Lady Justice

Sri Lanka: Peace and Justice for the Tamils

January 27, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

“Peace is not the absence of war”, Martin Luther King told us: “it is the presence of justice”. King’s legacy transmitted itself directly into the mantra of African American activists, outraged over the beating, by LA police officers, of the black motorist, Rodney King, in 1991: “No justice, no peace”, they chanted. It’s an important answer to a familiar question: what is peace? Of course, another, equally tricky question nestles within it, like matryoshka dolls: what is justice?

A Reverend Mpbambami told the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission a story about two friends, Peter, and John, who fell out when Peter stole John’s bicycle. Later, Peter said to John: “Let’s talk about reconciliation”. John’s reply resonates still: “We cannot talk about reconciliation until my bicycle is back”.

It so happens that providing bicycles is the aim of a significant ‘people-to-people’ aid effort, now underway here in Sydney, to bring relief to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, where they are used for the simple but vital job of transporting fish to market; but in Peter and John’s story, the machine is more important for its symbolic value, of course. It captures the sense of restitution that is a precursor to the willingness to live in peace.

In the Sri Lankan case, an unofficial court, set up in Dublin and conducted by the Milan-based Permanent People’s Tribunal, has just delivered its verdict: the Sri Lanka Government is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal also concluded that the charge of genocide warrants further investigations. Eyewitnesses included several escapees from the final week of the Sri Lankan offensive in the Mullaitivu ‘No Fire Zone’, at the end of the civil war in May last year, where more than 20,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly slaughtered by Sri Lanka Army (SLA) using heavy weapons on them.

This chimes not only with evidence provided by outsiders, but also allegations that have been exchanged between candidates in the Sri Lankan election, due to be held shortly. A top aide to President Mahinda Rajapakse disclosed recently that Colombo ordered a halt to the use of heavy weapons only in April, two months after a UN envoy was promised that such armaments would not be used.

Former foreign minister and key opposition leader Mangala Samaraweera seized on the disclosure by the aide, Lalith Weeratunga, who said the use of heavy weapons was eventually stopped as part of a political deal with the Indian government.

The disclosure “indicates that despite claims to the contrary, both to the public of this country and to (the) UN… in February 2009, in fact the government had sanctioned the use of heavy weapons until April, when the Indian general election was in full swing,” Samaraweera said in a statement.

Even the man in charge of last year’s offensive, General Sareth Fonseka, who is now challenging Rajapaksa for the presidency, said the orders to execute surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders in the final days of the war had come directly from the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s powerful brother. The general later claimed to have mis-spoken, but, in the words of Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, “it is difficult to imagine what he meant to say instead”.

At the time, as HRW raised the alarm over the abuses being meted out to civilians, it was denounced, by the Sri Lankan government and its supporters overseas, as biased. Amnesty International was biased. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the South African judge, Navi Pillay, had it all wrong. Foreign journalists were being duped. And so on.

At our public event called at the University of Sydney last August, to discuss Sri Lanka’s ongoing human rights emergency, we played a report by the UK’s Channel Four News, featuring a video smuggled out of the country in which stripped Tamil prisoners appear to be shot dead in cold blood by Sri Lankan soldiers. This footage, captured by a mobile phone, was labelled a fake, with government supporters producing elaborate calculations purportedly showing that the gap between the audio of gunshots, and them apparently hitting the prisoners, did not correspond with the laws of physics.

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, made the obvious point: there is no feasible way to simulate the response of the body to the impact of a bullet, shown clearly in the footage. It must be genuine. It’s a welcome and, it must be said, overdue sign of resolve from the UN. The valuable Inner City Press revealed recently that Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had taken no action, in response to the unfolding evidence of war crimes, since last September, when he accepted Sri Lankan assurances that they would be the subject of a full inquiry. Like the earlier assurance that heavy weapons would no longer be used, that has turned out to be predictably worthless.

