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The Atrocity Crimes We Can't Forget: Sri Lanka 2009

Launch by Gareth Evans* of Gordon Weiss, The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers  (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2012), NewYork, 17 October 2012

President Obama, in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April this year launching the new Atrocities Prevention Board – a hugely welcome whole-of-government mechanism designed to ensure that the US government is never again caught flat-footed in the face of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – recalled, as you would have expected him to, ‘the killings in Cambodia, the killings in Rwanda, the killings in Bosnia, the killings in Darfur’ as all of them shocking our conscience and demanding never to be repeated.

What he didn't mention was the killings in Sri Lanka in 2009, when certainly more than 10,000 and as many as 40,000 civilians died of shellfire, gunfire, and lack of medicine and food when caught up in the bloody endgame of the government’s war with the Tamil Tigers, squeezed between the advancing army and the last Tiger fighters into what Gordon Weiss calls ‘the cage’ – a tiny strip of land in the north-east of the country, between sea and lagoon, not much bigger than Central Park. It’s unquestionably one of the very worst atrocity stories to have occurred anywhere in the world this century – and it’s told as lucidly and compellingly as it ever could be in this admirable book.  But somehow it just hasn't registered in the world’s collective conscience in the same way as the other horror stories on President Obama’s list. 

The most obvious reason for that is that the Sri Lankan government has so far largely succeeded in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative: that what occurred was the long overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection threatening the country’s very existence – a narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of 9/11. The government claimed throughout, and still does, that it maintained a Zero Civilian Casualties policy, that no heavy artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateral or cross-fire injury to civilians was minimal, and that it fully respected throughout international law, including in its treatment of captured prisoners.

It is the great virtue of this book that it picks apart that narrative, meticulously and systematically so as to make it clear that the government failed utterly in its responsibility to protect its own citizens, and that ‘it was the SLA that wrought the bulk of deaths upon the captive population’. But the writing is scrupulously even-handed. Anyone who might think this book is an apologia for Prabhakaran and the LTTE should read Chapter 4, on the appalling carnage perpetrated by the movement, whatever the wrongs it was seeking to right – and maybe just this passage on p141, describing their behaviour during those last terrible months:

  …the Tamil Tigers were indeed  exercising a brand of  ruthless terror on their own people that defies imagination. As the combat area shrank and their desperation increased, their brutality increased exponentially. They would shoot, execute and beat to death many hundreds of people, ensure the deaths of thousands of teenagers by press-ganging them into the front-lines and kill those children and their parents who resisted.

But none of this can excuse what happened on the other side, as  Gordon Weiss makes clear, citing an abundance of wholly credible evidence, not least the graphic eye-witness account in Chapter 5 of the highly experience UN officer, Ret Col Harun Khan, leading a convoy trapped at the edge of a so-called No Fire Zone in January 2009, which cut through for the first time what had been until then, as the author puts it, ‘shrouded in a blanket of propaganda and censorship’, with no international officials, NGOs or media allowed to go anywhere near the military action; Khan’s description of the indiscriminate shelling from the government side and its horrifying aftermath makes deeply harrowing reading.

One of the most distressing aspects of the story is that how little of this kind of information got into international circulation at the time, when it needed to. A big part of the problem was the timidity of the relevant senior UN officials, with the honourable exception of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and to some extent the Secretary General himself, who at least tried on multiple occasions – albeit only through quiet diplomacy, which proved manifestly ineffectual – to get President Rajapaksa to commit to restraint.

Partly because they wanted to keep humanitarian assistance lines open, partly because they knew that the government had very wide member state support in New York and the Tamil Tigers none at all, and partly because they were bullied into submission by Sri Lankan officials – lacking the confidence or experience on the ground to stand up to them – key officials on the ground just did not state publicly, or even put effectively into the internal UN system, such information as they had about the nature and scale of misbehavior on the government side.

Very specific cumulative estimates of casualties were compiled by a UN team in Colombo from early February on, based on regular radiophone contact with a handful of reliable sources still in the area, NGO, medical and local UN Tamil staff, which would have given solid chapter and verse to back up the growing concern about an impending catastrophe. But an institutional decision was taken not to use this information on the basis that it could not be ‘verified’, and the UN simply refrained at any level from, as Gordon puts it, ‘wielding its moral authority to publicly denounce the tabulated killing of civilians’ (p 145)

But, as he says, ‘if not the UN, then who?’ He quotes (p145) my successor as head of the International Crisis Group, Louise Arbour, on the evidentiary question:’…the standard should be reasonably credible information, or reasonable grounds to believe…It’s not unreasonable to speculate because you don't have access…you cannot let the desire to maintain humanitarian access trump any other consideration’.

