In January 2010, a Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka was conducted in Ireland by Milan based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT), an independent international body, which derives its legacy from Russell-Satre Tribunal on Vietnam. The international hearing, now widely known as ‘Dublin Tribunal’, was the first international attempt made to look into the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the war in Sri Lanka.
The prime mover behind the ‘Dublin Tribunal’ was Dr. Jude Lal Fernando, a Sinhalese academic and social activist, who coordinates the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka.
He is a Research Fellow & Lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Ireland’s only cross-border post-graduate institute affiliated with Trinity College in Dublin. His M.Phil. thesis – ‘A Paradigm for a Peace Movement: Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr’ – received the James Haire Prize for best dissertation in 2004-2005, while his doctoral research on ‘Dynamics of Essentialist Representations of Nationhood’ and the ‘Politics of Interpretation: The Role of Religion in the Making and the Unmaking of the Sri Lankan State’ as well as his post-doctoral research titled ‘A Comparative Analysis: Geo-Politics of Peace and Conflict in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland’ have gained wide acceptance.
“Instead of ‘reconciliation’ we should use the word justice” he said in a conversation with the JDS. “The reconciliation, as far as the Sri Lankan context is concerned, is a facade and a moralising discourse that justify a monolithic unitary state which helps to coverup its crimes. Therefore, the Dublin Tribunal dropped the word reconciliation in its recommendations and suggested a Truth and Justice Commission.”
Excerpts from the interview follow:
JDS: In January 2010, six months after the end of Sri Lanka’s war, you were instrumental in organizing the first war crimes tribunal in Dublin as an independent international initiative. Why, Dublin Tribunal?
Dr.Jude Lal Fernando: Contrary to the popular myth that exist among the Sinhalese that the Western powers aided the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it is very evident that it was the Sri Lankan government which was aided by these powers to carry out the ‘final solution’. Therefore, the silence of the international community led by the Western powers, especially in the last phase of the war, was not due to ignorance. Silence was a part of the well-coordinated and deliberate plan of action that is associated with the ‘military solution’. There is unbreakable evidence to prove that the UN, the Co-chairs of the donor group ( US, Japan, Norway and EU) knew that the massacre was taking place. India too knew it very well. So how can you expect an independent investigation of this massacre from the major powers or from the international organisations like the UN that are dominated by them?
When the entire international system is complicit in a mass atrocity it becomes a matter of moral conscience of humanity. It is not only the humanity of the Tamils that has been denied, but also the humanity of rest of us which has been suppressed by this complicity. We started the Dublin Tribunal not only to expose the culpability of the Sri Lankan government and the responsibility and complicity of the international community, but also to resist suppression of our own humanity. This is the fundamental rationale and moral behind the Tribunal.
The Tribunal was conducted by People’s Permanent Tribunal (PPT). The PPT is the successor to the Bertrand Russel – Sartre Tribunal which was established to investigate into the war crimes committed by the US during the Vietnam War. This internationalism, that went beyond the manipulation of big powers, was our moral high ground. The panel of judges did not represent any government. Some of them had resigned from their high profile posts in the UN due to war against Iraq. Some were closely associated with Latin American and Middle eastern Left. Ireland was chosen as the venue because of its legacy as a post-colonial nation and because of its reputed relative success of the peace process which established the parity of esteem between the two parties in conflict. In this sense this was truly an independent Tribunal.
JDS: Dublin Tribunal was the first in the line. But soon there were at least two other bodies appointed to look, more or less, into the same issues such as the UN appointed Panel of Experts and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). What makes Dublin Tribunal different?
