Human Rights Hypocrisy
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 3, 2012
My friends in the UK are asking me what is happening to Sri Lanka as they read about the Commons debate and the shenanigans in Geneva. This is what I told them.
On February 22 2012, the House of Commons witnessed one of its periodic orgies of self-righteousness. The Pecksniffery was ecumenical – opposition MPs eagerly lined up to offer their unsolicited support for the UK government line. The issue that united so many diverse humbugs was the human rights record of the Sri Lankan government. The debate was about whether an independent, international commission of inquiry should be established to investigate allegations of war crimes perpetrated at the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009.
The debate was initiated by Virendra Sharma, Labour MP for Ealing Southall, who claimed the Sri Lankan military had killed 40,000 civilians. James Wharton, Conservative member for Stockton South and Stephen Hammond, Conservative member for Wimbledon questioned Sharma’s figures. Sharma promised to answer their points later but failed to do so. Nick de Bois, Conservative member for Enfield north said: “given the recent publication of this report (of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) and, notwithstanding the understandable scepticism…should not more time be given to see whether those involved can genuinely and accountably deliver? If they do not, then we hold them to account.”
The Sri Lankan government made a decision in 2006 to push for a military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who had been fighting for nearly 30 years for a separate state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The CFA (Cease Fire Agreement) brokered in 2002 by Norway never really held. When the Tigers assassinated the highly respected foreign minister Lakshman Kadigarmar, a Tamil, The government finally accepted that the LTTE were not sincere about peace.
In May 2009, the Tamil Tigers were comprehensively defeated. There have been no acts of terrorism in Sri Lanka since then, which is a great relief after the horrors suffered over decades. Leaving aside the behaviour of Sri Lankan bus drivers, Sri Lanka today is safer than the UK according to the MTRI (Maplecroft Terrorism Risk Index). All of the Tamil political parties who had fought for a separate state have now agreed to enter the democratic political process and many of them have joined the government in the reconciliation and reconstruction programme. Several prominent former Tigers now hold government office.
The charges laid against the Sri Lankan government by international human rights organisations, Ban-Ki Moon’s panel of advisors and Channel 4 News can be summarised as follows:
- The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths.
- Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
- Summary execution of prisoners
- Rape of female combatants and civilians
- Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.
Post war Tamil grievances are:
- The government has failed to account for thousands of Tamils alleged to have disappeared or to have been abducted
- The government was criticised for keeping refugees in camps. It is now being criticised for releasing them.
- There is allegedly a deliberate policy to militarise the north and east
- There is allegedly a plan to alter the demographics of the north by bringing in Sinhalese settlers
- The government is reluctant to devolve power to the north and east.
One of the leading voices in the campaign against Sri Lanka is Siobhan McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden. She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. The term “local issues” includes Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in her constituency. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Mr. Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens. Later today, a plane chartered by the UKBA will deport 40 asylum-seeking Commonwealth citizens of Tamil ethnicity back to Sri Lanka”.
Siobhain McDonagh’s libertarianism and concern for human rights seem very selective. In spite of her campaign to stop her Tamil constituents from being deported, she had voted very strongly for a stricter asylum system i.e. more deportations. In spite of her campaign against Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism, she voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws and very strongly for introducing ID cards.
McDonagh says: “Anyone who has committed a crime must pay the price; they need to be tried. Then and only then can reconciliation go forward.” This does not appear to apply to Britain and Blair and Brown. In spite of her accusations against the Sri Lankan government about war crimes, she voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
During a Commons debate on 21 October 2005, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.
It depends who your murderous tyrant is and who is deposing him. It depends what you mean by democracy.
Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, said: “Any sensible person will realise the advantage our people got. Today there is no more killing, fighting. It is peaceful, people are free. Nobody can categorise [the crushing of the separatist rebel army which itself had committed atrocities] as a genocide.”
I would not celebrate the methods used by the UK to combat the IRA. There could be no rejoicing that Jean Charles Menezes died in the war against Islamic terrorism. Watching the President of the USA gloating over the shooting of the unarmed Osama bin Laden was not an elevating experience. One cannot be happy that Corporal Donald Payne served only a year’s imprisonment for beating to death an Iraqi hotel receptionist. I personally felt more relief than triumphalism at the death of LTTE leader Prabhakaran. I would have preferred to see him on trial.
The crimes alleged against Sri Lanka do not compare in magnitude to the war crimes perpetrated by the USA and UK over the decades and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA blatantly ignored the Geneva Conventions and abducted innocents to torture them in foreign countries. Rather than being punished, those responsible are still free to sign lucrative book deals for advocating and practising torture.
A strong critic of the Sri Lankan government, journalist Namini Wijedasa, wrote thus: “The call for a credible investigation would be infinitely more effective if the global human rights industry were to show some fairness in its campaign – something it consistently fails to do. If the argument is that the vanquished are dead, leaving only the victors to be hounded, this is not so. Representatives of the LTTE are still active abroad and could be prosecuted.”
The Banyan column in the Economist: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”
The government’s position on “zero civilian casualties” has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. However, by failing to come up with its own numbers the government has allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game. The Census Department has just released, with very little publicity, statistics suggesting the death toll was less than 9,000.
Some commentators actually living in Sri Lanka are worried that international investigations could reignite the fires of violence in a population whose majority is already feeling insecure and under attack. Read any blog to which members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, Tamil or Sinhalese, contribute and it is depressing to see how these keyboard warriors get off on the auto-eroticism of violent fantasies.
Sri Lankan human rights lawyer, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, has written: “The truth about the deaths of civilians is vital to the process of reconciliation regardless of all other issues of accountability”. As in Northern Ireland, those left behind need the comfort of knowing what happened to their loved ones. Unfortunately, such a process can be hi-jacked by the conflict junkies who want to continue the hatred and violence.
Bad things happen in wars. Bad things have been happening for a long time in Sri Lanka. Terrible things were done by the LTTE. These things are hard to forget and forgive. The danger is that picking at the scabs would achieve exactly the opposite of reconciliation with dreadful consequences for the people of Sri Lanka.