UNHRC report is a failure for lobbyists – We need a new strategy to build the struggle

Both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil lobby groups are claiming “victory” following the publication of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report on 16/09/2015. But in fact it’s a victory only for the powerful interests in the west and it is a major defeat for the lobbyists.

The UNHRC’s detailed report describes the gross violations of human rights that took place between 2001 and 2009 in particular( OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL)). But those who follow Sri Lankan politics closely would know that none of what the UN has said so far is new. Report after report has been published since the horrendous end to the war in 2009 unearthing evidence. The role that the UN, the Red Cross and western government officials played during the last phase of the war has not been investigated properly nor is it comprehensively dealt with in the report. There is no real admission of the gross failure by the UN – which it stands accused of by none other than the UN staff who worked in Sri Lanka at the time. Some of them have now resigned, frustrated that their criticism was ignored.

The US, the UN and other western governments took more than five years to openly accept the horror that took place. Even if you consider this as a positive step forward, major disappointment awaits you in the report’s conclusions and recommendations.

The lobbyists argued for – and promised they are campaigning for to the wider masses – taking the old regime to court, something like the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They hoped for nothing short of an inquiry like what Slobodan Milosevic and his co-criminals have faced. The atrocities committed in Sri Lanka are no less. The hope was that from the family of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and key military commanders to other personnel linked to the government, those involved in the government and military tops at the time of massacre would be punished. The lobbyists hoped that the UN and western governments would use their ‘muscle’ to force the Sri Lankan government to stand trial and eventually punish them. This, they hoped, would pave the way for a separate nation of Tamils just like Kosovo.

But it is now clear the limited extent to which the UN and the West are prepared to go. Change of government in Sri Lanka has enabled the West to re-route the Sri Lankan government in the interests of Western based corporations and trading powers, strengthening their position in Indian Ocean. A Wall Street Journal comment, for example, states that these “electoral outcomes give Sri Lanka a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reform and renewal.” This WSJ comment by writer Razeen Sally reveals the aims of the western capitalist interests.

“The forces that united to defeat Mr. Rajapaksa had no consensus on market reforms. Ahead of the Parliamentary election, Mr. Wickremesinghe campaigned for market reforms under the label of a ‘social market economy.’ Now he has a mandate for those reforms – not a decisive one, but a mandate nonetheless.
“Sri Lanka needs a fundamental shift to the market and globalization to ensure sustained growth and prosperity. Pro-market reforms are imperative to attain important noneconomic objectives as well.”

This is seen as a once in a generation opportunity that Western powers are determined to utilise – and indications are that it intends to put the current government under pressure to cooporate with them. Then, together with the UNP, further neoliberal economic policies will be established inside Sri Lanka. We can soon expect to see the IMF, the World Bank and the EU being willing to lend to the Sri Lankan government to meet this aim.
The report dovetails with this strategy. While threatening the Sri Lankan government with future sanctions if they fail to comply with the Western powers’ demands, it effectively lets the Sri Lankan state off the hook with no serious investigation being imposed. The UN limits its role in Sri Lanka to ‘monitoring’, ‘supervising’, ‘advising’ and providing ‘technical assistance’. It recommends Sri Lanka to improve its judicial practices, ie maintaining the details of detainees properly; carrying out proper procedure for prosecuting crimes; and informing and educating the military personnel about respecting local and international laws that they need to comply with, etc. In fact, most of the report’s suggestions sound like advice on how to apply a smooth finish to a cover-up not a serious approach to the massacre of tens of thousands of lives. Bringing everything under control is vital so that no more noises are made about it. After all, the aim is to “convince a very sceptical audience”.

The welcome part of the report is the call to review the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the call for the return of the private lands of Tamils that have been occupied by the military. However, the military and the current government would claim that this process is already underway and the only land they occupy is common land or government owned. Instead the Tamils are demanding the return of all land and the closing down of all the military camps which mushroomed in the last phase of the war and after the war.

In terms of an actual inquiry, the report asks the Sri Lankan government to establish “hybrid special courts”. The term ‘hybrid’ provides a propaganda opportunity for the so-called ‘moderate’ forces such as the leaders of TNA. One such leader, Sumanthiran, wants to support an ‘internal’ investigating mechanism without antagonising the diaspora population who demanded an ‘international’ mechanism as they correctly do not trust the Sri Lankan government to deliver justice. A hybrid court will, apparently, integrate “international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators” supposedly to give “confidence” to the population.

The bogus nature of this proposal is further revealed when you investigate the model that been recommended – a South African style ‘truth and reconciliation commission’. The idea behind it is this. Engage the so-called leaders of both parties (ie the TNA and the Sri Lankan government), then make sure that ‘justice is delivered’ by prosecuting those who are expendable (this can include a few high profile names). But comprehensive justice would mean prosecuting also the members of the old regime who are part of the current government. It will involve Sarath Fonseka and the current president – and similarly high profile names in the government and military. It will involve the role of the UN and the Red Cross. Nothing of that sort is likely to take place.

