By Gordon Weiss -
In the past few years, I’ve largely avoided junkets from Sri Lankan diaspora groups, for fear of being tarred with various brushes. The two exceptions (not junkets of course) were from Toronto’s Sri Lankans Without Borders , a group dedicated to building common ground between all of Lanka’s communities, and now the Global Tamil Forum, who persuaded me to travel to London for their third annual conference. Sunday I was laying in the sun in Australia, trying to heal a herniated disk in my back. That evening, I decided to catch a plane the next morning.
I was convinced by the line-up of speakers: the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; current and former UK foreign secretaries Douglas Alexander and David Milliband; current opposition leader Ed Milliband; Conservative leader in the Lords, Baroness Warsi; former Norwegian government minister Erik Solheim; leading international lawyer and academic, Professor Bill Schabas; the redoubtable Judge Yasmin Sooka, one of the three panellists on the UN’s Panel of Experts report, and Commissioner on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Callum Macrae, the producer and director of all three Channel 4 films, including his latest No Fire Zone which will be shown for the first time this Friday at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva; and representatives from the African National Congress; International Crisis group, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and Civicus.
This is quite apart from the other remarkable people I’ve met while here. Sri Lankan academic and writer, the wry Kumar David; the courageous M.M. Rajani Iqbal who, along with her husband, has done so much to document disappearances; the eloquent M.A. Sumanthiran, MP in the Sri Lankan parliament, and reputedly one of the best practising lawyers on the island; the doughty and irrepressible MP Rajavarothiam Sampanthan; and Father Emmanuelle, a theologian and scholar much disliked by the island’s regime.
This is the gist of what I had to say in the ten minutes I was given… Incidentally, my journey was funded by a European government.
“Thanks to the Tamil Global Forum for persuading me to be here. I’m grateful, considering the very persuasive group of Britain’s leading decision-makers who have fronted up today to lend their heft to this subject, turning their minds to reconciliation in Sri Lanka, supporting an end to the string of violent conflicts that has dominated this beautiful country’s last four decades.
I have said elsewhere that in the war in Sri Lanka, I had no dog in the fight. No Tamil wife, or cousin, no Sinhalese brother-in-law, or best friend. So I have always fancied that I am very much an outsider, an ordinary man if you will, with ordinary responses, and an impartial observer.
On Sunday I was lounging on the beach in Australia, trying to recover from a herniated disk, and it was very much a last minute decision to be here. I drove from my home to the airport on Monday, and flew via Beijing, thinking once again of my daughters…
I am not a human rights professional, and I have emphasized before that my response to the final page of Sri Lanka’s war was very much that of an ordinary person, despite my professional role and responsibilities as the UN’s spokesperson in Colombo at that time.
When I set out to write my book, The Cage, it was because as an ordinary man I simply felt the unfairness, the indecency of what had happened.
When in 2009, during the war, I returned from work at night time in Colombo to see my daughters comfortably sleeping, I would think of the thousands of children in the north, living through the terror of a siege, and of their parents who were unable to medicate them when they were suffering from from common illnesses, or to save then when they were injured by shrapnel, or when their limbs were torn by high-powered bullets.
I have repeated many times that I went to Sri Lanka as a supporter of the government’s right to reclaim its sovereign territory. The LTTE, a revolutionary organization whose brand of ruthless ultra-violence had effectively subverted the justice of its cause, had to be taken on. The government military campaign was a relatively disciplined fight, up until the end. And it is that end with which I have taken exception, and for which I have worked to explain. In dealing with extra-state groups, sovereign states have a standard of responsibility that must be adhered to. As we have learned from the years of emerging evidence of war crimes, the so-called “Sri Lanka model” is no model at all to be followed.
The understanding, or full comprehension of what happened in Sri Lanka has come a long way since 2009. I ought to say that British leaders such as David Milliband, then Foreign Secretary and who has spoken today, already knew full well that the version propagated by the government of Sri Lanka was not the truth. But for the broader public, the lines of the Sri Lankan government, things such as “not a drop of civilian blood was spilled,” rang somehow true.
