Peace and Conflict

Amnesty Campaign: Some quick thoughts

I never thought I’d say this, but I think Amnesty International has made a big mistake in launching its latest human rights campaign against Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the World Cup Cricket Tournament.

Don’t get me wrong (and yet I predict many will). I am entirely supportive of any and all attempts to highlight grave human rights violations in Sri Lanka. However, the recent initiative a la Amnesty reeks of double standards, cheap pot-shots and poor taste. Here are the reasons why.

First, if World Cup Cricket offers an opportunity to name and shame human rights violators, then practically every competing country is fair game for past or continuing rights violations. The fact that this particular tournament takes place at a time when the incidence of rights violations are at an all-time high in Sri Lanka seems too easy a reason for AI to single-out one country without as much a passing reference to other egregious violators. Second, if sports tournaments are powerful platforms for human rights campaigns, it begs the question as to why AI has not used the NCAA to draw attention to the horrors of Guantanamo or World Cup Soccer to push for withdrawal from Iraq. Third, even if the campaign is directed at the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, it inadvertently targets eleven men who have been selected to represent the country (not the state), on the basis of their talent and skill (give or take some political patronage), not on their politics. If eleven Government Ministers were going out to bat, bring on the banners. If Tamilselvam was leading his merry men into the field, raise up the flags. It is unfair to highlight a country’s poor record by using a forum where eleven of its nationals have shown up to play a game. Are there AI banners following Tiger Woods to the first tee en route to his next Masters title? Fourth, for all the rhetoric that the campaign is directed at both the Government and the LTTE, let’s be honest enough to admit that if it does as much irk anyone, it will the Government elected to represent the country and not the group that is seeking separation from it. Again, it is worthwhile holding the government elect more responsible for rights violations over a rebel group, then however, let us not pretend that the campaign is directed at anyone else. Fifthly and finally, if AI believes that this will have an iota of effect on the stakeholders – Government or LTTE – they clearly have no insight into the history of the conflict or the workings of our war-mongers. If anything – as evidenced by media reports – it will harden attitudes, increase anti-peace sentiments and anti-NGO sentiments and in sum bolster support for a military solution to silence all outsiders. And if AI thinks that a campaign such as this will mobilize the cricket-watching citizenry to stand up against rights violations, again they suffer in delusion. Those that might care wield no power to make a difference. And those that don’t will reach for that glass of old arrack and sit back to watch the match.

  • SH

    Human behaviour is complex indeed. The raw emotions surrounding the cries of injustice that have arisen over a game appear to be greater than those that have been raised over the injustices surrounding the loss of human lives in the country.

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  • sumane

    as international organization ai can campaign against sri lankan govt about its human right abuses. but trying to raise it with the cricket is in my opinion unwarrented. ai can also have soft balls about british govt’s violation of international conventions by attacking iraq and entering iranian waters illegally.

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa

    Cricket is a game but so much more – it embodies hope, for communities that have little or none after decades of conflict. It is joy, when there is so little of it in Sri Lanka. It is sweet victory, sans the homelessness, bloodletting and despair associated with pyrrhic victories in the battlefield.

    Cricket is, to many of us, more than religion and family.

    Bluntly put, Amnesty is supremely ill-informed to have undertaken a venture of this nature. This campaign puts at risk so much of what human rights activists in this country have fought and on occasion, died for. In besmearing our appreciation of cricket with the wholly unnecessary pall of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Amnesty alienates from its campaign the very people it seeks to address and influence.

    This is not the first time I’ve found Amnesty’s campaign to be more than a little daft

    They need to desist. And soon. Our work is at risk, and as important, our cricket. And that’s a gross human rights violation right there!

  • pandoras

    This may be the first step towards an international ban on all Sri Lankan sports teams a la the anti apartheid campaign against South Africa.

    The ban on South African teams was a major factor in bringing down apartheid.

    It was well know that Afrikaners and Singhalese share a love of sports. Maybe a similar campaign against Sri Lanka sports teams will have the same effect and turn the GOSL towards a peaceful negotiated solution?

