Stop the Cycle of Violence and Genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka
Panel discussion by BTF in association with APPG for Tamils
Black July 1983 Remembrance Day event was hosted by British Tamils Forum (BTF) in association with All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG for Tamils), on the 23rdof July 2019 at the UK parliament’s committee room.
Since its independence in 1948, Sri Lanka, which has been under the rule of Sinhala Buddhist dominated regimes, has seen repeated cycle of violence against the Tamils. The Tamil people who had their independent sovereignty before the colonial era were treated as second class citizens as the Sinhalese became the permanent majority in the merged entity. Successive regimes have used their numerical superiority to enact legislations that deprived the Tamil people of their parity of status in the island. The Tamil people have been objecting to these legislations through democratic and peaceful means. The Sri Lankan regimes responded to the Tamil people’s peaceful demands with repeated violence.
A racist Sinhala Only Act in 1956 saw 300 innocent Tamil people murdered; some were burnt alive on the streets of the Capital Colombo. In 1977 more than 1000 Tamil people were massacred in the south of the island and millions of their properties looted and set alight. In July 1983 in a pogrom that is now known as Black July more than 3000 innocent Tamil people were murdered and billions of rupees worth of properties owned by them were destroyed by Sinhala goons led by the Sri Lankan military aided and abetted by the state. All the people killed were massacred because they were Tamils. No person had been held accountable for these genocidal acts. Although Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK and other western nations keep talking of the Government of Sri Lanka’s progress in trying to bring about peace and reconciliation the fact remains that there has been no progress on accountability and justice whatsoever. It has been 10 years since Mullivaikal and 36 years since Black July. There is no sign of the Government of Sri Lanka showing genuine interest in addressing the cycle of violencethat takes place on the Island. On the contrary, those who are implicated in the crimes are being rewarded with top positions in government and diplomatic missions.
The panel discussion was moderated by Sarmila Varatharaj, Deputy Team Leader for Human Rights, BTF, who welcomed all the panellists and the audience. The committee room was gender balanced, full of diverse nationalities and age groups, parliamentarians, journalists and activists.
The panel discussion was opened up with an audio visual presentation of the history of violence,
depicting the endless cycle of violence followed by a presentation ‘The Case for Genocide Recognition’ delivered by Jan Jananyagam, founder of TAG- Together Against Genocide, known to the Tamil community for her activism and passion for bringing about justice for the Tamil people. Ms Jananayagam juxtaposing the Tamils’ case against other genocides around the world argued using various alternatives that what was inflicted on the Tamil People was genocide. In the context of the recognitions of genocide in Srebrenica and Myanmar, the numbers of civilians deaths in Mullivaikkal and the proportion of deaths to the overall target population, the methods used to destroy the population are all such that, in context, the mass atrocities in Mullivaikkal, constitute a genocide, by the same yardstick. It is difficult to see how it would be consistent to recognise Srebrenica or the genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar and not to recognise the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
There are multiple complementary approaches to recognising the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka and they all have merits. One can deploy the arguments the ICTY made in relation to Srebrenica. For example, the ICTY asked if the community could be reconstituted as a community after the mass atrocity, it took into account the symbolic nature of Srebrenica as a UN recognised safe haven and its importance to Bosnian independence. In terms of numbers, (though recognition should not be about numbers) the population in Srebrenica was about 40K of which the non-combatant men and boys killed in the genocide were about 8K – a 1 in 5 ratio. The mass atrocity in Mullivaikkal destroyed a similar, higher proportion of the target population. Worth noting on numbers, though genocide recognition is never about numbers that estimates of civilian casualties in Mullivaikkal vary widely, with most people now converging of 100K out of a population of circa 425K. We should use the higher Tamil source estimate closer to 146K because 10 years have passed and there is no explanation as to where are the people.
An alternative and complementary approach is that taken by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts (POE)c in their 2011 report, where they found credible crimes against humanity of extermination and persecution. They cited the denial of humanitarian aid – medicine and food – as calculated to destroy a substantial part of the population. The wording used by the POE in finding the Rome Statute crime of extermination being very similar to the genocide convention, save for identifying the target group as an ethnic, national or religious community.
Alternatively, one could build on Lemkin’s original approach, looking at the institutional destruction of the Tamil nation. The systemic targeting and destruction of the Tamil media and aid workers, land grabs, demographic change and the renaming of geography, destroying culture including the Jaffna library, these would all come together in Lemkin’s approach that he originally put forward in his book on Axis rule in Europe.