One answer to all of this, with which I – and I think the author – have some sympathy, is that ultimately (and especially on peace and security issues) the UN is no more and no less than its member states, that if those states have taken a position making clear they don't want to act (as they essentially did here because of their characterization of the situation as a legitimate sovereign state response to terrorism) they can’t be made to, and officials cannot be held to a higher standard than those whom they serve. As Richard Holbrooke once put it, ‘Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.’ 

And yet. As the Brahimi panel put it, it is the responsibility of the UN Secretariat to tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear. And maybe, as more and more evidence emerges of the scale of the international community’s default in Sri Lanka, that message is at last getting through.

The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts to advise him on how best to ensure accountability of the government and LTTE for alleged violations told him last year that UN action in Sri Lanka had been a low point for the organization, which led him to establish a further ‘Internal Review Panel on UN Action in Sri Lanka’, headed by Charles Petrie, which is due to report this month. The indications are that this report will be quite hard-hitting: one only hopes that if it is, its recommendations will see the public light of day, and be taken seriously.

But of course, of all the searchlights that now need to shine, none is more important than that focused on the Sri Lankan government itself.  With the LTTE leadership all now dead, it is on the failure of the Rajapaksa government to accept its own responsibility, and be made accountable, that international attention should now be overwhelmingly focused.  For far too long the government has simply been totally evading that responsibility, with an endless stream of diversionary manoeuvres (usually involving committees of enquiry intended to go nowhere, and duly complying), denials of physical access, outright dissimulation, and relentless verbal bullying of anyone daring to question it.  

I have had direct personal experience of most of these tactics, especially the last, in my previous incarnation as President of the International Crisis Group, most memorably in the context of a speech I gave in Colombo in 2007 on the subject of the responsibility to protect, and its implications for the then rapidly deterioriating situation between the government and LTTE, which was quite pointed but deliberately non-confrontational in its observations.  This prompted a drumbeat of verbal assaults on me from senior government and national media figures which continued for months afterward, which I can only describe as the most crude and shameless I have ever experienced – which I guess as a member of the Australian Parliament for 21 years is really saying something.

The good news is that with the passage of time the pressure on the Sri Lankan government for genuine, not sham, accountability is now growing, not diminishing, and coming at the government from a number of different directions. The report of the Secretary General’s Panel in 2011, which I have already mentioned, and was published just after this book went to press, was itself a strong indictment of the Colombo government’s callous irresponsibility in the conduct of its final military operation against the LTTE.  The US Congress has maintained an intense interest in the issue, with members putting continued pressure on the Secretary of State to monitor progress on reconciliation and accountability.

But the most significant move may be that taken by the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year when, manifestly dissatisfied by the governments initial effort to divert criticism with its ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) report,  resolved that Sri Lanka ‘address alleged violations of international law’ and prepare a ‘comprehensive action plan detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations’ of its own Commission – with the government’s response due to be considered by the Council in March 2013.

That deadline – and focal point – has has also promoted a flurry of other international activity including, perhaps most interestingly, the recent establishment of an Australian-based evidence-gathering project aimed at preparing a fully professional-standard brief of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity which could ultimately support formal international prosecutions, but is proposed in the first instance to be tabled at the Geneva Human Rights Council meeting next year to inform the debate there. This International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP), with which Gordon Weiss is closely involved as a founding adviser, is liaising with other NGOs around the world working on this issue, and is rapidly establishing itself as the central repository for Sri Lankan war crimes evidence

So the issue of the 2009 Sri Lankan atrocity crimes is not going to go away, and nor must it ever be allowed to. A country with so rich a history and culture and so many decent people deserves much more than to be, as Gordon says in his devastating final line, ‘a society sliding into tyranny where myth-making, identity whitewashing and political opportunism have defeated justice and individual dignity’.  

There are now quite a few publications which have contributed in their various ways to keeping these issues alive, to putting pressure on Sri Lanka to become again the decent country it deserves to be, and to making clear just how badly the international community failed in its responsibilities three years ago.  But none has been as important, or as influential already, as this book, whose US edition we launch today. I congratulate the author and the publishers, and everyone associated with its appearance and distribution, and hope that it gets in this country the audience it so manifestly deserves.


*Gareth Evans, now Chancellor of The Australian National University, was Foreign Minister of Australia 1998-96 and President of the International Crisis Group 2000-09. He co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001), co-chairs the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 2009)