Will Sri Lanka's Tamils Get Some Measure of Justice from the United Nations?

Forty-seven governments on the Untied Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will discuss and decide, beginning at its May 30th session, what to do about an unusually candid and truthful report in the world of international politics.

The Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka was delivered to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 31 concerning both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last phases of the 26-year old civil war that ended May 19, 2009, and the consequences for approximately 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and, by extension, for the 2.7 million Sri Lankan Tamils, who were the losers in the war. Some 13% of the Sri Lanka’s 21 million people are Tamil.

After receiving the report, which calls for investigations into these allegations, Ban Ki-moon stated that he did not have the power alone but that one of three UN bodies could request such action by either the General Assembly or the Security Council or the Human Rights Council.

The panel—chairman Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven Ratner (US), and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa)—was commissioned by the Secretary General, June 22, 2010, after Sri Lanka’s government had failed to rehabilitate or reconcile with the Tamils affected by the brutal war. According to the panel’s finding, the war caused up to 40,000 civilian deaths in its last eight months. Also killed were several thousand government soldiers and combatants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Panel began its work in September 2010 but had to conduct its research outside Sri Lanka as the government refused this United Nations body permission to enter its country. The Panel could interview many eye witnesses, however, who were eventually released from military camps after months of detention—in many cases after paying bribes—or who were able to escape the war zone towards the end on boats provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Several ICRC workers and other humanitarian employees were killed by government military shelling.

Of the dozens of recommendations proposed by the panel, the last two concern the United Nations.

The first of these reads:

“The Human Rights Council should be invited to reconsider its May 2009 Special Session Resolution (A/HRC/8-11/L. 1/Rev. 2) regarding Sri Lanka, in light of this report.”

This refers to reconsidering resolution originally proposed by the Sri Lankan government to praise its behavior in the war and to condemn only the LTTE for war crimes and terrorism. Not a member of the HRC, Sri Lanka got Cuba, then the Non-Aligned Movement president, to introduce it. It passed with 29 voting in favor and 12 against, with six abstentions.

The Panel determined that, “the Human Rights Council may have been acting on incomplete information” when it took that vote.

The second recommendation reads:

“The Secretary-General should conduct a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.”

The Panel criticized the UN’s role in this conflict stating:

“During the final stages of the war, the United Nations political organs and bodies failed to take actions that might have protected civilians.”

The Panel recommended that the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) should “commence genuine investigations”, and urged tha an independent international mechanism be established by the UN Secretary-General to also investigate what did occur.

The Panel recommended that the Sri Lankan government should also “issue a public, formal acknowledgement of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties.”

In its summary, the Panel wrote:

“The Panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government of Sri Lanka. The Government says it pursued a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ with a policy of ‘zero civilian casualties’. In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity (author emphasis). Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.

“Especially the Panel found credible allegations associated with the final stages of the war. Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling causing large numbers of civilian deaths. This campaign constituted persecution of the population of the Vanni. Around 330,000 civilians were trapped into an ever decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by the LTTE. The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear.

“The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches. It shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided by its own intelligence systems and through notification by the United Nations, the ICRC and others. Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.

“The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government. The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering.”

The Panel’s full text of 214 pages lists details of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides in paragraphs 246-252:

The government is accused of: murder, extermination, mutilation, arbitrary imprisonment, rape, torture, persecution founded on race, religion or politics, and disappearances.

The LTTE is accused of: violence to life and person, torture, mutilation, forced labor and forced recruitment of children, and shooting civilians trying to flee the war zone.

The IDP Tamils were brutally confined and treated. Tamils in their traditional Northern and Eastern “High Security Zones” are militarized, denied normal rights, intimidated and made victims of violence.

The Panel therefore recommended that Sri Lanka end all state violence, release all displaced persons and facilitate their return to their homes or provide for resettlement. [Thousands of Tamil homes have been taken over by soldiers and other Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in the country.] It should also repeal the Emergency Laws that deny democratic and civil rights.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa family regime continues to deny any wrong-doing, contending, incredibly, that no civilians were killed and that those who were interned were later well treated in IDP camps. The government claims it only attacked the LTTE. If there were civilians killed, according to government logic, it is their own fault for being there. The Panel cites international law that “an attack remains unlawful if it is conducted simultaneously at a lawful military object and an unlawfully-targeted civilian population” (paragraph 199).

The Sri Lankan government says it has established a transparency process to address the past from the 2002 ceasefire agreement to the end of the conflict, the so-called Lessens Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). While the UN Panel views this as a “potentially useful opportunity to begin a national dialogue”, it also says that the “LLRC fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interests of some of its members.” Three members of that government commission were government officials; one the Attorney-General.

The Panel also points to the history of conflict between the government and Tamils, who were seeking full rights. For decades the Tamils used Gandhian civil disobedience and non-violent tactics before many took up arms in several groups. The Tamils have suffered half-a-dozen pogroms, with government backing, in which thousands were brutally murdered, including mutilation and being burned alive.

In the few instances in which governments have set up commissions of inquiry to examine human rights abuses, they have “failed to produce a public report and recommendations have rarely been implemented,” the panel says.