  • sam

    Interesting views.

    I tend to agree that AI’s latest campaign is cheap… but I’d like to know why Sanjana thinks the following:

    “In besmearing our appreciation of cricket with the wholly unnecessary pall of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, Amnesty alienates from its campaign the very people it seeks to address and influence.”

    Who are the people Amnesty seeks to influence? I can see how it could hamper the work done locally by human rights activists, but I can’t see why ‘religion’ cannot be used as a vehicle for other messages…

    Sure, there’ll be cricket fans who’d say ‘[email protected]#k off’ and crack a few jokes about violating the human rights of some Amnesty people – but I am not convinced that the World Cup isn’t a useful platform for outing a country’s human rights record.

    I think AI’s campaign is aimed at an international audience – not Sri Lankan. And I wonder if it won’t be a good strategy to quickly bring to attention the situation in Sri Lanka.

    I wonder how South Africans felt when they were isolated from international competition, during the apartheid period…

    Now what may be more powerful is what happened in Mexico in 1968:

    But, I guess, that’s a whole other strategy, and one where the athletes themselves were directly expressing their politics to a global audience.

  • Mohamed Ali

    Cricket was a game. Sri Lankan team was representing the nation.
    AI campaign here any reason not acceptable.

  • Sanjana

    Hi Sam,

    On the one hand you say this is a cheap campaign, on the other hand you say you aren’t entirely convinced this is a bad idea. Can’t say I can answer that conundrum, but suffice to say that I agree with your first contention and submit to you that AI’s campaign will do little to help international or locally the HR record of this government or support a campaign to strengthen HR. In aligning HR to what is the one sport that galvanises all of Sri Lanka, AI takes what is a very contentious issues and places it centre and forward at the ICC World Cup. South Africa is a poor example – the rugby / cricket team there were a product of apartheid. The cricket team, as Billy notes, in Sri Lanka is largely devoid of that which divides the country on identity lines. Having used the voices of Vaas and Murali for a press campaign that used sporting figures to speak about the importance of peacebuilding and reconciliation in 2005, I know full well the power of sporting personalities and sport in general to highlight that which is wrong elsewhere in the country. But AI’s campaign undermines the HR advocacy efforts here – every single HR activist I’ve spoken to has groaned at the news of this campaign, though fewer are willing to speak out for the sheer difficult involved in charting a middle ground by saying that this campaign is bad, and yet the issues it seeks to highlight are very real. Sumane here, and the Free Media Movement are two strong voices that have to date expressed their displeasure at the campaign.

    It may also be difficult for you to judge from Australia, but I am sure that after two years here, you’ll know how difficult it is to promote HR issues in general. The local activist community is struggling as is the International Community. The AI campaign becomes an easy target for voices who wish to build the case that the international community only cries foul when the SL Government is in the dock, and is silent to the HR abuses taking place in the US, the UK and even in your home country. The rhetoric, though logically flawed, is powerful – you know this. AI’s campaign adds fuel to this, ironically making it far harder to advocate for HR than if they they had just stayed silent and thought of better ways to convince the international community (that needs little convincing I think) that not all is well in SL.

    Far as I know, the SL cricket team, for better or worse, has steered away from any direct statements on politics in Sri Lanka – sure Arjuna joined politics on a nationalist ticket, but only after he left the team. The players seem to be united and they are the closest we have as a country to a larger Sri Lankan identity. By honing in on the team, and by the callous ignorance of how this will play out domestically in Sri Lanka, AI does far more harm than good.

    Someone, somewhere, quite honestly, should be fired for having thought of this campaign without thinking it through and, vitally, how it would play out in the present political context in Sri Lanka.

  • SH


    “Cricket is, to many of us, more than religion and family.”
    I am reminded of an article by journalist Robert Fisk. Clearly not a lover of sport titled “Football and violence go together”. The analogies might be a bit extreme. It could also be titled the views of a sporting aetheist.