JF: There is a fundamental difference between the UN Panel/LLRC and Dublin Tribunal. The first two do not investigate the role of the Sri Lanka state structure and the international complicity in protecting this state even to the extent of massacring thousands of people. More than anything, state structure itself has to be seen as the crust of the national question in Sri Lanka. How can LLRC which is appointed by the President who is also the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces investigate the actions of the same military forces let alone the state structure or international complicity? Even the LLRC mandate has nothing to do with investigating the crimes committed during the war. It was appointed simply to look into the 2002 peace process and to expose its’ ‘failures’. The aim was to crucify the leaders of the previous government of United National Party (UNP) for ‘compromising national security’ and ‘betraying sovereignty’ by entering into a ceasefire with the Tigers. The LLRC was set up in the first place not only to absolve the ‘mortal sins’ of the government, but also to justify the government’s so called legitimate right to wage war to protect the state from the threat posed by the Tamil national demands. In this sense, it was compelled to hold the LTTE more responsible than the government, even before they start the whole process. Therefore the final report of the LLRC reduces what happened in the last phase of the war to a minimum level of human right violations.
UN Panel report of course goes further than LLRC by exposing war crimes and crimes against humanity. But as it take the state structure as the holy of holies that should not be touched, it is fundamentally flawed in its approach. As a result of this approach it totally undermines the historical context of the conflict and the oppressive character of the Sri Lankan unitary state structure. It is revealing that the recently passed UN resolution on Sri Lanka has adopted not its own report, but LLRC’s. Internationally there is no political will even to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even if they investigate at one stage, it will be with the intention of changing the regime, but not to stress the necessity transformation of the state structure.
Dublin Tribunal does not have the above constraints that are imposed by the Sri Lankan government, its state and international powers. It finds the government guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and states that the case of genocide should be further investigated. The main focus of the investigation of the Dublin Tribunal was to examine the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil people. The Tribunal followed the principles of international humanitarian law which have been designed to protect the citizens from the state. It did not deny that the LTTE violated human rights, but held the state responsible for the crimes committed against the Tamil people under international law.
The Dublin Tribunal also adopted a historical perspective, especially within the recent historical context of the 2002 peace process and found the US led governments and the EU responsible for the destabilizing the 2002 peace process through destroying the parity of esteem, which gave a military/political high ground to the Sri Lankan government to go for an all out onslaught. Therefore the Dublin Tribunal is fundamentally different from LLRC and the UN Panel of Experts.
JDS: Did you invite the GoSL to express their position in defence of their actions? Were they given a fair and equal opportunity to tell their side of the story?
JF: The People’s Permanent Tribunal does not conduct any Tribunal without inviting all the parties concerned. The Sri Lankan government was officially invited to testify at the Tribunal. The invitation was sent to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London, Mr. Nihal Jayasinghe as he was the closet Sri Lankan government delegate to Ireland. They did not even acknowledge the invitation. Instead we heard over the media Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, who was then the secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, saying that the Tribunal is an enterprise of some isolated individual academics and it is a ‘kangaroo court’. Perhaps, he did not know that a mechanism called People’s Permanet Tribunal exist since early 1970s or he did not want to know. He also said, in a ridiculing manner, that ‘who would go to Dublin in the height of winter to attend a Tribunal’. These were the official responses we received from the government regarding an independent investigation.
However, we did not want to move ahead without government stand being represented at the Tribunal. We managed to contact some retired Indian military/navy officers who were defending the Sri Lankan government’s position publicly. One such officer R. S, Vasan, who is the head of the Strategic and Security Studies Centre in Chennai who also has been in the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka agreed to testify at the Tribunal defending the Sri Lankan government’s position. Therefore, the Tribunal has followed proper protocol. It had no problem in listening to the government’s version of the events.
JDS: Since the first Tribunal, almost two years have elapsed. Had there been any follow ups since then? What exactly the tribunal achieved?
