President Obama, in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April this yearÂ launching the new Atrocities Prevention Board â€“ a hugely welcome whole-of-governmentÂ mechanism designed to ensure that the US government is never again caught flat-footedÂ in the face of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes â€“ recalled, as you wouldÂ have expected him to, â€˜the killings in Cambodia, the killings in Rwanda, the killingsÂ in Bosnia, the killings in Darfurâ€™ as all of them shocking our conscience andÂ demanding never to be repeated.
What heÂ didn’t mention was the killings in Sri Lanka in 2009, when certainly more thanÂ 10,000 and as many as 40,000 civilians died of shellfire, gunfire, and lack of medicineÂ and food when caught up in the bloody endgame of the governmentâ€™s war with theÂ Tamil Tigers, squeezed between the advancing army and the last Tiger fighters intoÂ what Gordon Weiss calls â€˜the cageâ€™ â€“ a tiny strip of land in the north-east ofÂ the country, between sea and lagoon, not much bigger than Central Park. Itâ€™sÂ unquestionably one of the very worst atrocity stories to have occurred anywhereÂ in the world this century â€“ and itâ€™s told as lucidly and compellingly as it everÂ could be in this admirable book.Â ButÂ somehow it just hasn’t registered in the worldâ€™s collective conscience in theÂ same way as the other horror stories on President Obamaâ€™s list.
The mostÂ obvious reason for that is that the Sri Lankan government has so far largelyÂ succeeded in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternativeÂ narrative: that what occurred was the long overdue defeat, by wholly necessaryÂ and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection threatening theÂ countryâ€™s very existence â€“ a narrative that had extraordinary worldwideÂ resonance in the aftermath of 9/11. The government claimed throughout, andÂ still does, that it maintained a Zero Civilian Casualties policy, that no heavyÂ artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateralÂ or cross-fire injury to civilians was minimal, and that it fully respectedÂ throughout international law, including in its treatment of captured prisoners.
It isÂ the great virtue of this book that it picks apart that narrative, meticulouslyÂ and systematically so as to make it clear that the government failed utterly inÂ its responsibility to protect its own citizens, and that â€˜it was the SLA thatÂ wrought the bulk of deaths upon the captive populationâ€™. But the writing isÂ scrupulously even-handed. Anyone who might think this book is an apologia forÂ Prabhakaran and the LTTE should read Chapter 4, on the appalling carnageÂ perpetrated by the movement, whatever the wrongs it was seeking to right â€“ and maybeÂ just this passage on p141, describing their behaviour during those lastÂ terrible months:
Â â€¦the Tamil Tigers wereÂ indeedÂ exercising a brand ofÂ ruthless terror on their own people thatÂ defies imagination. As the combat area shrank and their desperation increased,Â their brutality increased exponentially. They would shoot, execute and beat toÂ death many hundreds of people, ensure the deaths of thousands of teenagers byÂ press-ganging them into the front-lines and kill those children and theirÂ parents who resisted.
But noneÂ of this can excuse what happened on the other side, asÂ Gordon Weiss makes clear, citing an abundanceÂ of wholly credible evidence, not least the graphic eye-witness account inÂ Chapter 5 of the highly experience UN officer, Ret Col Harun Khan, leading aÂ convoy trapped at the edge of a so-called No Fire Zone in January 2009, whichÂ cut through for the first time what had been until then, as the author puts it,Â â€˜shrouded in a blanket of propaganda and censorshipâ€™, with no international officials,Â NGOs or media allowed to go anywhere near the military action; Khanâ€™sÂ description of the indiscriminate shelling from the government side and its horrifyingÂ aftermath makes deeply harrowing reading.
One ofÂ the most distressing aspects of the story is that how little of this kind ofÂ information got into international circulation at the time, when it needed to.Â A big part of the problem was the timidity of the relevant senior UN officials,Â with the honourable exception of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, NaviÂ Pillay, and to some extent the Secretary General himself, who at least tried onÂ multiple occasions â€“ albeit only through quiet diplomacy, which provedÂ manifestly ineffectual â€“ to get President Rajapaksa to commit to restraint.
PartlyÂ because they wanted to keep humanitarian assistance lines open, partly becauseÂ they knew that the government had very wide member state support in New YorkÂ and the Tamil Tigers none at all, and partly because they were bullied intoÂ submission by Sri Lankan officials â€“ lacking the confidence or experience onÂ the ground to stand up to them â€“ key officials on the ground just did not stateÂ publicly, or even put effectively into the internal UN system, such informationÂ as they had about the nature and scale of misbehavior on the government side.
VeryÂ specific cumulative estimates of casualties were compiled by a UN team inÂ Colombo from early February on, based on regular radiophone contact with aÂ handful of reliable sources still in the area, NGO, medical and local UN TamilÂ staff, which would have given solid chapter and verse to back up the growingÂ concern about an impending catastrophe. But an institutional decision was takenÂ not to use this information on the basis that it could not be â€˜verifiedâ€™, andÂ the UN simply refrained at any level from, as Gordon puts it, â€˜wielding itsÂ moral authority to publicly denounce the tabulated killing of civiliansâ€™ (pÂ 145)
But, asÂ he says, â€˜if not the UN, then who?â€™ He quotes (p145) my successor as head of theÂ International Crisis Group, Louise Arbour, on the evidentiary question:â€™â€¦theÂ standard should be reasonably credible information, or reasonable grounds toÂ believeâ€¦Itâ€™s not unreasonable to speculate because you don’t have accessâ€¦youÂ cannot let the desire to maintain humanitarian access trump any otherÂ considerationâ€™.
