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“The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a United States-sponsored resolution pressing the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged human rights violations during the final stages of the war with the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.” — Foreign Policy Journal, April 25, 2012
Having spent the last eighteen years of my life in Sri Lanka, I was deeply concerned by the turn of events that this statement signified. I had been witness to almost three decades of war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) terrorist group making me acutely aware of the untold misery and suffering the country had gone through, as it grappled with the scourge of terrorism. An anathema permeating every aspect of our lives forced us to live in constant fear of terrorist attacks, necessitating stringent precautionary security and rendering entire parts of the country inaccessible. Experiencing the land beyond “Elephant Pass,” the entire domain of the North East, for eighteen years was no more than a distant, elusive and intangible hope.
It was under the guise of protecting the rights of the Tamil minority residing in the north of the country that the LTTE staked its claim for over one third of Sri Lankan territory. Its goal: a secessionist state. Its means: the exercise of a brutal and inexorable regime, claiming an estimated 100,000 lives. The atrocities committed were as innumerable as they were horrifying and I do not have the capacity or space in one short article to fully do justice to the unimaginable and heinous crimes against humanity promulgated over three decades. A series of snapshots will attempt to construct the reality of the Tigers killing field. Butchering a mother breast feeding her infant; the recruitment of hundreds of child soldiers for cannon fodder; countless attacks and massacres of innocent civilians including young children, women, the elderly and even the clergy; suicide bombings causing mass scale destruction to property and loss of lives by exploding themselves in central parts of the city; the assassination of a number of key political leaders from all ethnic groups not excluding Tamils, and including the prime minister of India, Rajiv Ghandi. Western Governments aptly labeled the LTTE “the most ruthless terrorist group in the world.”
Despite this, for thirty years the US and her allies never once spoke up against these atrocities and remained mere bystanders through the coldblooded terrorism and indescribable and immeasurable bloodshed. I am intrigued. Were these acts of terrorism by the LTTE not considered grave violations of human rights? Was the USA not waging its own war on terror? Did they believe that the LTTE’s acts of terrorism in Sri Lanka were too far outside vested American interests for it to matter? Relevant questions. Uncomfortable questions. Questions to which, as always, politically expedient answers no doubt exist. Nevertheless, when ceasefire talks broke down for the sixth time and military intervention appeared the only viable solution, the Sri Lankan government was on its own in accepting this daunting challenge in order to bring lasting peace and stability to the country. This legitimate government which had the courage to take on a ruthless terrorist organization in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the country and protect its people, was now under pressure by these very groups led by the USA, demanding accountability and investigation for alleged human rights violations. The situation to me was not explicable- meritoriously explicable at least.
The Darusman report formed the basis for the US sponsored resolution and therefore requires due examination. Produced by a special panel of eminent persons unofficially set up by the UN—none of whom had set foot in Sri Lanka—they limited their sources of information to that obtained via the anti-Sri Lanka LTTE Organization. Replete with unsubstantiated allegations, this seriously flawed report formed the basis of the US resolution. Furthermore, the US resolution failed to take account of the extensive rebuilding, resettlement, rehabilitation, and reconciliation program being implemented by the Sri Lankan government. This included the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee report, which addressed several key areas including abuses and violations. An evaluation of the facts of the situation place serious doubt on the sincerity of the US concern for human rights as claimed. What is perhaps more disturbing to me is the duplicity of the US position. How could the US, which is waging its own “war on terror” with its own corresponding track record on violations of human rights, point a finger at others? The metaphor of hurling a rock from within a glass house could not be a more apt description of the US resolution on Sri Lanka.
Shortly after the resolution was passed, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton issued a statement saying the United States and the international community “had sent a strong signal that Sri Lanka will only achieve lasting peace through real reconciliation and accountability.”
Such words of wisdom imparted from the lips of the nation that has been accused of inhumane treatment and the killing and torturing of its prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay; supplying Saddam Hussein with arms, bombing schools, mosques and entire villages in Afghanistan; imposing sanctions in Iraq which lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Not forgetting the acts of US soldiers including the shooting of civilians while engaging in nighttime shooting sprees in Afghanistan, gang raping and killing a fourteen-year-old girl in Iraq and routinely abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib—can such a country be fit to judge other countries, let alone human rights, at all? Mrs. Clinton’s statement calls for achieving peace through “reconciliation and accountability.” But one questions the compatibility of these honorable words with the post 9/11 backlash suffered by Middle Eastern Americans within the United States, with hate crimes, unlawful detention, the passing of the Patriot Act and racial profiling. Mutual exclusivity of judgment or just deeming the skeletons in one’s own closet irrelevant?
And a deep dark closet it is. Whilst claiming on the one hand to be a respecter of human rights, the US list of human rights violations is particularly egregious since the advent of the “war on terror.” Especially significant is the US treatment of prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, who are conveniently categorized as combatants. In 2005, Amnesty International expressed alarm at the erosion of civil liberties since the 9/11 attacks: “Guantánamo has come to symbolize 10 years of a systematic failure by the USA to respect human rights in its response to the 9/11 attacks.” A more creative innovation is the process of Extraordinary Rendition where “suspected” terrorists are kidnapped and made to disappear, bypassing judicial proceedings and the law. Such violations extend to extra-judicial killings where in September 2011 a US drone strike in Yemen killed American citizens Anwar-al Awlaki and Samir Khan, deemed to be “security threats” to the USA.
Before calling for “real reconciliation” and “accountability” from others, as expressed by Secretary Clinton, the US must first put its own house in order and address its own record on human rights violations. My message to the US: “physician, heal thyself.”