By Ajai Sahni
If such an outcome were to be secured in Iraq or Afghanistan or, now, even in Pakistan, it would be embraced by the West as an unadulterated and righteous triumph. In Sri Lanka, however, it appears to have provoked, across much of Europe and among the most prominent international agencies – including the United Nations (UN) – a seething and barely concealed outrage… There is a sense, not of a dreaded terrorist organisation having been defeated and destroyed, but of collaborators, comrades, fellows at arms, lost to the enemy. – SAIR, Volume 7, No. 46, May 25, 2009
Through history, few countries in the world have had to endure a terrorist movement as protracted, vicious and intense as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) campaigns, which lasted over thirty three years and killed, on some estimates, up to 80,000 people, in a tiny country with a present population of under 21 million.
Few countries in the world have secured as clear and demonstrable victory over terrorism as has Sri Lanka, even where extraordinary and indiscriminate violence has been inflicted on large populations, as, for instance, in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where civilian settlements have been repeatedly targeted, and ‘collateral damage’ often overruns any rational proportion to legitimate targets.
And few countries in the world have restored normalcy with the speed and to the extent that Sri Lanka has in under three years. There has not been a single terrorism related fatality in the country since October 3, 2009, to the present, bringing peace to a people who had forgotten its contours over decades. Of the estimated 290,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), resulting from the final phase of the conflict, just 6,647 (roughly 2.3 per cent) had been left to return to their places of origin by the end of 2011. On March 15, 2012, Economic Development Minister Yapa Abeywardana claimed that over 99 per cent of the IDPs had been resettled. More significantly, of the 11,700 LTTE cadres who had surrendered, 10,490 had been freed and reunited with their families, after the completion of their rehabilitation process, as on March 29, 2012. The last remaining group of ex-LTTE cadres is scheduled for release by mid-2012, after completion of a mandatory 12-month rehabilitation and retraining process. The war ravaged North and East have also seen dramatic developmental transformations, with massive infrastructure and rehabilitation investments catalysing a 22 per cent rate of growth for the region, according to official claims, as against eight per cent for the entire country.
Crucially, a remarkable resurrection of democratic processes and structures has been secured across the country, with General, Presidential, Provincial and local body elections conducted across the country.
At the height of the final phase of the counter-terrorism campaign in the North, which eventually brought the LTTE terror to an end in May 2009, Norway and other European interlocutors had repeatedly used the threat of initiative processes for ‘war crimes’ and ‘human rights violations’ against the Sri Lankan state, to force the Colombo to end its increasingly successful operations against the LTTE, even as Velupillai Prabhakaran, the then LTTE Chief, and the besieged terrorist cadres surrounded themselves with a human shield of civilians to thwart Security Force (SF) operations. As President Mahinda Rajapakse declared unambiguously on May 22, 2009, “There are some who tried to stop our military campaign by threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals. They are still trying to do that, but I am not afraid.” This group of minor and frustrated European powers have now roped in the US to push an agenda that they failed to impose through a perverse ‘peace process’, which kept a virulent terrorist movement alive for years, with increasing international sanction and legitimacy.
This is the essence of the gratuitous resolution passed by United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 22, 2012, by a vote of 24 in favour, 15 against and eight abstentions. Crucially and disgracefully, at the last moment, India chose to cast its vote in support of a hypocritical, divisive and essentially unproductive resolution that demanded, among other things, that Sri Lanka “present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take” to implement “the constructive recommendations in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC).
It is significant that India had dithered almost to the last moment on its vote, and eventually decided to go with the US sponsored resolution because of domestic political considerations – increasing pressures from the United Progressive Alliance Government’s ally, the Tamil Nadu regional party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). This has been duly noted by the leadership in Colombo, with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, observing,
The most distressing feature of this experience is the obvious reality that voting at the Human Rights Council is now determined not by the merits of a particular issue but by strategic alliances and domestic political issues in other countries which have nothing to do with the subject matter of a Resolution or the best interests of the country to which the Resolution relates. This is a cynical negation of the purposes for which the Human Rights Council was established.
Peiris’ obvious reference was to the UPA’s conundrum with political allies in the State of Tamil Nadu. As usual, and despite its vote against Sri Lanka, New Delhi continued in its efforts to straddle two boats at once, seeking credit for ‘diluting’ the content of the draft resolution to make it ‘non-intrusive’, even as the official spin, thereafter, has sought to justify the decision to vote in favour of the resolution on the grounds that the process for devolution of power was “not moving forward” in Sri Lanka. One unnamed ‘official source’ stated in the media, “Many promises were made (by Sri Lanka) but very little has been done. The rehabilitation process has proceeded well, in fact better than in countries like Cambodia but the political process is not happening. The devolution (of power) is not moving forward.”
