By Izeth Hussain –
Once again Geneva looms on the horizon. But this time, in a more apposite metaphor, Geneva March 2014 takes the form of a huge bristly grisly monster moving towards Sri Lanka while wielding a lethal spiked club in its hand. That is to say that what happens in March in Geneva over accountability for alleged war crimes could eventually lead to UN sanctions against Sri Lanka. Those sanctions could prove lethal to the present Government of Sri Lanka. The main thrust of this article, however, is that the problem of accountability is the text while more important is the undeclared subtext, which is the problem of the failure to move effectively towards a political solution of the ethnic problem. I hold that it is the latter problem that has led to the problem of accountability. I hold further that the Government is probably in a no-win situation in regard to the problem of accountability, but it can win by convincingly and effectively moving towards a political solution of the ethnic problem.
What should we do? We must consider certain preliminary matters before answering that question. One is the enormous prejudice against Sri Lanka which prevails in a very powerful segment of the international community, namely the West and its allies in Australia and New Zealand. It is time to recognize that that “prejudice” is something that ought to be placed within inverted commas because the negative attitude towards Sri Lanka, more particularly its Government, is something that can be justified in terms of the highest standards of morality prevailing in contemporary civilization. Those standards demand that fair and equal treatment be given to the minorities.
The Government has a sorry record in the treatment accorded to our minorities since 2009. For almost four years it kept on promising to India that it would give not just 13A but 13A+, and eventually it offered 13A-. In terms of prevailing diplomatic norms that has to be seen as morally shabby behavior. During that period the Government tried out an alternate strategy to solve the ethnic problem, instead of the promised devolution: heavy expenditure on infrastructure projects which the Tamils see as designed, not to meet the economic needs of the Tamil people, but to bind the country together under monolithic Sinhalese power; attempts to change the demographic structure of the North and East by allegedly stealing the lands of the Tamils and the Muslims; and a heavy armed forces presence in the North which can be seen as showing the arrogance of the conqueror. That alternate strategy was shown to be a complete flop at the NPC elections. So the Government has set up the Northern Provincial Council, but the record up to now makes it doubtful that the Government will allow it to function properly.
In addition we now have a Muslim ethnic problem. I need not go into details about it, except to say that the Muslims have always sided with the Sinhalese against the Tamils and suffered ill consequences as a result – notably the eviction of scores of thousands of Muslims from the North. The spawning of this problem, with evident State blessings, will be taken by Westerners – quite rightly, I must say – as showing unpardonable stupidity and unpardonable racism in the highest echelons of the Sinhalese State. Furthermore, the Government has been going in the direction of authoritarianism and dictatorship, as shown for instance by the 18th Amendment and the outrageous ousting from office of the Chief Justice. It should be easily understandable that for such reasons the West has conceived a negative image of the Government, and the reason for that is not prejudice. However, prejudice does come into the picture, in this way: the negative image prejudices the way the West looks at the problem of alleged war crimes.
I will now pose two commonsensical questions to which I believe the Government should attach the highest importance. Practically everyone knew about six months before May 18, 2009 that the LTTE was doomed to military defeat, and the Government knew that better than anyone else. Is it conceivable, is it imaginable, that a Government in that position would order or acquiesce in the mass massacre of non-combatant Tamil civilians, amounting – according to the usually alleged figure – to 40,000? Why should a Government certain of a military victory want to sully its record by being a party to genocide on so massive a scale? Furthermore the Government certainly knew that both the US and India were gathering satellite imagery of what was taking place on the ground, and that mass massacres would not go undetected. We must bear in mind also the factor of the Indian elections which made the Government postpone the final offensive until after the elections were over – as pointed out in the document The Numbers Game – knowing that collateral damage possibly on a large scale would be inevitable. Obviously the Government had very much in mind the inevitable fall-out in Tamil Nadu of unwarranted killings of Tamil civilians.
The questions posed in the preceding paragraph point to one ineluctable conclusion: the Government could not have wanted a mass massacre of civilian Tamils. It is possible of course that sadistically inclined armed forces officers could have engaged in wanton killings, and that could have been committed also by rogue units in the armed forces. However it is probable, indeed a practical certainty, that the greatest proportion of the killings of non-combatant civilians was the consequence of the LTTE’s strategy of exposing civilians to attacks by the armed forces as a way of provoking international humanitarian intervention – about which a mass of evidence has been collated in The Numbers Game and elsewhere.
My second commonsensical question is this: if the mass killings of non-combatant civilians took place in the final weeks of the war ending on May 18, 2009, why did the international rumpus about it start two years later? We can be certain that India, even more than the US, had precise information about what was happening in the North, and we can be certain also that Delhi would have been deeply concerned about possible repercussions in Tamil Nadu. Why then did it maintain a thunderous silence at that time? One possibility that springs to mind is that the killings that took place were nothing like the massacres in Kosovo, Rwanda, or Darfur, which provoked without much delay international intervention with international backing. The other possibility is that it took some time after the conclusion of the war for India to become convinced that the SL Government had no intention of implementing 13A, or moving towards any sort of a political solution on the basis of devolution.
I wrote an article in the Island of May 2, 2011 on the Ban Ki-moon conspiracy and followed it up with an Addendum in the Island of May 25, 2011. The first article was congested with too many ideas and didn’t make for comfortable reading, but my argument was straightforward enough. The US and Britain were involved in a benign conspiracy, which included India as well, to use the Darusman Report to make Sri Lanka answerable on war crimes allegations. That was the text, but what I now call the sub-text was to make the SL Government implement 13A. At that time it evidently seemed to most people that India’s involvement in that conspiracy was most unlikely. But India quite unexpectedly voted for the anti-Sri Lanka US Resolution at Geneva, providing what looked like spectacular substantiation for my argument. For the greater part of the two years that have elapsed since then the SL Government has shown that it was adamantly opposed to 13A or any solution based on devolution. It is arguable now that that adamantine opposition has become a thing of the past with the setting up of the Northern Provincial Council. But the omens are not favorable.
I come now to the question, What should we do? The Numbers Game, to which I have been referring in this article, provides as far as I know the most exhaustive, the most meticulous, analysis of the numbers killed in the final phase of the war. It calls seriously into question the charge that the killings of civilians were in the scores of thousands. But I found another part of the document even more instructive. Under International Humanitarian Law it is not illegal to risk causing collateral destruction when a legitimate target is to be attacked. It seems to me a very powerful argument to be used by the Government, considering that it is established beyond dispute that the LTTE deliberately exposed Tamil civilians to armed forces attack. We can also use the argument that it is impossible to believe that the Government wanted Tamil civilians to be massacred.
But do such arguments really matter? Very powerful countries are arrayed against Sri Lanka. Do very powerful countries give a dam about International Humanitarian Law or any damned Law? The Government will doubtless do its best in Geneva. We must now focus on trying to make a success of 13A. Our first priority should be this: to try to convince the Government that it would be foolish, and even dangerous, to go on and on playing the fool over 13A.