By Dave Rush –
As international pressure builds in the lead up to the UN Human Rights Commission session in March that will discuss a third resolution on alleged war crimes and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, column inches on the subject also multiply.
The most notable thing about the government’s response to this is how consistently it has trotted out the same arguments, and how rigidly it has stuck to tactics that have served it well domestically, but continue to fail in an international context.
As a Brit who lives in Sri Lanka, one of the most interesting sub-plots to follow has been the reaction the involvement of David Cameron and the UK government. But before examining that in a bit more detail, it’s worth taking a quick survey of some of the common counter-arguments the Sri Lankan authorities have made to criticism from around the world.
Smoke and mirrors
The most common of these is the notion that governments, NGOs, charities and research agencies around the globe are simply being deviously manipulated by a seemingly all powerful Tamil diaspora.
This argument takes several forms, but it can best be summed up as – there is a global Tamil conspiracy that is trying to destroy Sri Lanka’s international reputation by funding a global media smear campaign.
Around the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK, Chris Nonis, told CNN that criticism of the country’s human rights record was a “proxy propaganda war” being carried out by those who funded the nation’s “terrorist conflict”, whilst Gotabaya Rajapaksa repeatedly invokes the spectre of an “LTTE rump” who are agitating from the shadows.
This seems particularly ironic as Sri Lanka’s government itself has employed two PR and lobbying firms handsome fees to engage in a very real propaganda war. The Thompson Advisory Group, who are paid $66,000 a month by the government, recently aired a 30 minute infomercial on Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and post war progress on US TV, and the film was also show to US politicians.
The government have also contracted the infamous UK agency Bell Pottinger to look after their international image – and the choice seems revealing given that past Bell Pottinger clients include Gaddafi, Mugabe and Monsanto, to name but a few.
If the Tamil conspiracy is not explicitly named, then it is either implied, or another international plot is inferred. The recent report by PIAC that suggested that Sri Lankan security forces committed the “vast majority” of war crimes in the last part of the conflict, and that they may have engaged in systematic destruction of evidence since, was dismissed by the military here as the result of a “hidden agenda” designed to “mislead member countries” in the UNHRC.
This is not to dismiss entirely the notion of political pressure from Tamil communities around the world. There are many powerful groups within the Tamil diaspora that are actively putting what pressure they can on the international community over war crimes and human rights abuses, but the power of these groups is far less than the government would have you believe. And indeed far less than the government’s own power.
Other favourite lines rehearsed by Sri Lankan politicians (from Chris Nonis, to all of the Rajapaksa brothers, to Lalith Weeratunga) are that Sri Lanka does not need outside interference because it has a 2,500 year old civilisation, and that foreign nations should sort out their own backyards before they come sniffing around here.
David Cameron is many things, but he’s not a Tamil stooge
These last two arguments bring us nicely to the case of David Cameron.
The UK Prime Minister snatched a lot of headlines during CHOGM last year, both for his visit to Jaffna, and for his strongly worded demand that Sri Lanka make meaningful progress on human rights before March 2014, or face international action.
In the wake of this, Cameron was effectively told to butt out by the government, with certain branches of the media suggesting that the UK should look into its own crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq before worrying about Sri Lanka, that Cameron was only interested because he needed the support of the Tamil community in London to win the next election, and most bizarrely, for “breaching protocol” when in Jaffna by not signing a visitor’s book and failing to acknowledge a dance reception. The Daily News called him a “bumbling boor” and demanded a full and unconditional apology.
These accusations are predictable, but are also representative of the Sri Lankan authorities overall response to international criticism. They are worth dealing with one by one, even though on another level they seem too ridiculous to be engaged with.
Firstly, the argument that “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” does hold some water, but not in the way that it is deployed here. That human rights abuses around the world are not treated equally and that powerful nations, such as the US, UK and China are able to get away with certain crimes whilst providing moral lectures to others is certainly true, and appalling.
But to say that justifies crimes you yourself have committed is both absurd, and on another level seems like a tacit admission of guilt.
Secondly, David Cameron did not engage in the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka in order to boost his chances of winning the next election. There are somewhere between 110,000 and 150,000 people of Tamil origin in the UK (in a population of 66 million), and they do have strong representative bodies that lobby on their behalf. As recent reports show, Cameron did meet with many of these bodies before he travelled to Sri Lanka for CHOGM.
But they are an insignificant voice in the British political landscape, and most of them do not even have the right to vote in the UK. The notion that a Tamil conspiracy is pulling Cameron’s strings is absurd, not least because, as with the resolution presented to the US Senate last week, the UK’s rhetoric has always emphasised investigating crimes committed by both sides.