JF: The Dublin Tribunal is not legally binding, but it is morally binding. Our intension was to raise the moral conscience of the public and thereby build a public opinion. On the night of the verdict of the Tribunal, 16 Jan, 2010 there were at least 90,000 google hits related to People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka. It was after the Tribunal that the UN Secretary decided to appoint the Panel of Expertise and gather evidence. This came as result of the public opinion that the Dublin Tribunal contributed to build. The UN took the issue up in order to contain the growing pressure coming on it from initiatives like the Dublin Tribunal and manipulate the process to suit the interests of the powers who are complicit in the massacres. Secondly, we held two follow-up events in Dublin where we screened in public some of the video footages that were shown to the panel of judges at the Tribunal. Some of these footages were also shown on Channal 4 later. In India, there has been large number of public meetings on the findings of the Tribunal. In fact one of the constructive criticisms coming from some Indian groups against the Tribunal was why India’s complicity was not sufficiently exposed at the Dublin Tribunal.
We do not want to claim that it is a verdict that covers all the nuances of the national question in Sri Lanka, but it covers the fundamentals. The process has not ended. We are moving on toward the next phase now to examine the case of genocide and also the case of the crime against peace. The genocidal war against the Tamils could not have been waged by the Sri Lankan government had not US/UK axis provided material conditions to do so.
JDS: One of the issues the Dublin Tribunal dealt with was the issue of international complicity? But generally, Sri Lanka’s conflict has been largely understood as an internal civil war governed by internal dynamics with deep rooted ethnic animosities. How do you justify the Tribunal’s approach?
JF: Many talk about the last phase of the war. This is the main focus of the international human rights associations. It has its validity because that is the climax of the bloodbath for the Tamil people. This bloodbath was a result of a ‘diplomatic dance’ – to quote Sir John Holmes words – which started since the beginning of the peace process. The 2002 Sri Lankan peace process came into effect not due to international pressure, but due to parity of military balance between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. It was this internally achieved balance of power which alarmed the major powers and made them to react. In less than 15 months time they destroyed the parity of esteem accorded to both parties by having one of the key meetings of the peace process in Washington from which the LTTE was kept out. I am a lecturer in international peace processes. Nowhere in the world such a thing has happened when a peace process is going on . One of the fundamental principles in peace mediation is the principle of ‘do no harm!’ This was blatantly violated.
Then comes the LTTE ban, which was imposed by the EU when UK was chairing the EU. This was done due to US pressure. These are only snap shots. But a very comprehensive analysis of all the events, statements and diplomatic moves of the Western powers that contributed to the breaking down of the peace process – as well as the economic, military and political aid given to the Sri Lankan government – have been done by the International Human Rights Association (IMRV) in Germany. This was presented as a testimony to the 11 member panel of the Tribunal. Of course this document was sent to the judges a month before the Tribunal. It is 164 pages long document aimed at properly contextualizing the Sri Lankan conflict. These were hard facts that cannot be disproved. Without such historical analysis, talking about human rights violations in Sri Lanka will become not only abstract but also project the conflict as an internal conflict so that those international actors who were complicit in crimes can appear as saviours of the victims.
JDS: Being a Sinhalese, how do you see post war Sri Lanka? Had there been any significant changes and progress in the aftermath of war, with respect to recognizing root causes and resolving problems?
JF: Let us be clear about one important thing first. In the strict sense of the word it’s not a post war situation. Instead, it is a war by other means. In addition to heavy militarisation we can see a massive structural change that is been carried out by the Sri Lankan government through acquisition of land, Sinhala settlements, building of military cantonments, acquiring key trade and commercial locations, changing name boards to all-Sinhala names, building of Sinhala Buddhist shrines, claiming ancient Tamil Buddhist sites as Sinhala Buddhist sites and so on and so on. This phase existed prior to the armed phase before the 1980s. It has now gone up to a maximum speed after the military defeat of the armed resistance of the Tamil movement. No attempt has been made to address the root causes of the conflict. What is happening is the consolidating of the unitary state structure and the Sinhala Buddhist ideology of re-conquest with the aim of cultural homogenisation of the Tamil region. It is an irony to see how in this process of ideological and military re-conquest of the Tamil region those Sinhalese who backed the same process are being silenced by the government, let alone the other voices of dissent in the Sinhala society.