  • Dasthi


    This shows the “Low Class” of Amnesty in Worldwide including the Sri Lankan Officials in the ground who are endorsing such moves.

    Will Amnesty ever come out with a campaign of this nature against the US Government on “Guantanamo Bay” or The Human Rights violations in Iraq or Afghanistan.

  • Dear Dasthi,

    Not sure whether the campaign – maligned and misinformed – is by extension a reflection of AI’s global leadership in championing HR abuses. The campaign is a mistake. But by extension to colour the entire organisation and its work malinged and misinformed, I fear, is precisely the argument that will be in various forms, be paraded in Sri Lanka in the weeks to come. This is why this is such a bad campaign even for AI’s reputation in Sri Lanka – the image it now has to overcome, and a serious challenge at that over and above the existing political resistance to HR, is that as an organisation, it is partisan and only goes after the Government of SL through means that will be seen by many to be below-the-belt and simply not cricket.

    This is essentially a problem of communications, strategic foresight and planning a long-term process to support HR in Sri Lanka. This current campaign is a text book example of how not to go about things, but lest we forget, it’s organisations such as AI and HRW, along with local HR activists, that are the last bulwark against a total regression of democracy in Sri Lanka, given our enduring fascination with violence and killing and culture of total impunity.

  • SH,

    Thanks for the article by Fisk. Perhaps “Seeds of peace on cricket field” will interest you as well – almost an answer to Fisk’s article.

    Cricket and politics, no doubt strange bedfellows, are helping to bring the traditional enemies together. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, on a visit to India in 2005, resorted to cricket diplomacy. He spent more than an hour watching a cricket match before getting down to discuss real business with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Both sides agreed to inaugurate a bus service between Indian-held Kashmir and Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir. This gesture of goodwill was a major breakthrough in easing the escalating tensions.

  • SH

    Thanks, I just read the “Seeds of peace” article given above. Not sure I entirely agree with Fisk, but I thought it was important to add an alternative view point.

    Even the link between peace on the cricket field and national politics might be a bit simplistic…though the author herself admits that.

    I remember seeing this photograph by Dominic Sansoni a few months ago:

  • The FMM’s statement on the AI campaign can be found here.

  • billy

    I am honestly unsure how much pressure the sporting boycott had on the South African apartheid government. There is a lot of analysis to show that Apartheid’s demise was more a result of a host of domestic realities and that the impact of international sanctions is grossly exaggerated.

    But that’s another post, another debate.

    I think the comparison between Sri Lanka and South Africa vis-a-vis this particular issue is a stretch. As Sanjana pointed out, the SA team was a product of the system in ways that the SL team is not. Also, an international sporting boycott is a far different ‘game’ to an INGO human rights campaig, in terms of strategy, audience and impact. AI seems to have misjudged all three.

  • I’m sort of working for AI as an unpaid volunteer at the moment, and it’s not that difficult to understand how they could have come up with this ingenious idea. Most of the young people who work for AI are passionately and faithfully devoted to the noble ideals that it’s meant to stand for, but I feel the upper hierarchy is cynical and corrupt and their strategies (much like a profit oriented corporation) are primarily driven by organisational ego (brand prestige), money and power, particularly as the human rights market becomes increasingly competitive.

    Calling for foreign human rights monitors in a free sovereign nation reeks of neo-colonialism and resembles the arguments used by the European imperialists of yesteryear to justify invading and exploiting the uncivilised brown barbarians. Must we tolerate this contemptuous and condescending treatment by the modern proponents of Kipling’s Burden who seemingly think us infantile Lankans are not competent to manage our own affairs and need them to guide and direct us. There seems to be some degree of reciprocal cooperation between those who manage this campaign and LTTE’s spin doctors. There isn’t much difference between AI’s allegations and LTTE’s own propaganda, and in many instances there no evidence except for vague hearsay put forward by parties with vested interests. LTTE websites such as are reproducing AI’s publications with unconcealed glee and invite readers to take part. This shouldn’t be the case had they given equal weight to LTTE’s abuses, who are far more guilty than the government.