A comparison of the number of meetings that Cameron’s government has had with lobbyists for, and representatives of, big business in the last 12 months also puts into perspective the significance of the one meeting he had with Tamil pressure groups.
I taught Sri Lankan literature in a university in the UK between 2006 and 2009, and most of my students (who were all highly politically active and motivated) knew almost nothing about the Sri Lankan conflict. That was at the height of the final days of the conflict, when press coverage was at its most prominent. This is, of course, only anecdotal evidence, but it is indicative of the wider British perspective.
Sri Lanka got a lot of media attention around the time of CHOGM last year, but overall, the civil war here is not an issue that has much resonance with the British electorate. Of course, Cameron got a chance to play the international statesman and all round “good guy” for once, and that was a political opportunity not to be missed.
However, within days of returning he was being accused of hypocrisy by the UK press, who took him to task for travelling straight from Sri Lanka to an arms trading fair, and then toadying up to China. The upcoming UNHRC session will see Sri Lanka again make the UK media (especially Channel 4), but this will not be front page news, and regrettably it will probably be completely missed by most of my countrymen.
The fact is that people in the UK are simply too busy worrying about their own problems and lives to care much for the plight of any other nation, Sri Lanka included, and it will be Cameron’s record on, and promises about those problems that will win or lose him the next election.
David Cameron’s motivation for his involvement in the Sri Lankan situation is of course motivated partly by real-politik, partly by opportunism and the chance to play the statesman – but there is also a moral dimension here. I speak as someone who cannot stand his, or his party’s politics, but I do have grudging respect for his actions over Sri Lanka in the last few months. I hope he, and the UK government, will hold their nerve.
Let us not forget what we are discussing here – in the last few months alone, an edited highlights package of accusations and evidence against the Sri Lankan government could include: Sri Lanka produces the most torture cases worldwide, Sri Lanka has more unsolved cases of disappearances than any where in the world but Iraq, there were 7,000 human rights complaints in the country in 2013, the government has been condemned as increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic by domestic and international critics alike – and that’s before we even get into a discussion about war crimes, rape, child abuse and violence against women.
There is hypocrisy in the UK’s stand, as there is in many of the other countries that have spoken out, and pointing that out is fair. But the responses of the Sri Lankan government and state owned media have been transparently inadequate, not only in rebutting accusations made against them, but in doing anything to change the mind of the international community.
Time and time again, on top of the arguments discussed here, there have been suggestions that figures and organisations such as Navi Pillay, Nisha Biswal, Stephen Rapp, Stephen Harper, Manmohan Singh, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, international news media, and the UNHRC itself have been too easily duped by individuals with a sinister personal agenda.
This insult to the intelligence of major international figures is stupid in its own right – but it is also representative of the way in which the Rajapaksa government regularly insults the intelligence of its own people.
The level of media control that the authorities enjoy within Sri Lanka seems to have convinced them that the same tactics and arguments that have worked internally will work on the rest of the world. As CHOGM showed, intimidation of journalists, banning opposing political protests and abusing any one you disagree with works to an extent within Sri Lanka, but manifestly does not elsewhere. The UK’s ITV news, one of the most tabloid in the country, said at the time that “The Sri Lankan leaders… have created a disaster for themselves in the court of public opinion,”and it’s hard to disagree.
As I have argued elsewhere, creating a siege mentality (“no one likes us, we don’t care”) can be useful in shoring up domestic support, but it is absolutely destructive to international relations, both on a political and a public relations level. The language being used also presents exactly the opposite issue from the one that is intended – all the talk of “propaganda”, of “agent provocateurs”, of small powerful minorities who are really running things comes across as paranoid and more reminiscent of the rhetoric of a Cold War Soviet Union than an open democracy.
One voice of reason has emerged recently, in the shape of Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero who said in an interview last weekend that “Sri Lanka is a part of the international community, we have to abide by international norms, and if there is a call for an international investigation, I have no problem in agreeing. If we have done nothing wrong we can go before an international investigation and vindicate ourselves.”
It will be interesting to see how the government reacts to a challenge from a prominent and respected Sinhala-Buddhist monk. Unfortunately, the response is likely to be one of the ones not discussed here so far – simply ignoring it and hoping it goes away.
*Dave Rush is Senior Editor at The Republic Square. As a journalist working in the UK, he has also contributed regularly to Trebuchet magazine, journals and newspapers including the Guardian