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


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.

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


*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)



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