As expected, the United Nations Human Rights Council has agreed its latest resolution on Sri Lanka. It marks a huge step backwards in the struggle for a genuinely independent war crimes investigation, for accountability and for Tamil rights. Once again, the UN has betrayed the Tamils. In the first of two articles, Manny Thain looks in detail at the UN’s recent report and at the reasons for its latest retreat. The second article will deal with the positions taken by Tamil representatives in Sri Lanka and Britain, and what it all means for the struggle for Tamil self-determination.
Part 1: UN hypocrisy and contradictions
Let us be clear from the outset: Tamil Solidarity has consistently backed campaigns calling for an independent investigation into all allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. We saw that campaigns around this demand can be an important part of mobilising the Tamil community and raising awareness in wider society to what was and is taking place.
While we did that, we also warned against putting our complete faith in outside agencies, such as the United Nations, to deliver justice for the Tamils. The UN is made up of representatives of nation states, each with its own agenda and spheres of influence. The most powerful governments wield the most power. This is shown clearly in the UN Security Council, made up of 15 members of which only five are permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain – and they have a veto. In short, the policies and positions adopted by the UN are dictated by those five powers.
Tamil Solidarity has always maintained, therefore, that we can only rely on the strength of our own movement, linked to our natural allies – above all, the workers and other oppressed people around the world. Tamil Solidarity has explained this approach in articles on our website, in interviews, at meetings, in campaign material and at countless events and protests. It has been a consistent approach ever since our formation. It is on the record. It is part of our DNA.
Instead of calling for an independent, international investigation into all the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka, up to and following the conflict that ended in May 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has backed the government of Sri Lanka. It has even watered down the recommendations of the latest UN report – the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), 16 September 2015. Bearing in mind that the OISL had also diluted previous UN positions, what’s left is a very weak ‘solution’ indeed.
The OISL had called for an ‘ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators’ – a vague formulation falling far short of the kind of investigation demanded by Tamil and human rights organisations. It said that the UNHRC could be invited to advise and provide technical assistance. But it also said that a ‘high-level executive group’ should oversee the process, meaning that representatives from the top of the Sri Lankan political elite would be allowed to make the final decisions.
That was bad enough. The new resolution, however, adds insult to injury, handing over complete control of any investigation to Sri Lanka’s political elite, which is totally complicit in the slaughter of Tamils and oversees the continued repression. The resolution merely says that the UN recognises the importance of participation by ‘Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorised prosecutors and investigators’. Sri Lanka’s health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, was clear what it meant: ‘We will form the Sri Lankan probe with foreign participation. That is what we wanted all along, whatever foreign participation will be with the agreement of the government.’ (The Guardian, 1 October)
In order to understand this betrayal, we need to look in detail at the OISL. Although there is much in the report which those seeking justice and accountability would agree with, the OISL is a total contradiction. Firstly, it documents the crimes. Secondly, it makes recommendations. Thirdly, it explains why the Sri Lankan state cannot act on those recommendations. Then, it hands control of the investigation to that self-same state! It plumbs the deepest depths of hypocrisy. Its conclusions completely contradict the main body of its own report.
New government, new excuses
The OISL has used the change in government in Sri Lanka as an excuse to change its position. The UNHRC resolution formalises this shift. Of course, there has been a reshuffle at the top of the Sinhala political establishment. The Rajapaksas have fallen from grace – victims of their own extreme arrogance, a war-weary population, and geopolitical shifts. Maithripala Sirisena grabbed his opportunity. He has cobbled together a grand coalition of the establishment parties. He has shifted policy from its emphasis towards China to include a reopening to India and western powers, above all the US and Britain.
That does not mean that China is out of the picture. The Chinese regime’s economic and strategic interests ensure that it will continue to be a big player in the region. But it is a clear message to India, the US, Britain and others that Sri Lanka is open for business. When the Sirisena/Wickramasinghe government pushes through its next batch of neoliberal policies – privatisation of the public sector, cutting back on public services and jobs, cutting subsidies on food and fuel, etc. – international big business will be invited in to profit from Sri Lanka’s natural and human resources.
Nilan Fernando summed it up well enough in an article in the International New York Times (28 September): ‘This outcome is a political compromise. The western states that clamoured for the UN investigation, especially the United States and some European countries, will push for accountability in Sri Lanka today only so far as doing so will not weaken the country’s fledgling pro-western government.’
No doubt, Sirisena/Wickramasinghe will be looking to receive funds from the International Monetary Fund, the US and European Union as a reward for their attempt at a more subtle balancing act between China, India and the west. The United Nations seems only too happy to smooth the road.
Serious allegations, glaring omissions
The OISL is a detailed report, 270 pages long. It states: ‘The sheer number of allegations, their gravity, recurrence and the similarities in their modus operandi, as well as the consistent pattern of conduct they indicate, all point towards system crimes… these findings demonstrate that there are reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes were committed by all parties during the period under investigation.’ The allegations, ‘if established before a court of law… may amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity’, or violate international humanitarian law.
