Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesNewsBeyond Genocide – Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy

Beyond Genocide – Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy


When I heard that the Northern Provincial Council had passed a resolution on Genocide, I put my “head in my hands” again- something I did often during the previous regime. I asked myself, have we gone back to the beginning after all this violence and heartbreak? Tamil politics led by lawyers ( I am a lawyer so this is not said in contempt) has always emphasized legal concepts and theories even if they are far removed from the reality that Tamil people face in their day-to-day lives. We went from “nation” to “separate state”, now we are “two nations in one country”, and suddenly we have sprung the Genocide card which is one of the most difficult international crimes to prove because of its complete reliance on the “intent’ of any government in question.

Why are we going there? Well some Tamil nationalist lawyer has suddenly woken up to the fact that if we use the “G” word then there is a legal case for a separate state. This of course is a delusion of theoretical lawyers. In the modern world separate states are only created at the height of humanitarian intervention and only if a big power wants it- see Bangladesh, East Timor, Kosovo. The fact that nobody came in 2009 and nobody would have come without India’s consent, should make any right thinking Tamil realize that we have been on a wrong trajectory from the beginning. Most people both nationally and internationally had come to that conclusion even without the outrageous, embarrassing nonsense of the attack dogs of the last government. Accountability for war crimes and human rights violations is a completely different frame of action than the claim for a separate state- at least in the Sri Lankan case.

Separate states can be created in peacetime but that is a different process altogether and has nothing to do with genocide. In this the real guidance comes from the Canadian Constitutional Court that argued that creating a separate state hurts the home country as much as the new country so any such separation must be negotiated- or in legal parlance, it casts the duty to negotiate and cannot be done without the consent of both sides. Such a scenario is very unlikely in Sri Lanka.

Since Bangladesh was created, Sri Lankan Tamil politicians lived in hope that India will intervene and save them. Then after our “sole spokesman” Mr. Prabhakaran assassinated the Indian prime minister- a real stroke of genius in our march to collective suicide- we then thought the UN would come to save us like in East Timor and Kosovo- though in both those cases the European Union was in the forefront. So thousands died on the banks of a lagoon while our extremist leaders and an out of touch diaspora waited to be saved by the international community. Anyone knowing the dynamics of the Security Council and the way great powers behave would have known that this was never a possibility. The world might have tried to lessen the suffering of people by providing humanitarian assistance or negotiating surrender but there was not going to be any intervention to create a separate state. This frame of “we have always been victims and we need to be saved” is deeply ingrained in the Tamil political psyche. This is not to say that the Sri Lankan state is innocent. Having worked on human rights since 1977, terrible, mindboggling things have been done over the last three decades by the Sri Lankan state and the security forces- but playing the perpetual victim, especially at this time will get us nowhere.

What the Tamil community needs (and I have been to Jaffna) are politicians who move away from rhetoric to adopt a practical, problem-solving mind-set. We as a community have had enough of all this name-calling- genocide, traitor, nation- all that is just unnecessary hyperbole at this time in our history. There are so many problems that have to be solved through discussion and dialogue that affect people in their every day life for eg:-what is the “credible mechanism” on accountability going to look like? Can we draw up a time table and a plan working with the governor, and the military for the release of land, release of detainees and a rearrangement of army camps and find solutions acceptable to everyone? These involve discussion and dialogue, not unilateral declarations.

We have to work on a political solution. Even the TNA has agreed that it has to be within a united country. For the first time you have a broad coalition of parties in government or supporting the government. For the first time they may not need to out radicalize the other. This is the perfect time for a political solution. However the spadework has to be done by our politicians. The JVP and the JHU must be convinced and the trust deficit has to be overcome. Our best legal minds, without thinking of genocide, should be trying to talk to their counterparts in the South and begin discussions about a possible resolution

Finally, war widows, ex combatants, disabled people in the North, and unemployed youth are all crying out for help. Northern society is in complete disarray with high rates of violence against women, drugs and alcoholism. Livelihoods and economic empowerment programmes do not exist in most places and if they do, they are unimaginative and only convey minimal skills. The earlier government built roads but we have to deal with economic and social issues from education, psychosocial support to community level infrastructure. The present Governors of the North and the East are experienced civil servants. Now is the time to draw up a development plan for the north as well as for the east with priorities and timelines so that one can effectively spend the devolved budget or any international assistance that may be offered.

Two generations of Sri Lankan Tamils have been lost, fighting for a separate state, playing victim and waiting to be saved. We have to move on. I suggest we go back to the father of Tamil rights consciousness during colonialism-Periar. He called for a self -respect movement, not a nationalist movement. That is what we need in Sri Lanka. After years of war and battering, cowering from the violence, intimidation and surveillance by the security forces, the LTTE or Tamil paramilitaries, speaking in whispers and small clusters always wary of an informer, let us take this opportunity of a democratic opening to remake ourselves. Let us regain our self -respect and our self-confidence, stand tall, look our Sinhalese and Muslim brothers and sisters in the eye, start acting as their equals and begin to build lasting partnerships.

– Groundviews

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