Sri Lanka and war crimes investigations: Nothing to Lose, but a World to Win
To rephrase the words of Marx and Engels: a spectre is haunting Sri Lanka – the spectre of an international investigation. More specifically, a demand has been made by the West, and will be made in the future too: a demand for an international investigation.
The response to such a demand, without any doubt, should be: NO. Such a response should not be based purely on the issue of ‘sovereignty’ alone; i.e. that an international investigation violates Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Furthermore, this response should not be (and should not have been) the fast-unto-death kind.
But there are other reasons. One reason is the fact that the demand is made by Western/European States which do not practice what they preach (for instance, when US Ambassador Patricia Butenis stated in her cable of 15 Jan 2010 that “There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power”, one is not sure whether she was referring to Sri Lanka or the US and its allies; or whether she was mindful of the fact that the same could be said about US regimes). That habitual practice of preaching to the ‘other’ as to what they should do, and how they should address issues of accountability, has not gone away (and certainly, will not go away). That imperialist and neocolonial civilizing mission should have an unambiguous counter-response, a negative one.
Another reason concerns the question as to who is going to play the role of ‘investigator’ in that exercise: those belonging only to the West? Is that what these States mean by ‘international’? And if so, what of ‘independence’?
Moreover, another critical and important reason is the following: that while ‘accountability’ and ‘individual criminal responsibility’ are most important issues that need to be addressed, they hardly take into account the responsibility of significant international actors which may have contributed to the prolongation, or even an escalation, of the internal conflict.
As scholars such as Professors BS Chimni and Antony Anghie have persuasively argued, any mechanism which attempts to investigate allegations of crimes should consider: “the extent to which the negligence and failure of existing international institutions contributed to the problem”; and “the very direct ways in which powerful states, which have played the virtuous role of establishing new mechanisms of accountability may have promoted, or in the least, failed to prevent, the very violence which they now seek to redress.” (In the Sri Lankan context, if an investigation concerning the above is to take place, it would involve an examination of not only the Western powers, but also India.)
It is this very crucial issue that the West, in particular, very conveniently and even wittingly forgets when making that pompous and hypocritical demand for an international investigation. International human rights organizations, unfortunately, miss this point too. Why? Because some or most of them are heavily funded by those very same Western powers which have played a significant role in those conflicts, especially in the form of ‘peace-makers’.
Evidence, in the form of leaked cables (via Wikileaks), has emerged to suggest that some of the major powers which were involved in the Sri Lankan peace-process were, at times, unwilling to appreciate the dangers posed by the LTTE. The documents which have been leaked should not be, by any means, regarded as documents which set out a particular country’s foreign policy. What they do show, however, is the thinking behind, and the input that goes into, the possible formulation of foreign policy and stance.
Serious concerns, it should be remembered, have been raised even by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The US cable of 10/23/2003 reveals that President Kumaratunga had requested Norway to remove SLMM’s chief Tryggve Teleffsen. The accusation – surrounding the issue of SLMM preventing the Navy from intercepting an LTTE arms resupply ship – had been that the SLMM had either being “deliberately trying to tip off the Tigers via a phone call so that their boat could escape” or was “acting in a highly negligent manner.” Teleffsen had admitted that “the matter had been badly handled.”
In what context does this take place? This happened after Anton Balasingham had revealed that the LTTE “suspended peace talks to get concessions”; a decision which, according to the US, “highlighted the tactical nature of the LTTE’s recent moves” (cable of 08/05/2003). It is this same LTTE’s ‘theoretician’ who “danced around the question of responsibility for Kadirgamar’s assassination (and disavowed any prior knowledge)”, as per the cable of 08/18/2005.
And while former US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead seems to have referred to Eric Solheim’s observation that “President Rajapaksa meant well and wanted peace but has a ‘shallow understanding’ of the ethnic issue”, the question needs to be asked: what sort of understanding did the Norway have about the LTTE and its long term goals? It does not come as a surprise then to learn that US Ambassador in Oslo, K. Whitney, had thought that: “Norwegians do not generally see any threats. For example, they do not see a danger from terrorism”, and that Norway “revels in its self-described role as the ‘moral superpower’…”
Even the demeanour of Norwegian diplomatic officials based in Colombo has been severely criticized, by Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole. Dr. Hoole stated before the LLRC (on 12 Nov., 2010) that he “felt treated like a mangy stray dog shut out at the palace gates”. This had happened when he approached the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo to complain about LTTE trying to scuttle his appointment as Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University. The officials “would not even open the gates to let me speak to anyone of substance”, recounts Dr. Hoole, further stating that he has, to date, never received a reply nor acknowledgment of the note he was asked to write and leave outside the gates of the Embassy.
All this and more suggests that any international investigation should start with a complete and thorough investigation of these Western powers which were unwilling to assess the LTTE, its tactics, its long term goals, with the kind of seriousness that responsible international actors would, and should, have done. Alas, such international investigations which try to hold these international actors accountable, however necessary, would not take place. That much, we all know. Thus, ‘International investigations’ which do not, inter alia, investigate the above cannot be acceptable.
Yet, should that history that has been further revealed by Wikileaks, a history which is behind us, hamper our relations with the West? Shouldn’t we move on, having realized the true nature of these actors? We should. And if moving on is difficult, let us revisit some of those very cables which were quoted above, and focus on some positives which might help us overcome, to some extent, the anger that is obviously generated due to the hypocrisy exhibited by these powers.
For example, one needs to appreciate the following: that “Norwegian society values dialogue above all … Norwegians are extremely opposed to the use of military force to achieve goals, no matter how laudable…” (as stated by Ambassador Whitney: but tell that, again, to Dr. Hoole!). Or else, one might need to focus on what Jan Petersen wrote to LTTE’s Anton Balagsinham, in a letter dated 16 August 2005, concerning the assassination of Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar: “[P]ublic perception both in Sri Lanka and internationally is that the LTTE is responsible. This public perception is a political reality… If the LTTE does not take a positive step forward at this critical juncture, the international reaction could be severe.” Well, the LTTE did not. And one knows the kind of domestic reaction and response that the terrorist group had to confront, a few years later.
Attaching the label ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ does not help us over much. For that, we would in any case need more information about what other envoys in Sri Lanka are informing their respective political masters. Friends too have their ulterior motives, and a ‘friend’ that has supported our fight against terrorism will turn out to be an ‘enemy’ if it now wishes to carry out policies which are not in the best interest of the country. Identity, like anything else, is in constant flux. Hence, while not forgetting what these powers are and how they acted and what they are capable of, it is time to move on.
Yet, there is one final matter. While rejecting the calls for an international investigation, Sri Lanka should not, however, reject the importance of holding necessary domestic investigations and inquiries. The issue of human security is paramount, and kidnappings, killings and abductions of innocent Tamil citizens should be investigated by the State, as it should be the case as regards any other citizen belonging to any other ethnic group. ‘NO’ to an international investigation should not mean ‘NO’ to domestic investigations and inquiries concerning allegations raised by people within the State.
Those who may have been harmed during the conflict, or those who are reportedly being abducted or killed today, are citizens of Sri Lanka. If the Government of Sri Lanka cannot protect them, who will? And in this regard, the government does not need to turn to the reports compiled by those international organizations which are unwilling to appear before the LLRC. The government only needs to listen to the voices of the innocent and helpless people, in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country in particular. Sri Lanka has nothing to lose by addressing those enduring concerns of security raised by her own people. Sri Lanka will have the hearts of people – in short, ‘a world’ – to win.