War & International Solidarity

by Jehan Perera

(September 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There has been a tacit international acceptance of the government’s security measures for the north, which have included the request to international humanitarian organizations to withdraw from the battle zones of the north. Underlying this acceptance is the recognition that international organizations require governmental consent for their presence in Sri Lanka. This has been the explicit position of the UN agencies. The UN agencies in particular appear to feel especially obliged to conform to the will of the government, as they are inter-governmental bodies in which Sri Lanka has a sovereign vote.

The withdrawal of the international humanitarian organisations from the battle zones of the north despite protests by the affected people is indicative of the deference that is being given to the Sri Lankan government by the international community. In addition, the present government has shown itself to be more determined to resist international pressures than any previous government. Even the government headed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa, which did not hesitate to expel a British High Commissioner for complaining about electoral malpractices, gave in to international pressure on human rights issues. It accepted a long list of conditions given by Amnesty International that sought to remedy the human rights excesses of the period of terror in the context of the JVP insurrection.

The present government, however, has successfully resisted pressures from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and has taken the loss of its seat in the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations with defiance. It appears that the government is similarly prepared to face the prospect of the threatened EU withdrawal of the GSP+ tariff concession that advantages Sri Lankan exports to the large European market. The government has taken several legal measures, including passing new legislation to incorporate international human rights agreements into national law. But it appears unyielding on the issue of the war and the humanitarian and human rights challenges that have arisen from it.

Behind the government's preparedness to justify its human rights performance without substantially changing the human rights situation on the ground is its overriding purpose of defeating the LTTE in battle and eliminating as many of its cadre as possible. As a former human rights defender himself, President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be well aware of international human rights standards and the workings of the international human rights community. The insights of the past and the manner of the final crushing of the JVP's armed insurrection may be determining factors in the government's conduct today.

Global War

The government has a further advantage that it is utilising in its effort to crush the LTTE. This is the dramatically changed international climate that prevails today in the aftermath of the US-led global war against terrorism. The world continues to be uni polar on military and political issues with the United States being the sole superpower. The manner in which many countries led by the United States recognised the breakaway state of Kosovo, but in which none so far except for Russia has recognised the breakaway units of Georgia is evidence for this US dominance.

Today it can be seen that the LTTE is being weakened internationally. It can also be seen that the world's big powers are giving tangible military assistance and intelligence from spy satellites to hasten the military defeat of the LTTE. The line up that militarily supports the government is formidable and includes China, Pakistan, India, Iran and the United States, though not necessarily in that order. This international support from the big powers that count appears to be an important factor behind the government's confidence that it can defeat the LTTE.

There is also likely to be another factor at play in the relative pliant international stance in the face of the government’s military programme in the north. This is the breakdown in faith in the ability of the peace process to yield a sustainable solution through negotiations between the government and LTTE. The spirit of optimism about the willingness of the LTTE to enter a process that had a united Sri Lanka, democracy and decommissioning of weapons as its goals that prevailed in the period 2002-04 suffered a severe blow in the period after 2005. The manner in which the LTTE disrupted the Presidential election in that year, and virtually goaded the new president to war, is an indelible memory.

But the price of this international withdrawal is high, especially to the people in the battle zones of the north. A recent visit by a group of civil society organizations to Vavuniya in the north has revealed that the people feel abandoned and left to their fates in the midst of a raging war. The notion of military victory at any cost has gained ground, not only within the government but also within the larger polity. Opposition parties are prepared to organize mass demonstrations and take the government to court because it has not reduced the price of petroleum products in keeping with falling world prices. But they are not engaging in similar exertions in regard to the humanitarian crisis in the north and meeting the needs of those people.

Unpopular Cause

It is unfortunate that the present humanitarian crisis in the north should coincide with the more long term decision of several European countries with a long track record of supporting human rights throughout the world to withdraw from Sri Lanka. European countries which have supported Sri Lanka's economic and human development for several decades have decided to withdraw from Sri Lanka and focus their attention on other parts of the world. They need to reconsider their decision to withdraw, and give greater importance to the principle of solidarity especially at this critical time.

One stated reason for the donor departure is that Sri Lanka has graduated to being a middle income country by international standards and there are countries that are more desperately in need of their support than Sri Lanka. The decision to withdraw is doubly unfortunate in that the end of the current phase of intense fighting is likely to see new opportunities for humanitarian and reconciliation work.

The major battles that will decide the outcome of the current phase of military confrontation are now taking place. The advantage appears to be with the government. There is a possibility of a change in the character of military engagement from full scale conventional warfare to guerilla and terrorist warfare. Soon there will be a need to rehabilitate and resettle the civilian population and make fresh efforts to conclude the war with a political solution.

At this time virtually the entirety of political society supportive of the present military campaign, are mostly silent about a political solution.

The forces of ethnic nationalism are dominant, and leave little space for those who articulate the need for a non military solution. There is a need to for the international community to be present in Sri Lanka and to keep voicing the need for a non military solution that upholds human rights and the rights of ethnic minorities and supporting those who do.
- Sri Lanka Guardian