There had been no bombing of hospitals or schools. No bombardment of civilian concentrations and bread lines. No withholding of precious medicines and food. No battlefield executions, and no rape and killing of captured Tamil Tiger female fighters, or of children.
The commonly accepted coin was that India would never shift from the rock-solid support that it had shown for Sri Lanka, so obvious in the Human Rights Council resolution of 2009. So too it has always been the common coin that China will never shift its support from Sri Lanka, an analysis that I dispute.
At the time, there had been no International Crisis group report of the final stages of the war, there was no UN Panel of Experts report, no Channel 4 documentaries, and nor was there the flurry of news reports wherein it is now accepted that a great many people died while the world’s press was so successfully excluded from the battlefield by the government of Sri Lanka.
Today it is generally accepted, as irrefutable evidence has gradually emerged and accumulated, that a great many civilians died, that their deaths were probably needless and egregious even given the circumstances of this terrible final chapter, and that war crimes were committed by both sides.
So here, while we sit in the Gladstone room, off the ancient Westminster Hall, we are surrounded by the portraits and statues of the great, those who constructed and presided over the Courts of Justice for 500 years. But I also find a neat metaphor in the marks of the stonemasons who built this great hall, ordinary men who left their marks in the chips and scrapes on these walls.
For fairness, and a sense of common decency, is an ordinary quality common to all people. It is this innate sense of fairness that builds systems of justice, and which inspires just outcomes. It is this decency that was once written about by Vaclav Havel, the former dissident and President of the Czech Republic, a sense of decency that is ultimately, I believe, bound to prevail over those who would shroud the truth, compel us to forget, and whose interests do not lie with justice for all. It is this sense of decency which results in organizations like the ANC or CIVICUS, and which I believe will result in a truth process in Sri Lanka that will support reconciliation and a lasting peace.
I’d like to refer to three words raised by Father Emmanuelle:
The first is sincerity. The Tamil community needs to work to actively dispel the murky past that characterized the Tamil struggle for equal rights. That is not to say that it didn’t have its place, or that it was not part of a legitimate struggle. It was. When faced with an unbending violence, sometimes the answer will be violence. But at some stage, that answer became an anachronism, and no longer suited to a post-9/11 world.
The second is consistency. Tamils need to build a common platform, based on shared political and social aims, to replace the confusing proliferation of Tamil groups that have flourished since the demise of the LTTE. Tamils need to have unity of purpose expressed in a common voice, if policy-makers are to be able to act on their behalf.
Thirdly, Tamils need to understand what will work and what won’t today, in 2013, and to recognize what will achieve a listening from political leaders and broader publics throughout the world.
Finally, Father Emmanuelle mentioned “freedom based on truth and justice,” and it is here that I want to raise the prospect of an historic opportunity for the Tamil diaspora.
The Tamil diaspora, linked with the leadership of Tamils who live in Sri Lanka today, and who must find an accommodation with the current government, have an historic opportunity. You must recognize and seize this chance. To resort to some Australian-isms for a moment: the cloth-eared, kack-handed, woolly-headed approach of the current Sri Lankan government has presented the Tamil community with a golden opportunity. The government of Sri Lanka has squandered so much goodwill, and has proven itself so untrustworthy, that they have opened a wide void for an opposition, which is not being effectively occupied.
But the Tamil diaspora, this incredibly well-organized group – professional, well-educated, and well-connected in politics and finance – has the opportunity to speak not only on behalf of Tamils, but also on behalf of all those who are excluded from meaningful participation in Sri Lankan political life today. That includes the Muslims, Sinhalese oppositionists, the media, lawyers, Budddhist priests who do not share the extremities of their brethren, and dare I say other minorities such as homosexuals.
In the words of a famous Czech artist whose name I have forgotten but whose words have stayed with me, “In supporting the freedom of others, I find my own.” At a time of growing oppression in Sri Lanka, there has perhaps never been a better moment for the Tamil Diaspora to support the freedom of others, thereby finding their own.
Thank you for your kind attention.”
*This article was first published by the gordonweissauthor.com