So, there are growing calls for specific allegations against members of the Sri Lankan government to be properly investigated, with a view to preferring charges in a court that actually has power of action, not merely of iteration; and that is, to be sure, one component of justice. But it is not the only one.

The eminent peace researcher and field worker, John Paul Lederach, defines justice as: “the pursuit of restoration, of rectifying wrongs, of creating right relationships based on equity and fairness. Pursuing justice involves advocacy for those harmed, for open acknowledgement of the wrongs committed, and for making things right”. That is not to say that justice must entail punishment, since that seldom results in restitution or reconciliation. The challenge, according to Lederach, is “to pursue justice in ways that respect people, and (at the same time) to achieve restoration of relationships based on recognizing and amending injustices”.

The crucial point is that new sets of arrangements, new structures and new processes must be created to make things right, if people who have suffered injustice are to be able to feel a decisive break with the past. What Lederach calls a “justice gap” arises when people see no prospect of bringing about changes to process and structure other than by attempting the violent overthrow of the existing ones. If violence is to be avoided, then effective non-violent means must be contrived, to accomplish the same goals, or something reasonably close to them. A similar sense is captured in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its call on “every individual and every organ of society” to uphold them, lest people “be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression”.

It’s political justice, then, that the Tamils of Sri Lanka really need: an opportunity to create new structures and processes of their own, as the only means to safeguard their human rights. “Tyranny and oppression” are an accurate description of their treatment down the years: unless internationals help to them to attain political means of achieving justice, they will be partly to blame for any renewed upsurge of “rebellion”.

In this respect, Australia, in particular, must now shift its stance, and start doing its bit. The European Union is withholding trade concessions – vital to Sri Lanka’s textiles industry – over human rights abuses, and the International Monetary Fund delayed part of a major loans package. The IMF does not formally build in human rights conditionality but, at the meeting of its Executive Board to approve the package, the US and UK took the unusual step of announcing that they had abstained in protest. Australia, of course, voted in favour. The initial call for an independent, international investigation into war crimes allegations was originally made by Judge Pillay last May: unlike many other countries, Australia has never endorsed it.

Tamil representatives were told last year by officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that Australia’s policy was for a unitary Sri Lanka: an unhelpful attempt to second-guess the outcome of any eventual negotiations over the Tamils’ right to self-determination. This, indeed, is typical of the lopsidedness in the international response to the conflict over recent years, accentuated by applying the orthodoxy of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’: an approach that the Sri Lankans then instrumentalised to justify any and all depredations in pursuit of their military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Perhaps the best thing to do with any investigation into war crimes allegations is to produce criminal charges against a few ‘symbolic’ individuals, which can then be treated as a commodity ‘tradeable’ for real moves towards political justice. This principle applied in South Africa: those accused of complicity in abduction, torture and even murder could avoid arraignment if they were prepared to come to the TRC, show contrition and supply information as to the fate of the many who – as in Sri Lanka – simply ‘disappeared’. It worked, up to a point at least, because it was in the context of a decisive shift in political structures and processes.

More recently, the International Crisis Group recommended holding indictments from the International Criminal Court over the heads of members of the Sudanese government, so the only way they could get out from under them was to agree a meaningful political settlement for Darfur. So, it’s the kind of ‘linkage’ that is not unprecedented in such matters.

In a crowning irony, the Tamils have turned out to be the crucial ‘swing’ constituency in the presidential election, with rival candidates vying to promise them a better deal in Sri Lanka’s existing political system. At the same time, there is no satisfactory access for internationals to political detainees – the thousands of alleged rebels who are being held as prisoners of war – and an ongoing clampdown on free expression that has seen journalists and NGO workers intimidated, abducted, tortured and, in some cases, killed.

The progress that has come about – freeing hundreds of thousands of Tamils illegally detained, for months after the end of the war, in squalid internment camps – is attributable to international pressure. It’s time for Australia to join in the effort to exert it. Justice demands nothing less.

Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and co-convener of its Sri Lanka Human Rights Project. Jake Lynch is Adviser to the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice.