Colombo Telegraph

Radhika Coomaraswamy’s ‘Beyond Genocide’

By Charles Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building.” – Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, 1998.

The following arises out of Ms Coomaraswamy‘s forceful article of 8 March 2015. I don’t know where her contribution appeared but understand it has been widely read: those who haven’t encountered it, should be able to piece together the gist of the case presented by her from the following. The essence seems to me that to spend much time and energy trying to establish that the Sri Lankan state is guilty of genocide is futile because, among other reasons, genocide “is one of the most difficult international crimes to prove” (Coomaraswamy). One should go beyond genocide.

Perhaps, at this point, one must pause to briefly examine the term ‘genocide’. The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948. Resolution 260, Article 2 lists acts committed with the intention of destroying in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The intention to destroy is crucial, nor need it be total extermination: for example, the Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Muslim males was accepted as genocide by an international criminal court. (At the age of 93, Stephane Hessel, 1917-2013, published a widely successful essay, translated into English from the original French as Time for Outrage. Hessel, secretary to the UN committee which drafted the declaration of human rights, states that the term “international” was rejected in favour of “universal” in order to “forestall the argument for full sovereignty that a state likes to make when it is carrying out crimes against humanity on its soil.”)

If genocide is proved, it does not mean that a case for separation has been established, as some mistakenly think, observes Ms Coomaraswamy. Separation (unlike divorce?) needs the consent of both sides and, in the writer’s words, such a scenario is very unlikely in Sri Lanka. Further, the pursuit of the impossible is not only a futile expenditure, and therefore a waste, but counter-productive in that it leads to a worsening of inter-ethnic relations. It is the here and now that cries out for attention. Radhika Commaraswamy’s list is grave and grievous: war widows, the disabled, “high rates of violence against women, drugs and alcoholism”. The last three are indicative of a defeated, defenceless and demoralised folk who see no grounds to believe in the future. Demoralisation and despair often lead to destructive behaviour. Unable to retaliate, victims tend to take it out on other members of their own group, on their families and / or on themselves. Among the practical measures Coomaraswamy suggests are “the release of land [and the] release of detainees”.

But there can be other perspectives on the pursuit of the charge of genocide. Charles Dickens in his novel Great Expectations writes that children perceive nothing more keenly; react more fiercely to nothing than to injustice. Adults may come to accept that there is no justice, at least, not in this world. (This leaves those who don’t believe in an afterlife with permanent injury and un-righted wrongs.) Still, in some the goal of justice remains; the flame refuses to be extinguished. John Rawls in his famous work, A Theory of Justice, suggests it is a sense of fairness that leads humanity to justice. An acquaintance of mine who urges a genocide inquiry told me her motive was not separation; not even revenge: she feels it would be an affront to those who died a horrible and unnecessary death to leave it unexamined. (It reminded me of ancient beliefs that the souls of the dead cannot rest in peace until and unless there is some form of justice.) The nightmare scenario of those last days and nights; the horrifying death of thousands – children, women, the aged and the sick – must at least have the posthumous atonement of acknowledgement. Only then can closure and the healing of wounds really begin. One contrasts German contrition and attempted reparation with, for example, the Japanese denial of war-time savagery, and Turkey’s stance on the Armenian genocide.

We cannot claim to repent while continuing to hold on to what we have unjustly gained. One recalls the conflicted state of King Claudius in Hamlet, desperately needing but unable to ask God for forgiveness (Act 3, Scene 3): Forgive me? That cannot be because I still possess and enjoy those things for which I committed the crimes. On similar lines, to speak of reconciliation while injustice continues is either to be naïve, ingenuous or downright cynical. Equally, since it is the Sri Lankan state that is accused (rightly or wrongly) of genocide, for it to appoint a Sri Lankan commission to investigate its actions (rather than an external, impartial, body like the UN) may not be convincing. Indeed, it may be seen as farcical, a charade.

So perhaps one should distinguish those who clamour “Genocide!” on delusional grounds (Coomaraswamy) from those who seek acknowledgement at the least, if not atonement. Motive matters. But is posthumous atonement possible? Perhaps (a) by acknowledgement and (b) by the way one treats present generations. Regarding the latter, it is impossible to “regain our self-respect and our self-confidence” (Coomaraswamy) in the absence of freedom and equality; in short, without justice.

Does going beyond genocide, be it in blessed Sri Lanka or elsewhere, mean one ignores an abyss of human cruelty and resulting suffering, large in scale and extreme in nature? Does one pretend that the awful human-made chasm doesn’t exist? As it has been said, it is important not only that justice be done but that it is clearly seen to be done: the world needs that warning and reassurance, however “unimportant” (sic) the victims of a particular (alleged) genocide. Impunity is tantamount to encouragement, if not incitement. In this context, one recalls the words of the Fuhrer, 22 August 1939:

I have issued the command. Our war aim consists in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? (Hitler. Emphasis added).

Radhika Coomaraswamy is to be thanked for the thought and discussion her intervention will, no doubt, stimulate. Mine is but a modest attempt to make a contribution to that discussion.

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