This, then, appears to be the crux of India’s official justification for its feckless vote: that Colombo has failed to implement a formula for devolution of power in the North and East which would be acceptable to all Tamil groupings in the country (and their sympathisers in India). But adopting the political objective – devolution of power – of one ethnic grouping as the minimum definition of ‘resolution’ of the conflict in Sri Lanka is both arbitrary and absurd. The issue of devolution of power is a purely domestic political issue and, whatever their divergent preferences, no other country or international institution has any business telling the Sri Lankans how they should govern themselves, or what shape they must give to their Constitution. Certainly not India, which has numberless difficulties in accommodating the aspirations of its own many ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional minorities, and which has dealt with utter inhumanity with the millions who have been displaced by predatory development processes initiated and supported by the state, as well as with IDPs from a multiplicity of conflicts in different regions, where significant populations remain, often in utter destitution, in primitive ‘relief camps’, at least in some cases, decades after the proclaimed end of a conflict. New Delhi, in any event, has no more business interfering in domestic arrangements for devolution of power in Sri Lanka, than Colombo has intervening in fractious Centre-State relations in India.
The US has as little reason or legitimacy to intervene in this particular case. As one commentator has rightly noted,
US war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Vietnam, are of more grievous nature. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed after the American invasion of Iraq, vary from 66,081 (according to WikiLeaks cables) and 601,000 (according to an international study). In Afghanistan, the number of civilian deaths caused by US military actions is estimated to be between 9,415 and 29,007. All this is apart from documented instances of torture of Iraqis and Afghans in the custody of British and American forces. The estimates of Libyan civilians killed in the Anglo-French bombing of their country have not yet been published. During Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed. These included 27,639 LTTE cadre, 23,327 Sri Lankan soldiers and 1,155 Indian soldiers.
For the US, however, events in this little Island nation, thousands of miles from its own mainland, have little domestic or strategic resonance, and Washington’s sponsorship of the resolution can simply be attributed to a little horse trading and politically correct posturing with European friends and allies. For India, however, this decision could be potentially devastating. New Delhi has sought to pretend that its support to the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka would have no enduring impact on relations between the two countries, but given recent history, such a position is nothing less than wishful. Indeed, over the past years, India appears to have done everything possible to push Colombo into Beijing’s stifling embrace. Over the decades, moreover, Colombo has forgiven New Delhi many specific wrongs, including India’s support to various armed anti-state Tamil formations – including the LTTE – in the early phases of terrorism in Sri Lanka. Yet, Sri Lanka remains one of the only countries in the world where an Indian is received with exceptional warmth and affection.
Significantly, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Peiris had noted, in the immediate aftermath of the UNHRC vote, “Many countries which voted with Sri Lanka were acutely conscious of the danger of setting a precedent which enables ad hoc intervention by powerful countries in the internal affairs of other nations.”The reality is that issues at this and other international fora are subject to unprincipled lobbying, opportunistic horse trading and irresponsible posturing, and not to considered adjudication or informed evaluation.
The irony of the situation was quickly brought to New Delhi’s attention, as, within days of the Sri Lanka resolution, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns, released a report, on March 30, 2012, with sweeping and ill-informed judgements on the situation in India, and a call for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) on the grounds that, among others, that, “This law was described to be as hated by some of the people I spoke to, and a member of a state human rights commission called it draconian.” Heynes argued, further, “The repeal of this law will not only bring domestic law more in line with international standards, but also send out a powerful message that instead of a military approach, the government is committed to respect for the right to life of all people in the country under a ordinary law and order and human rights dispensation.” The report appears remarkable in its ignorance of the actual content and provisions of the AFSPA, of the jurisprudence on the subject, and on the actual character and content of human rights violations in Indian theatres of conflict. Nevertheless, the conclusions and recommendations of the report are expected to be put up to the UNHRC at a future session some time in 2013, and will, eventually, also be put to vote. It will be interesting to see what species of horse trading defines the outcome of this process, and whether Colombo will chose to forgive India’s present betrayal, or exact vengeance at that time.
Eventually, of course, India’s support to the anti-Sri Lanka resolution belongs in the same dustbin of history to which the resolution itself will eventually be consigned, as will the Rapporteur’s statement on AFSPA. There are, of course, certain issues that New Delhi needs to take up with Colombo, and at least some of these relate to domestic compulsions in both India and Sri Lanka, as well as to the rights and status of particular ethnic or minority groupings. New Delhi needs to remember, however, that the extraordinary rehabilitation and normalization processes in Sri Lanka’s North and East were the result, not of international or Indian pressure, but of Colombo’s own political intent and will. India would do well to remember, moreover, that nations that proclaim a true friendship – and not the diplomatic dodge of ‘friendly relations’ – best resolve their differences in private, and not through theatrical and empty posturing at international fora. A fairly corrupt, brutalized and predatory Indian state would also do best to refrain from preaching morality to others till it has set and met at least minimal standards of governance and morality in its own sphere of control. Only a policy based on these realizations can repair the damage done by the ill-conceived vote at the UNHRC.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & SATP