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2013 Nov 12

The CHOGM must seek a way between the world’s discomfort with Sri Lanka’s rights abuses and the need for reconciliation, writes Rudra Chaudhuri

“Our guilt is killing us,” argued a middle-aged and self-described Tamil-British woman. She lost 17 members of her family to what she claimed were targeted disappearances, an all-too-familiar feature in Sri Lanka’s post-war landscape, at least according to the many Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim journalists and activists both within and outside the Island state. The lady in question was the last to make her plea. She was one of 200-odd attendees at the London premier of No-Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a 90-minute documentary that has been aired everywhere between Venezuela and the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations human rights council. Apart from the personal tragedy she suffers, her question was simple: would the British prime minister, David Cameron, speak up for the Tamil minority during his visit — along with Prince Charles and the secretary of state, William Hague — to Colombo?

The British prime minister and Prince Charles — in his capacity as the queen’s representative — are to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or the CHOGM. Callum Macrae, an award-winning journalist and the No Fire Zone director, answered the questioner pointedly. It could only be hoped, he stated, that the visit turns the spotlight on Sri Lanka’s need to address both Tamil grievances and equally, push other Commonwealth states to introduce an independent committee within Sri Lanka to investigate alleged mass human rights abuses during the last war and after. To be sure, Macrae was undoubtedly appalled by his own government’s apparent lack of empathy regarding the idea of justice.

What is certain is that Cameron is unlikely to capture the Tamil vote within the United Kingdom in the next general elections. Whether that matters in terms of electoral outcomes is another question altogether. The 150,000-175,000 British-Tamil population in the UK seeks help. If the host government does not provide this, the people are all too likely to furnish support to those who will: remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam housed in a variety of pockets in Europe or, perhaps, an alternative organization the members of which, much like the woman quoted above, live with the tragedy of the recent past. President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka remains their key political target.

His forces, at least according to the documentary at hand, were responsible for targeted killings, mass and systematic sexual abuse of women prisoners, deliberate bombing of hospitals, and most terrifyingly, the use of heavy artillery in what Rajapaksa’s military officials themselves claimed to be ‘no fire zones’. The visual evidence collected in this extraordinary documentary is hard to ignore. Checked by a variety of lawyers, forensic experts and analysts, Channel 4 — for which the documentary was made — is absolutely convinced about its veracity. No doubt, the channel’s journalistic reputation in the UK and elsewhere rides on this. The images are shocking, to say the least.

For the viewer, it was almost impossible to remain critical. Scenes of doctors — who were later made to change their story and face internment — during the war clearly stating that the government refused to send medical supplies to Tamil dominated areas and hospitals — a clear violation of the laws of armed conflict — or those of government soldiers packing off women prisoners by the truckload — never to be seen again — would mess with the moral judgments of critics and objective observers alike. There is no doubt that the LTTE’s human rights record was horrendous. But the LTTE was not the legitimate and world-recognized government in Sri Lanka. It was an insurgent organization that made ample and effective use of terrorist tactics. Their demise ought to have been celebrated more widely, had it not been for what this documentary suggests to be a well-coordinated government-sponsored campaign that paid zero attention to civilians in armed conflict. This was an argument that was mooted by many Western diplomats in Colombo during the war. One cable from the American embassy quotes David Miliband — the former British foreign secretary — calling Rajapaksa’s officials “liars”. That civilians were deliberately targeted seemed to have been internalized by diplomats and UN officials alike. One such UN official — Gordon Weiss, also interviewed in the documentary — chronicles this devastating story in his book: The Cage.

The difference between Weiss’s accounts and that of many others who have suffered and witnessed the “killing fields” and the documentary in question is the visual effect of pictures. Government soldiers taking portrait-like photographs and videos with their dead victims and boasting after having executed prisoners-of-war tied and blindfolded, add a deep and horrifying sense of realism. These are, after all, alleged injustices committed under the watch of a government that has apparently paid millions of dollars to public relations firms to spin the story to suit their interests. These pictures serve as evidence. They ought to be contested and require keen legal eyes to make them usable — or not as the case might be — within the UNHRC as well as perhaps the CHOGM.

The release of this documentary and the compelling narrative therein may, according to pundits and political scientists, have very little to do with the high politics of inter-state governance. Indeed, for India, keeping an eye on China’s race for influence within Sri Lanka might well serve as reason enough to shy away from the tragedies of the past to the promise of economic futures. But in doing so, the government may also consider the empirically tested fact that history does not die, it only reinvents itself in the present and for the future.

India is the most important actor when it comes to Sri Lanka. Its advance is obviously conditioned by the large Tamil population within the state, but perhaps also needs to be shaped by the potential repercussions inherent in being seen to be doing nothing. Those like the questioner in London will remain engaged in the quest for justice. If her questions are not addressed, there is nothing to say that political activism will not turn the victims of the No Fire Zone into protagonists in yet another cycle of counter-violence. It should hardly surprise anyone if flags of protest turn into a bombing campaign in and around Colombo a few years down the line. This will affect India as much as Sri Lanka.

At the CHOGM, India might carefully moot the need for an independent commission to investigate alleged war crimes. This is no doubt the top order of business for Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief. It is likely to serve as the key agenda for debate in March 2014, when the HRC will again discuss the issue of Sri Lanka. In fact, much like the view of the Commonwealth secretary, Kamalesh Sharma, on Sri Lanka, India should also look to ‘engagement’ as a means to shape the need for reconciliation. Balancing the requirement to challenge China with the need to push Rajapaksa closer to the idea of protection will require skilful diplomacy.

Whether by design or otherwise, India’s attitude so far has made clear the importance of dissent and contest in dealing with Sri Lanka. To be sure, it reinforces the magnitude of uncertainty and serves to leverage New Delhi’s authority. India’s presence is necessary if not only to push its case in its desire to compete with Beijing, but also to make an equally compelling case for reconciliation. In doing so, New Delhi could perhaps also remain open to the need to air dissent and challenge the Rajapaksa-led regime. Denying those like Callum Macrae a visa to visit India for the opening of his film does nothing but simply reinforce the view of many Tamils around the world that India cares more for infrastructure and energy contracts than the desperate need for justice.

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