    No one questions that rights violations continue to occur, as they have since the beginning of time, but it’ll take an exceptionally unpatriotic and self hating person to support not just AI’s racist and hateful gutter tactics, but also the cause that they espouse. If Sri Lanka has problems it’s Lankans who have to solve them. We don’t need to be dictated to by uninformed outsiders who don’t have a direct stake in any of this, and only have a passing (academic/professional) interest. While we may welcome mutually cooperative assistance, our inviolable right of self determination must be protected at all times.

  • Parameswaran

    The Daily Mirror reports today (6th April) that President’s Counsel Desmond Fernando, Chairman of the Sri Lanka National Commission of Jurists had written to the Head of AI expressing their displeasure of the campaign.

  • suntzu

    …in the mean time…wouldn’t it be good to clean up our act regarding human rights abuses?…or isn’t there any human rights abuses in Sri Lanka?

  • David Blacker

    AI is traditionally pro-insurrection and anti-state, and all their work stems from this platform, where they see states as the greater perpetrators of HR violations. To a certain extent this applies to most INGOs.

    What is hard to understand is AI’s focus on SL, and not on Zimbabwe, which is at least equal to SL in its HR record.. Is it because the latter is already out of the tournament? If so, then AI is, in fact, targetinng SL’s cricket.

  • SH

    At present to me, a number of people appear to be whipped up to a frenzy; I am under the impression that the current atmosphere is not condusive to opposing points of view being presented in an open manner by those living in the country.

    In my attempt to make sense of all this, with my limited knowledge and experience, I am beginning to form this view: despite Amnesty’s campaign, if Sri lanka wins the cup….the cricketers would be winners, the fans will be elated, but the politicians will not be able to bask in the reflected glory of this win as freely as they would have liked. But we know that this outcome cannot be guaranteed, and it appears that Amnesty is willing to pay the price of the backlash and scapgoating that will result from the loss in the world cup by Sri Lanka.

    I am also inclined to think in all this… the only credible analyses of the successes or failures of this campaign would be those made with the wisdom of hindsight in a less charged atmosphere where cricket is considered to be an entertaining sport, not the opium of the masses.

    Lets all hope that Sri Lanka wins the world cup. There appears to be more than a game that is at stake here.

  • Indi Samarajiva’s comments on the issue, in broad agreement with the growing number of voices across civil society against Amnesty International’s campaign, are to be found here.

  • sam

    Out of curiosity, are there any suggestions on what Amnesty should have done? ie. suggestions of a campaign that Amnesty could have implemented to raise the profile of the SL situation?

  • Parameswaran


    Why don’t you answer your own question? You said “but I am not convinced that the World Cup isn’t a useful platform for outing a country’s human rights record.”

  • Channa Murasinghe

    “Fifthly and finally, if AI believes that this will have an iota of effect on the stakeholders – Government or LTTE – they clearly have no insight into the history of the conflict or the workings of our war-mongers.”

    Well said. What was AI thinking? Or not.

  • aiyo

    Hmmm…the Amnesty campaign has stirred up a heap oif comments on this site. More than I have seen on most other topics for some time. Is that an indication that the campaign may be hitting home? Maybe…

    Before commenting on the campaign, it might have been helpful if your commentators had piled into a van and wandered across to the East to see what people here think of the campaign. I would guess from my informal and unscientific poll here in Batticaloa, our visiting commentators would discover a pretty heavy majority here in favour of the campaign. Amnesty are aware of that too, but let’s look at some of the arguments so far.

    Argument 1 : Why choose us, when there are so many other rights abusers who could have been targeted as well/instead?

    Come on. Amnesty have a strong record of taking on human rights abusers wherever they are. Just have a look at their website. At the moment Sri Lanka just happens to be about top of the grim charts at the moment for extra-judicial killings, abductions and general roughing up of ordinary decent folk. At least a thousand in the last year, we’re told, out of a population of 20 million. I don’t think any of the other cricketing nations can compete with those bloody statistics

    Argument 2 – Cricket is a game that unites the country, so the campaign undermines a positive force.

