign for Tamil rights, including the right to self-determination. The main approach of the TNA leadership is to try to reach a deal with the government. It is a hopeless task, however, as we have explained. The TNA still calls for a federal solution, but the government will not allow that. But the fact that the TNA restricts itself to deals at the top means that, in reality, it has given up on the struggle for the right to Tamil self-determination. Moreover, by putting all its eggs in this broken basket, the TNA leadership ends up holding back the movement, effectively taking the side of the Sinhala political establishment.
This situation has to change. The Sirisena/Wickremesinghe government is embarking on further cut-backs and privatisations which will result in massive job losses, cuts to public services and essential subsidies, reduced access to education and so on. At the same time, it continues with repression in the north and east, will fail to address the land grab and militarisation of the predominantly Tamil areas, or other civil war related issues.
However, if a massive movement by Sinhala workers and communities develops against these attacks, it could raise an alternative to the neoliberal policies of the government. Such a movement would be compelled to take up other issues, such as the need to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is used against Tamils, but also against workers’ rights activists. In the interest of building a united struggle against austerity and cut-backs, such a movement could also campaign to end the land grab, and for reparations for lost homes and land. It could demand a decent future for all: good housing, health and education facilities, etc.
It is clear that such a movement will never come from the Sinhala political establishment, or from Sinhala nationalists on the right-wing or the left. Samaraweera made this clear at the UNHRC: ‘The appointment of the Tamil National Alliance leader as leader of the opposition, as well as the appointment of the 44th chief justice of Sri Lanka in January were clear messages that, in the new Sri Lanka, extraneous considerations such as ethnicity, religion, class or gender would not be used to deny anyone their rightful place.’
The Sinhala political elite, along with those at the top of the Tamil tree, see things from their own narrow viewpoint. For Samaraweera, ethnicity, religion, class and gender are ‘extraneous considerations’. But in a situation where 100,000 Tamils have been slaughtered, their land seized and held under military occupation, with women at the mercy of security forces operating with impunity, and Tamil Muslims attacked by brutal Sinhala-Buddhist gangs, these issues cannot be passed off so lightly.
It is the clearest indication that the establishment has no intention of solving these deep-rooted social crises: that the Sinhala elite is playing a cynical game. But the foreign minister also gives an unintentional clue to a potential solution. The key word he used is ‘class’. It is by no means an extraneous consideration. It actually goes to the heart of the matter.
Although Sinhala nationalists have had significant success in driving a wedge between Sinhala workers and poor against the Tamils it is a false and dangerous divide. In reality, more unites poor and oppressed people than divides them. The British empire was maintained on divide and rule. The legacy of its cynical manipulation of ethnic and religious division is clearly seen in Sri Lanka today. The high point in the struggle for independence, however, was when the workers and oppressed overcame this divide and united across Sri Lanka against colonial rule.
Such unity would be even harder to achieve today, given the decades of savagery and brutal oppression, the lies and betrayals. But it is possible that a movement of Sinhala workers against austerity and cut-backs could coincide with renewed struggle on the part of Tamil workers and youth. The task for the Sinhala workers’ movement, in that scenario, would be to include on its banner the right for Tamil self-determination. That is the only way that Tamil workers and youth could even start to trust that movement and look at how they could also join the struggle – united against a common foe.