Right to be Human - Sri Lanka Guardian

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Right to be Human

True, the LTTE's record on the HR front is abysmal to say the least. Around eh same time as the UN Security Council mentioned Sri Lanka as a nation – and not just the Sri Lankan State – as a region of concern, other reports suggested that the LTTE continued to use 'human shields' to fight the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). The last time one heard of it in a big way was at Muttur in the East, both of which fell to the SLA, however.
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by N. Sathiyamoorthy

(June 02, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Losing a seat at the high table of the UN Human Rights Council is one thing, but getting mentioned in the Security Council is another. The former is a product of diplomacy and bloc votes. It matters even more in the Security Council, where just five nations hold the key to 'global conscience' at any given time. Seldom do they agree on anything, and if they agree, it is on a well watered down version of whatever had hurt the collective conscience of the international community. Yet, it hurts the nation that thus get mentioned even more is the fact that Sri Lanka could ill-afford to ignore.

In lumping together Sri Lanka with Somalia, Sudan, Palestine and Columbia, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, regretted the current 'havoc', and underlined the importance of safe and unhindered access of humanitarian personnel to provide assistance to civilians caught in armed conflict. "Hundreds of civilians too have died or been injured in Sri Lanka this year," Holmes said, updating the reference-point in a way and mooting an informal experts' group for the purpose.

The Security Council discourse focussed only on death, injuries and lack of access for aid workers to reach out to the civilians affected by war and violence – and did not touch upon what's otherwise construed as 'human rights violations' in the Sri Lankan context. Colombo also need not be in a hurry anticipating UN sanctions, what with an anticipated divide in the Security Council at any time Sri Lanka is up for vote, but then the vote in the UN Human Rights Council should be an eye-opener.

In the global context, this boils down to only one thing. Deals are struck once the Big Five have other reasons to strike deals. Just as small nations like Sri Lanka get caught in the cross-fire of Big Power war of nerves at the UN, they also get cornered in the diplomatic end-game. The veto-power of friendly nations never ever gets exercised, but the message still goes across. The best way out is to stay out of situations where you become the sacrificial pawn, or the bargaining-chip, or both.

The debate is not only about the existence of human rights, protection and security under the law, and institutional mechanisms to enforce such rights, and seek remedies when violated. It is more about the yardstick with which one measures the commitment and consequent liability of the State – that of Sri Lanka's in this case –when compared with those set, or not set for non-State actors like the LTTE. Over the long term, it is disadvantageous for the State not wanting to resist the temptation of equating itself with non-State actors in such matters.

True, the LTTE's record on the HR front is abysmal to say the least. Around eh same time as the UN Security Council mentioned Sri Lanka as a nation – and not just the Sri Lankan State – as a region of concern, other reports suggested that the LTTE continued to use 'human shields' to fight the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). The last time one heard of it in a big way was at Muttur in the East, both of which fell to the SLA, however.

In countries like Canada, reports have begun indicating the extend to which the LTTE was/is running the lives of ordinary Sri Lankan Tamils, of whom there are many. In turn, the Diaspora seems to be running their businesses, or at least a part of it, for funding the LTTE war-machine – either with dedication and commitment, or under pressure and threats. I host nations begin reviewing their asylum laws and opportunity schemes that they provide victims of war and State aggression in their mother-land, the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora should know where the blame-game would ultimately stop.

The LTTE needs to recognise that its well-oiled PR machinery, which in turn forms a competent component of the psy-war efforts against the Sri Lankan State, has begun falling apart. Nations have begun distancing the LTTE's war-machine from their perceptions of the 'minority rights' of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, which still had to be granted/restored, still. It is good neither for the LTTE, nor for the Sri Lankan Tamil community, as the former in particular is beginning to find out for itself. The latter may be made to follow suit. In countries such as Canada, reports have begun indicating LTTE's fuller control over the lives and wealth of the Tamil Diaspora.

It is not as if the Government of President Mahinda Rajapakse alone is to blame for 'HR violations'. Starting with the mid-Fifties, the Tamil community in particular has blamed the Sri Lankan State with violating their rights in more ways than one. It ha taken legal and physical forms, from the 'Sinhala-Only law' to 'Sinhala colonisation', to abductions and killings, and torture of Tamil youth in army camps and other interrogation centres. The charges continue.

Nor is the LTTE the only insurgent group in the country to have resorted to such violations as a non-State actor. Ahead of the LTTE and up to a point in its existence in an earlier 'birth', the JVP had been charged with human rights violations on a large-scale. By LTTE standards, however, they were both basic and primitive. The LTTE has also 'reached out' to the Diaspora, ensuring that none can escape the dragnet, what with most Sri Lankan Tamils in foreign lands have relatives back home, who are held hostage, for 'ransom payment' and the like.

The LTTE cannot escape the blame also for introducing the culture of 'white vans' and 'pistol gangs' with which critics, nearer home and afar, charge the Sri Lankan Government with. The question is whether the State should be setting the standards in such matters, which even the non-State actor to an ongoing conflict could not but abide by, or if it should follow the downtrend set by the latter in letter and spirit. In Sri Lanka, it would seem that both keep exchanging notes on the one hand, and keep criticising each other at the same time.

The Sri Lankan State has killed and maimed more Sinhalas than the LTTE, if one recalled the two 'JVP insurgencies'. So did the JVP kill more Sinhalas than the LTTE. In turn, the LTTE has killed more Tamils than the Sri Lankan forces, and sacrificed more Tamil youth – and 'child soldiers' – at the altar of 'ethnic war', which has developed a logic and chemistry of its own. In a post-war scenario, when a political solution becomes acceptable to the Tamils, they would feel the political, intellectual and political vacuum thus created. It has happened elsewhere, and Sri Lanka may is not an exception.

None in Sri Lanka is lily white on the HR issue. All are Lilliputians, each one dwarfing the other in a myriad of ways. To bask in the satisfaction that the nation has lost the seat in the UN HR Council, or the Government has got named in the Security Council does not help. When the chips are down, and history gets read in the UN forums, for the rest of the global community to weigh the violations, the past would weigh down the home-grown critics of the Colombo dispensation, even more.

For now, the higher judiciary seems to have stepped in, to try to fill the vacuum caused by the insincerity/inability of the Government to stem the rot. It has happened in other democracies, and Sri Lanka can breathe easy.

The court stalled the forced evacuation of Tamils from Colombo lodgings, and acted on the CWC petition against surprise-checks on moving buses in their hundreds. The Supreme Court also intervened to ensure that the check-points of the armed forces in Colombo City did not become a mindless exercise in futility.

Yet, the final solution will lie with the polity and society inside Sri Lanka, and not in New York or Geneva – or, Brussels, the seat of the European Union (EU), whose HR concerns often far out-weigh the diplomatic compulsions of member-nations. It lies in Colombo, and lies well within the capabilities of political Colombo, of which the Government and the ruling dispensation are only a part – but the more functional part at that, charged as it is with securing the State and sovereignty on the one hand, and protecting the individual on the other. One flows from the other.

There cannot be a functioning/functional State without the individual, though some may argue that there could still be individuals without a State. When that had happened, they were all living in caves, not in Colombo.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian polity think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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