    Hogwash. Anyone who’s knocked around Muslim and Tamil ares of the North and east knows local support lies elsewhere. The few public TV sets in Batticaloa, mainly in bars, seldom attract more than a handful of watchers. Other films and teledramas have a higher audience. The only people I’ve heard discuss the topic after a Sri Lanka match in Batticaloa are the security forces. It’s just not an issue here, otherwise. However the World Cup does have one benefit: there is a marked drop in the Government abuse of civilians through their artillery barrages from positions within residential communities during Sri Lanka matches. So it’s not ‘our cricket,’ Sajana; it’s yours.

    Argument 3: The campaign detracts from the work of Sri lankan human rights activits.

    I’m not sure what to answer here since we don’t see any such cricket activists in Batticaloa and we’re not really sure what you’re up to elsewhere. The activists who work on such issues in Batticaloa do not appear in electronic print media and have a scant regard for cricket, in my experience. I can’t think of many who even own a TV set.

    Argument 4: Don’t compare Sri Lanka with South Africa. The team is not a product of the system here, whereas it was in South Africa.

    Oh this one must please the Government, whose Sports Minister has to approve the composition of teams. On top of that the ruling dons of Sri Lankan cricket for the last several years have very often had political connections. And that political control of the sport filters down to the ground reality where Tamils, and often Muslims, in the North and East have sporting facilities and opportunities little different from those on offer to black and coloureds in South Africa during the apartheid era. Oh do please come out here and see for yourself.

    So, all in all, Amnesty is doing a pretty good job. They have stirred up a froth amongst a wide spectrum of people in Sri Lanka who could do well to examine their positions. The only people who aren’t frothing over the issue are the very people whose plight Amnesty seeks to alleviate. Now isn’t that strange?

  • SH,
    I don’t think Amnesty cares much about who wins the world cup. Those carrying the white man’s burden are not particularly interested in how they are perceived by some dark skinned illiterates in an obscure third world country. What they want to do is to raise some money and keep themselves in the limelight. Sort of like how desperate pop stars do absurd things to be newsworthy.

  • Jeremy

    Aiyo said “I don’t think any of the other cricketing nations can compete with those bloody statistics”

    Take it that he / she hasn’t heard of Zimbabwe.

  • David Blacker

    Or Pakistan.

    Maybe if Aiyo stopped hanging around Batticaloa bars he/she might meet the real cricket fans, who are at home with their families listening on the radio, not hanging out in bars. The WC matches are on after dark, and it’s unlikely the ordinary Batticaloa citizen is out drinking at night, unlike the staffers from the NGOs.

  • Perhaps Aiyo doesn’t see the ramifications of AI’s campaign on his own cause. Just to build on what everyone else has said, this would not only undermine the credibility of local human rights activists/peaceniks, but could make them objects of contempt and resentment of millions of ordinary Sri Lankans. This comes in the wake of failed attempts by Paikiyasothy Saravanamuttu, Nimalka Fernando and others to persuade the EU to pass a resolution against Sri Lanka in Geneva, and could you imagine the fallout of AI (with these local activists by association) being held as the scapegoat for Sri Lanka’s world cup loss, and JHU/PNM/JVP/NMAT etc (with the help of state/private media) leading country-wide protests against local NGOs for helping AI. Imagine houses and offices being pelted and effigies being burnt (granted, this is the worst case scenario and unlikely in reality). The nationalists will be able to capitalise on this magnificently if they play their cards right.

    Would that not affect Aiyo’s cause? You would desperately want the government be forced to stop the war (that they are so obviously winning) and you need help from these NGOs and civil society activists for that.

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  • ethnichybrid

    As Aiyo points out I do think its strange that the outraged reactions are coming from a mostly Sinhala view point. I wonder what the Tamils and Muslims feel about the AI campaign. Perhaps we can learn many lessons if we actually listen to what they have to say and not react with this persecution mania that we seem to have.