The fact is, states the Panel in its report:

“After independence [from Great Britain in 1948], political elites tended to prioritize short-term political gains, appealing to communal and ethnic sentiments, over long-term policies, which could have built an inclusive state that adequately represented the multicultural nature of the citizenry. Because of these dynamics and divisions, the formation of a unifying national identity has been greatly hampered. Meanwhile, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism gained traction, asserting a privileged place for the Sinhalese as protectors of Sri Lanka, as the sacred home of Buddhism. These factors resulted in devastating and enduring consequences for the nature of the state, governance and inter-ethnic relations in Sri Lanka.” (paragraph 28)

The first of the pogroms took place in June 1956 as the new Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka Freedom Party/SLFP—the same party to which the Rajapaksas belong) backed the “Sinhala Only” bill, one of several discriminatory measures against the Tamil people. Because some Tamils conducted sit-ins, Buddhist monk-led mobs rampaged for ten days, murdering 150 Tamils and burning their homes and businesses. Ironically, because Bandaranaike was willing to engage in dialogue with Tamil leaders, he was murdered by a “pacifist” Buddhist monk, September 29, 1959.

Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo, became PM in July 1960 and instituting and carrying out administering discriminatory policies against Tamils. She sat as PM or President over four terms spread over 40 years, for a total of 13 years in office. She was the world’s first female PM and brought Sri Lanka into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as a founding member, in 1961. NAM, now with 118 state member, stands against imperialism, interference from foreign nations, bloc politics, and against racism. Cuba and other progressive governments, as well as reactionary ones in the “Third World”- based NAM have, therefore, backed Sri Lanka on issues of international concern.

In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela launched ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America) as an alternative to capitalist economic and political coalitions. Today there are eight Latin American member countries, including Ecuador, which is now on the HRC along with Cuba. In 2009, Bolivia and Nicaragua, both in ALBA, were members of the HRW which supported Sri Lanka.

These socialist-leaning governments have better human rights records than the previous capitalist governments of their countries, which were for many decades under the dictates of US imperialism and before that under European colonialism. ALBA partners now have a chance, whether on the Council or not, to help the Tamil people in some way, by joining the call for an investigation.

This is the challenge that the countries of NAM on the HRC now face with the Panel’s recommendations for an international investigation into alleged war crimes. Will they resist criticizing a member for its racist and terrorist actions against an entire people, or will they take sides with a clearly oppressed people? The latter choice might place them voting alongside the rich, Western nations that will probably call for some sort of an investigation. (See my piece on this dilemma: Counterpunch.org )

As I view the possible thinking of socialist Cuba and other NAM countries, the dilemma is between supporting sovereignty for Third World countries confronted with interference from imperialist and former colonialist states–a legitimate issue–and conducting national policies in such a way that no section of the population is systematically discriminated against or subject to genocide.

Since the 2009 HRC resolution, there are now 15 new countries on the UN Human Rights Commission, among them the US. One must ask: just what is the game plan of the US and its European allies, who make sounds of protest concerning Sri Lanka’s abuse of human rights despite themselves being among the worst offenders, constantly engaging in aggressive wars against NAM members and others: now warring against the sovereign government of Libya, the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine.

One can also ask why one of the Panel members, representative Ratner, participated in such an elaborate, comprehensive and just report. As a legal expert on international law he advised the US State Department (1998-2008), which is the major political aggressor in the world and has backed Sinhalese nationalist governments against the Tamil people’s liberation efforts, providing the Sri Lankan government with armaments, intelligence, finances, military training and propaganda. (See: dissident voice.org)

But then most governments of both “blocs” have done the same, among them: China, Russia, India, the UK and other European states, even Iran and also and especially Israel.

Clearly victims of a US policy of permanent war and aggression, such as Cuba, react against its hypocritical “support” for “human rights”, and so they side with the “victim” — in this case Sri Lanka. But clearly, the “victim” is not, in all cases, innocent. Imperialists are not alone in being the destroyers of human lives and the violators of human and civil rights. And the Sinhalese majority has been whipped up by Buddhist supremacist clergy and by Sinhalese nationalist chauvinism by all the governments in Sri Lanka since 1948. Unfortunately, and without comprehension, from my viewpoint, most of the Sinhalese-led Communist, Trotskyist, and Maoist parties have immorally allied themselves with the two major parties to keep the Tamils repressed.

The United Nations is comprised of 192 nations, only three in the world are not in it: Kosovo—a separatist state creation of the US-EU; Taiwan, an independent island off the coast of China; and 771 people in the “state” known as the Vatican City. The member states of the UN Human rights Commission, which includes China, the US and Russia and other large countries, represent more than one-half the world’s citizens.

Third World countries comprise the majority on the HRC. They have within their borders many ethnic peoples long oppressed and brutalized by others. Let us remember Rwanda and how the UN failed to intervene and prevent genocide against one million people there. The UN again failed in a similar debacle in Sri Lanka. Let us hope that the Human Rights Council will redeem these tragedies regardless of motives.

RON RIDENOUR lives in Denmark. A veteran journalist who has reported in the US and from Venezuela, Cuba and Central America, he has written Cuba at the Crossroads, Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn, and Yankee Sandinistas. For more information about Ron and his writing, go to www.ronridenour.com