What took place in South Africa did not deliver justice. It was designed to hoodwink the majority poor black population into believing that somehow they had won. Not only did they let off the hook the racists who were behind the maintenance of the brutal apartheid regime, but this mechanism also delivered no justice to those who suffered under apartheid for decades. The newly minted ‘black elite’ provided their services to the imperialist interests and filled their pockets by doing so. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former mine workers leader, is one such individual who is on his way to becoming a billionaire and likely to play a key role in delivering ‘justice’ in Sri Lanka too! In delivering this model of ‘justice’ they maintained inequality, misery and repression for the vast majority of the population. South Africa today remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. The massacre committed by the ‘black’ dominated police forces in the mines of Marikana graphically unearthed the bogus nature of the South African model of justice.

We can already see some of the TNA leaders lining up to play Cyril Ramaphosa’s role. Sumanthiran claimed that the international investigation is finished and wants the west to come to Sri Lanka to deliver it. The TNA’s leader and leader of the opposition in parliament Mr Sampanthan said the Sri Lankan government is “adopting the correct position” and the “International inputs may become inevitable”. In a way they have already accepted what the government is willing to offer.

The leaders of the diaspora organisations are no different. The discussion contributed by the so-called All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT) in the UK parliament on the day before the official publication of the report on 15/09/2015 is a revelation. Remember the aliens lining up for the invasion in the movie Independence Day? That was the atmosphere.

Hugo Swire, a right-wing Tory MP, claimed “Tamils are fantastic businessmen”. He has voted for war and all sorts of right-wing policies and famously claimed expenses of £349 for a satellite navigation system to “cover the 176.25 square miles of his constituency”! He said “I appreciate why many in the Tamil community have called for a purely international accountability mechanism, but we have been clear for a long time that a credible domestic mechanism that meets international standards is the best way to build a stronger, more inclusive and prosperous society.”

Others also claimed that the “trade and investment” will bring the country together. They talked about developing Jaffna airport and helping India to build a bridge over the “gap” between these countries. Some somewhat imprudent Conservative MPs referred to the success of the Northern Ireland peace process at this crucial time when the First Minister has resigned and everything hangs on a tiny thread. Of course they defended the role of the British Empire in Northern Ireland! That’s a story for another day. They all used the opportunity to level their attack against the LTTE as well. In short they are all defended the improvements that are made in Sri Lanka and arrived at the conclusions that the ‘Flying Fox’ (arch right-winger Liam Fox) has been arguing since day one – for “constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan government”.

There is no outcry whatsoever from the Tamil lobbyists. Instead Sumanthiran appealed to the Tory government to engage constructively in the hybrid court. Outrageously the Tamil Guardian, which has become a voice for the right-wing Tamil elite of late, wrote a headline: “UK must lead in seeking accountability in Sri Lanka.”

Diaspora leaders must admit defeat. Over the last five years they have demobilised the masses who demanded justice with this false promise of an ‘international inquiry’ that could be achieved through their lobbying alone. So far they have justified their alliance and cosy meetings with right-wing governments and forces – most of these right wingers have been supporting the policy of punishing the oppressed masses either in the UK or outside. This process only led to temporarily strengthening the right wing inside the diaspora leadership by effectively side-lining reasonable voices that existed prior to 2009.

It was the mass mobilisation in 2009 that led to the emergence of a political voice for Tamils in Britain and elsewhere. No one can deny this fact. It was this that gave strength to all organisations. Now quite incredibly the APPGT, with which the BTF and GTF work closely, claims that the UN report “only came about because the UK and other members of the UNHRC demanded” it. What an arrogant and hypocritical claim by those who kept total silence throughout the massacre, ignoring completely the 150,000 who marched on the streets of London. The British government continued its military assistance to the Sri Lankan government throughout the war.

The victims of war and the oppressed Tamil masses are not seeking revenge. At the same time they will not be satisfied with this bogus ‘theatre’ which is only designed to help towards the creation of a Tamil elite who will in turn control the anger and antagonism of Tamils. The neoliberal offensive which will parallel the theatre of so-called ‘hybrid courts’ will impact on all the population. It will increase poverty among the Sinhala masses and create insecurity and fear. This in turn will only feed the development of Sinhala chauvinism. Such short-term myopia will intensify the conflict and antagonism between the Tamil and Sinhala population, rather than solving it. This is why the Tamil Solidarity campaign argues that any reconciliation must be linked to the solution of national aspirations and improvements of conditions for all. The remobilisation of the masses in a united non-sectarian way around demands that can address the needs of the working class, young people and the poor must start now. All the progressive sections in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka should come forward to contribute to it.