  • SH

    From the hyped up reactions of many, Im not sure if the environement is condusive to them expressing their views.

    Maybe if Sri Lanka wins the cup, we will be able to find out what they think, once the dust settles down.

  • SH

    It is clear that politicians invest a great deal in sporting successes of a country. The remarkable success of the Sri Lankan Cricket team, is a great tool for politicians wanting to raise the image of Sri Lanka and maybe distract people from underlying problems in the country.

    I recall, once in Australia, the newly appointed foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar got stuck into Shane Warne for expressing apprehension about going on tour to Sri Lanka just after a bomb had exploded in Colombo. Kadirgamar appeared desperate to prove to the austrlian public/or cricketers that it was safe, by offering to stay with them in the hotel.

    I recall thinking at that time, the crudeness, immaturity and lack of diplomacy in the foreign minister’s comments. I remember hearing Kadirgamar’s voice over the radio telling a bemused reporter that Shane Warne was a “Sissy”. Probably thought he was at a Royal-Thomian match 🙂

  • Anjula

    I feel that Sri Lanka’s reaction to the Amnesty campaign and criticism of diplomats makes our HR situation look even worse than it is.

    Whats worse than a poor human rights record is the impression that the government doesn’t even acknowledge it, when it is so obvious.

    Are we to expect aparthied type embargoes and restrictions soon?

  • AF

    I have thought about this as much as all of you……and felt slightly defensive about SL when AI decided to single us out. What about the other human-rights-ignoring nations playing cricket at the World Cup? After reading our government’s reactions to the campaign however, I became even more angry at AI for giving them the opportunity to re-aim the focus yet again……..Why don’t we just concentrate that we are unfortunately among this list of pathetic nations and focus on that.
    Cricket might be an unfortunate victim but who cares? We live in a country where consistant violence and injustice have brought about such an oblivious reaction in us all, should we really be upset that something as positive as a cricket match, is reminding us of what is actually happening? Let’s not lose focus fellow Sri Lankans, let’s let the world know we do not all agree with what is happening in our country.

  • Bishan

    Hi All

    I’ve been reading the heated debeat with much interest and much emotion, as others have been. I’ve learned a lot from hearing the different (often highly polarised opinions). The problem is when we cannot appreciate the shades of grey.

    Yes, Sri Lanka has human rights issues and this should not go unchecked.

    Sri Lanka here means the Government and the LTTE – I agree with comments that the government should have more responsibity to uphold these rights, being democratically elected. In the same vain, the AI campaign will have an effect on the government and sucess of the country as unified nation, rather than have an effect on the the LTTE and it’s clearly stated aim of a seperate nation – after all the LTTE doesn’t seem to have had a history of responding to any public condmenation whether it be from AI or otherwise.

    (a link to a very recent and enlightening documentatry by Al Jazeera about the LTTE’s operations in the UK and the plight of their supporters )

    AI has a role to try and protect the human rights of all citizens of the world – i don’t have issue with this.

    Protests agains poor human rights records may be one facet of this role.

    However their method of this education can have a huge impact on the people involved, the countries involved and the world at large. They have have great potential of being positive and promoting peace and harmony, in the process of illustrating issues that need to be addressed by all parties. Alternatively they can blame and great a feeling of animosity amongst people who have a lot of goodwill.

    I think the recent AI campaign has chosen the latter option.

    In answer to Sam’s good question …

    Sam said “Out of curiosity, are there any suggestions on what Amnesty should have done? ie. suggestions of a campaign that Amnesty could have implemented to raise the profile of the SL situation? ”

    Amnesty could have had a more articulated campaign which highlighted how that within Sri Lanka’s international cricket team there is at least one Sinhala Buddhist, Sinhala Catholic, Catholic Tamil, Hindu Tamil and a Muslim – these talented Sri Lanka men are working together as a Team. Let this represent the posibilities for Sri Lanka as a nation – the violence in Sri Lanka should stop so all can live peacefully.

    Any thoughts


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