OneÂ answer to all of this, with which I â€“ and I think the author â€“ have someÂ sympathy, is that ultimately (and especially on peace and security issues) theÂ UN is no more and no less than its member states, that if those states haveÂ taken a position making clear they don’t want to act (as they essentially didÂ here because of their characterization of the situation as a legitimateÂ sovereign state response to terrorism) they canâ€™t be made to, and officials cannotÂ be held to a higher standard than those whom they serve. As Richard HolbrookeÂ once put it, â€˜Blaming the United Nations when things goÂ wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden whenÂ the Knicks play badly.â€™
And yet.Â As the Brahimi panel put it, it is the responsibility of the UN Secretariat toÂ tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear.Â And maybe, as more and more evidence emerges of the scale of the internationalÂ communityâ€™s default in Sri Lanka, that message is at last getting through.
The SecretaryÂ Generalâ€™s Panel of Experts to advise him on how best to ensure accountabilityÂ of the government and LTTE for alleged violations told him last year that UNÂ action in Sri Lanka had been a low point for the organization, which led him toÂ establish a further â€˜Internal Review Panel on UN Action in Sri Lankaâ€™, headedÂ by Charles Petrie, which is due to report this month. The indications are thatÂ this report will be quite hard-hitting: one only hopes that if it is, itsÂ recommendations will see the public light of day, and be taken seriously.
But ofÂ course, of all the searchlights that now need to shine, none is more importantÂ than that focused on the Sri Lankan government itself.Â With the LTTE leadership allÂ now dead, it is on the failure of the Rajapaksa government to accept its ownÂ responsibility, and be made accountable, that international attention shouldÂ now be overwhelmingly focused.Â For farÂ too long the government has simply been totally evading that responsibility,Â with an endless stream of diversionary manoeuvres (usually involving committeesÂ of enquiry intended to go nowhere, and duly complying), denials of physicalÂ access, outright dissimulation, and relentless verbal bullying of anyone daringÂ to question it.
I have had directÂ personal experience of most of these tactics, especially the last, in myÂ previous incarnation as President of the International Crisis Group, mostÂ memorably in the context of a speech I gave in Colombo in 2007 on the subjectÂ of the responsibility to protect, and its implications for the then rapidlyÂ deterioriating situation between the government and LTTE, which was quiteÂ pointed but deliberately non-confrontational in its observations.Â This prompted a drumbeat of verbal assaultsÂ on me from senior government and national media figures which continued forÂ months afterward, which I can only describe as the most crude and shameless IÂ have ever experienced â€“ which I guess as a member of the Australian ParliamentÂ for 21 years is really saying something.
The goodÂ news is that with the passage of time the pressure on the Sri Lankan governmentÂ for genuine, not sham, accountability is now growing, not diminishing, andÂ coming at the government from a number of different directions. The report ofÂ the Secretary Generalâ€™s Panel in 2011, which I have already mentioned, and wasÂ published just after this book went to press, was itself a strong indictment ofÂ the Colombo governmentâ€™s callous irresponsibility in the conduct of its finalÂ military operation against the LTTE.Â TheÂ US Congress has maintained an intense interest in the issue, with membersÂ putting continued pressure on the Secretary of State to monitor progress onÂ reconciliation and accountability.
But theÂ most significant move may be that taken by the Human Rights Council in GenevaÂ last year when, manifestly dissatisfied by the governments initial effort toÂ divert criticism with its â€˜Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commissionâ€™ (LLRC)Â report,Â resolved that Sri Lanka â€˜addressÂ alleged violations of international lawâ€™ and prepare a â€˜comprehensive actionÂ plan detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implementÂ the recommendationsâ€™ of its own Commission â€“ with the governmentâ€™s response dueÂ to be considered by the Council in March 2013.
ThatÂ deadline â€“ and focal point â€“ has has also promoted a flurry of otherÂ international activity including, perhaps most interestingly, the recentÂ establishment of an Australian-based evidence-gathering project aimed atÂ preparing a fully professional-standard brief of evidence of war crimes andÂ crimes against humanity which could ultimately support formal internationalÂ prosecutions, but is proposed in the first instance to be tabled at the GenevaÂ Human Rights Council meeting next year to inform the debate there. ThisÂ International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP), with which Gordon Weiss isÂ closely involved as a founding adviser, is liaising with other NGOs around theÂ world working on this issue, and is rapidly establishing itself as the centralÂ repository for Sri Lankan war crimes evidence
So theÂ issue of the 2009 Sri Lankan atrocity crimes is not going to go away, and norÂ must it ever be allowed to. A country with so rich a history and culture and soÂ many decent people deserves much more than to be, as Gordon says in hisÂ devastating final line, â€˜a society sliding into tyranny where myth-making,Â identity whitewashing and political opportunism have defeated justice andÂ individual dignityâ€™.
ThereÂ are now quite a few publications which have contributed in their various waysÂ to keeping these issues alive, to putting pressure on Sri Lanka to become againÂ the decent country it deserves to be, and to making clear just how badly theÂ international community failed in its responsibilities three years ago.Â But none has been as important, or asÂ influential already, as this book, whose US edition we launch today. IÂ congratulate the author and the publishers, and everyone associated with itsÂ appearance and distribution, and hope that it gets in this country the audienceÂ it so manifestly deserves.
Launch by Gareth Evans* of Gordon Weiss, The Cage: The Fight for SriÂ Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2012), NewYork, 17 October 2012
*GarethÂ Evans, now Chancellor of The Australian National University, was ForeignÂ Minister of Australia 1998-96 and President of the International Crisis GroupÂ 2000-09. He co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and StateÂ Sovereignty (2001), co-chairs the Global Centre for the Responsibility toÂ Protect, and is the author of TheÂ Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (WashingtonÂ DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 2009)