By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…our troops went to the battlefield carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, food for the innocent displaced on their shoulders and love for the children in their hearts.” – President Rajapaksa (2011 Victory Celebration Speech)
The Rajapaksas are right. On the global stage, Sri Lanka is receiving a degree of (negative) attention totally at variance with her far from significant position in the world.
What the Rajapaksas do not realise is that they sowed the seeds of this predicament when they renamed the Fourth Eelam War a ‘Humanitarian Operation’, insisted that victory was achieved sans a single civilian casualty and peddled this ‘model’ internationally as a worthy example.
A fortnight after an obliging judiciary and a servile parliament passed the 18th Amendment, President Rajapaksa arrived in New York, with a 100+ delegation. He had triumphed over the Tiger; defeated the Fonseka-challenge and secured the future of his dynastic project.
The time had come to make his mark in the world.
True, he had broken the accountability promise made to the UN Secretary General and the devolution promises made to India. But he obviously did not regard these breaches of faith as serious impediments to his international ambitions. He was even unfazed by the meagre international attendance at his political debutant-ball (only leaders of Cyprus, Fiji and the Maldives came for his Waldorf Astoria reception)[i].
He had a silver-bullet against ‘terrorism’ to offer the world, a proposal so radically retrogressive that even the most unreconstructed neo-cons of the Bush-era may have hesitated to endorse it, in public.
President Rajapaksa used his 2010 UN address to showcase Colombo’s triumph over the LTTE and to propose a new general theory of anti-terrorism. He argued for giving sovereign states a carte blanche to deal with ‘terrorism’ by effecting sweeping changes in the international humanitarian laws. “…it is worth examining the capacity of current international humanitarian law to meet contemporary needs. It must be remembered that such law (sic) evolved essentially in responses to conflicts waged by the forces of legally constituted states and not terrorist groups. The asymmetrical nature of conflicts initiated by non-state actors gives rise to serious problems which need to be considered in earnest by the international community.”[ii]
The foundational premise of this international version of Mahinda Chinthanaya was statal-infallibility – that sovereign states could do no wrong in combating terrorism. It sought to negate much of the progress made in the sphere of human rights in the last few centuries. It proposed to do away with excess by normalising it.
The new ‘theory’ would have served the Rajapaksas in two ways. Firstly it would have enabled the post-facto legitimising of crimes and errors committed during the Fourth Eelam War. Secondly it would have given the Siblings the right to deal with any future challenges to their rule with total impunity.
Left to their own devices many a third world despot or a first world neo-con may have thought the model worthy of emulation.
And the world would have become a far more dangerous place for ordinary people.
The Rajapaksas had the foresight to realise that they needed a new global consensus which would enable rulers to violate the rights of their citizens with total impunity, under the overarching cover of ‘anti-terrorism’. They understood that such an anti-democratic and anti-humanitarian world was necessary for them to purse their dynastic agenda in total freedom.
What the Rajapaksas could not fathom was that if ever there was even an international moment in which such a retrogressive proposal would have found powerful endorsers, that moment died on the battlefields and the detention centres of Iraq. The world had seen the terrors of naked and unbridled anti-terrorism and had been appalled by its inhumanity. Western Crimes and excesses would continue, but as crimes and excesses; some would even be acknowledged and their perpetrators accorded a minute punishment.
But the Rajapaksas were too intoxicated by their own triumphs to comprehend this changed reality. Even as the UN moved at a snail’s pace towards setting up an accountability-mechanism, the Rajapaksas persisted in peddling their anti-terrorism model internationally. The Defence Ministry would continue to hold international seminars on ‘Defeating Terrorism, Sri Lankan Experience’. President Rajapaksa would continue to knock on even the tiniest trapdoor in Washington and London, seeking a way in.
The world, including the Western world, was not unhappy to see the end of the LTTE. During the Third Peace Process, Vellupillai Pirapaharan had amply displayed his obduracy, inhumanity and maximalism, so that in 2009, no powerful nation made a serious effort to save him. Had the Rajapaksas, post-2009, abandoned the ‘Humanitarian Operation’ and ‘Zero-civilian casualties’ lies, called the war a war, admitted to some civilian deaths, apologised for selected cases of ‘excesses’, persecuted a few perpetrators (even half-heartedly), paid compensation to some victims and allowed the Tamils to mourn their dead, the world would have been happy to forget the Eelam War and move on.
But the Rajapaksas refused to compromise, either on the accountability front or the devolution front. They insisted on infallibility. They wanted the world to hail them as path-breakers and embrace their model.
A substantial part of the world has come to accept the Rajapaksas as path-breakers and model-makers – but paths which must be blocked and models which must be avoided.
Marrying Kafka to Orwell
‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties’ is where Franz Kafka meets George Orwell.
This Rajapaksa invention is unique in the annals of human history. There were other ‘welfare villages’, including of British and American provenance; but ‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties’ belongs in the ‘Arbeit macht Frei’ tradition.
Wars have been called ‘just wars’, ‘wars for peace’ and ‘wars to end War’. Had the Rajapaksas called the war a ‘Humanitarian war’, it would have been an oxymoron but one within well established historical traditions.
Whitewashing one’s own side and blackening the enemy are standard war-time practices. Had the Rajapaksas excused or minimised their crimes and mistakes that too would not have caused much interest.
But the Rajapaksas took a radically new path. The term ‘war’ was dropped entirely; this critical absence was further augmented by the insistence on zero-civilian casualties, not as a desirable goal but as really existing, inherent and unchangeable reality.
These twin concepts are so outré that they exist beyond a line uncrossed by even the most insidious and lying propaganda machines the world has known. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech about soldiers going into battle with gun, human rights charter, food and love may have made even Herr Goebbels a trifle green-eyed.
Post Weliveriya, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, in his capacity as the Leader of the House, informed the parliament that the protestors “had attacked the army with petrol bombs and shot them”[iii]
Had the world accepted the Rajapaksa doctrine of anti-terrorism, the brutal attack on Weliveriya protestors would have been just and legal.
And Sunil Samaradeera of Wanathamulla would not have lived to tell the tale.
Geneva is a self-made conundrum for the Rajapaksas, and an essential shield for the rest of us.