The OISL lists the charges we have all known about for a long time. The widespread, unlawful killings and disappearances at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces and associated paramilitary groups. The repeated shelling, without warning, in the so-called ‘no-fire zones’. The extrajudicial killing of LTTE fighters who had surrendered on or around 18 May 2009.
It details the mass detentions, disappearances and brutality after the war in camps such as Manik Farm, in army camps, police stations, ‘rehabilitation camps’ and secret locations. The widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence of male and female detainees. The forced recruitment by the LTTE, its use of children in armed conflict, and its forcible prevention of civilians from leaving the Vanni.
Yet, there are some glaring omissions in the OISL’s long lists. Why is there no mention of the so-called ‘international community’? Does it not bear some responsibility for what took place? After all, no government came to the aid of the Tamils as they were slaughtered in the no-fire zones. The Chinese regime provided advanced weaponry to Rajapaksa’s army, while the British government, the US, India and other powers continued with arms sales and provided logistical and intelligence support.
Any genuinely independent investigation would have to examine their role. Why did they assist the government of Sri Lanka, or look the other way? The same goes for the United Nations itself. It is well documented that the UN ordered its own staff to abandon the Tamils to face the terror of the armed forces. What could the UN have done to stop the slaughter? Why did it abandon the Tamils? Who took that decision?
There is also no indication of how far up the chain of command any investigation should go. As the government of Sri Lanka has been given the green light to proceed as it sees fit, we have to conclude that very few people will be called to account. Let’s not forget that president Sirisena was a minister in Rajapaksa’s government, becoming the defence minister in the final two weeks of the war. Senaratne, quoted above, was a member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet. The notorious army chief, Sarath Fonseka, has been promoted to field marshal, and the former commander of the dreaded 57th division, Jagath Dias, has been made army chief of staff.
These are just a few examples – but they are enough to show that no independent investigation is on the agenda. In reality, the UN is merely pretending to take action, pretending to uphold ‘human rights’ and ‘justice’ – while deserting the Tamils.
The OISL recognises that there has been ‘a total failure of domestic mechanisms to credibly investigate, establish the truth, ensure accountability and provide redress to victims of the serious human rights violations’. It points out: ‘The security forces, police and intelligence services have enjoyed near total impunity and have not undergone any significant downsizing or reform since the armed conflict. The PTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] and Public Security Ordinance Act [PSOA] remain in force. The military retains an oppressive presence in the war-affected areas of the north and east, still occupying extensive private land, expanding into commercial economic activities, and maintaining a culture of surveillance and harassment of the local population and civil society.’
The OISL reports: ‘There are nearly 60,000 women headed households in the Northern Province. Due to food insecurity, increasing inflation and lack of livelihood opportunities, women headed households are pushed further into debt, thereby increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. In the militarised context in the conflict-affected areas, women headed households are extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment, exploitation and violence.’
It criticises the lack of progress on detainees, with the government only admitting that there are 258 remaining, while reports persist of secret detention centres. It states that ‘arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture’ continue, and that people who have returned to Sri Lanka have been detained and tortured, including rejected asylum seekers. Tamil diaspora organisations and individuals are still proscribed – including, of course, members of Tamil Solidarity. The OISL notes that there have been no prosecutions in relation to attacks by Bodu Bala Sena on the Muslim community.
In spite of all of this, it again hides behind the different tone struck by Sirisena, referring to his independence day ‘declaration of peace’ pledging ‘national reconciliation, justice and equality for all citizens’, and the decision (25 March) to set up an Office of National Unity and Reconciliation.
Given all this, the OISL’s conclusions are a dead letter. We agree with its recommendation that private land occupied by the military should be returned and military involvement in civilian activities should stop. The PTA and PSOA should be repealed. That there should be a central database of all detainees accessible to relatives and the whereabouts of all detention centres should be declared. They should, of course, be closed down.
Yes, there should be ‘a national reparations policy, considering the specific needs of women and children’, with ‘adequate provision from the state budget’. Tamils who have suffered torture and other violations should not be returned back to Sri Lanka until there are genuine guarantees they will not be subject to further abuse.
The problem is: who will ensure this is done? The OISL and the latest UNHRC resolution prove that the United Nations has no intention of doing so. The UN has turned its back on the Tamils. It is a betrayal by the major powers which direct UN policy – above all, in this case, by the US, Britain and China, with the help of India.
It exposes the hypocrisy of government leaders, such as British prime minister, David Cameron. In 2013, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he made a grand show of visiting the north of Sri Lanka, promising an international investigation and justice for the Tamils. As Tamil Solidarity warned at the time, however, he had no intention of seeing it through. It was an act to gain support for his Tory party and government.
The truth has now been revealed for all to see.