There are many ways to construct the argument. An important question is ‘when does a genocidal process become a genocide’. In Sri Lanka the process sees spikes of destruction in July 1983 and in 2009.
We should recognise the Black July and the mass atrocity in Mullivaikkal as genocides. Recognition of both these spikes as genocide is consistent with recent precedents of genocide recognition.
As this is a panel event held in Westminster, it is worth noting that genocide recognition is not only a matter of foreign policy. The families of the vast majority of British Tamils, were impacted by Black July and preceding pogroms. The genocide in Sri Lanka explains how the Tamil community came to be in Britain and is part of our heritage and history. It is important for members of parliament, media and producers of knowledge to recognise the facts of this history. In terms of UK foreign policy, there are also compelling arguments that genocide recognition will assist with preventing recurrence.
‘The concept of genocide, its importance and severe shortcomings’ was delivered by Dr Martin Stern MBE. Sir Martin Stern is a Holocaust Survivor. His sister and he survived the camps when they were children. After he was liberated from the camp by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, he lived with family friends in the Netherlands. Dr Martin moved to Manchester in 1950 and went on to study Medicine at Oxford University. Dr Martin Stern has educated thousands of young people across the UK about the Holocaust and Genocide through his work with Holocaust Organisations and for this he was awarded the MBE.
In his presentation he stated “Lies are an integral part of Genocide. People who murder thousands and tens of thousands of people are not shy about distorting the truth and that is a problem that you face in Sri Lanka as well. And of course, it then terminates in denial, and making people believe that the victims were as much at fault as the perpetrators. These are regular features of such events. Darfur, Rwanda, Sri Lanka – Everyone agrees that the events were of a genocidal nature but what have they done about it.
In 2005 the united Nations accepted that the resolution for agreement reached by a world summit meeting on responsibility to protect. This overthrow’s the principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of other states, so if the Sri Lankan state wants to murder its Tamil Citizens that would be an internal matter for Sri Lanka and no one can interfere, but intervention was justified for genocide, War Crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, in other words three concepts were brought under the umbrella which broaden the target of what we should be addressing in my opinion. So the Concept of Genocide and I am not at all opposing the acceptance of what happened in Sri Lanka as Genocidal, but there are problems with it. I want to emphasise that you need to build up a data of what happened, get the facts established, you need to care for the survivors, and you should embarrass the tyrants. They are susceptible to embarrassment”.
“Challenges of Justice in Sri Lanka’’ was delivered by Alan Keenan, who is International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst based in London.
Alan opened up his presentation with some probing questions to the audience. He stated that there has been no justice delivered to the Tamils for injustices committed by the Sri Lankan state over the years, July 1983 pogrom, larger series of anti- Tamil crimes, massacres, possibly genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He further stated, crimes and injustice against Tamils by the Sri Lankan state and its supporters and representatives have been brutal, sustained, systemic for decades.
It’s happened with near complete impunity and with virtually no acknowledgment by the Sri Lankan state or by the Sinhalese majority. He further highlighted the failure of the present government on its own promises of accountability and delivering on promises made at UNHRC. On future strategy he requested further dialogue between concerned parties to work out a common strategy, despite the differences. Immediate need is to establish dialogue between Tamil and Muslim communities to find a common strategy against Sinhala racism. There is a chance of both communities getting justice, in a state which is structurally biased against them, by building a political relationship and a common strategy.
The fifth presentation, titled “Sri Lanka’s Stalled Transitional Justice Process: What Next?” was delivered by Richard Gowingthe Director of Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.
On his presentation Richard Gowing drew similarities between the July 83 attacks against the Tamils and the recent Easter bombings attacks against the Muslims. There was ample evidence to suggest that both were well planned, coordinated and premeditated by the Sinhala majority, supported by the state security apparatus. Sinhala political leadership failed in both instances to stop these attacks instead choose to encourage it. This poisonous nationalist dogma is very exclusive to the island of Sri Lanka.
He further said ‘’Sri Lanka is so stubbornly against any attempts at reform. There are many dimensions to the failure of international engagement over the past five to ten years. It’s hard to round them up succinctly but I just want to highlight three. First the international community has been far too ready to reward the government for goodwill gesture. I think in which the International community is in many ways colluding in some of the most flagrant attempts of the regime to whitewash its human rights record. Second, I think it’s really high time the international community spoke a little more plainly and honestly about the government’s record over the past 4 years. In particular to drop this pretends or assumptions of the Government of Sri Lanka is still willing and cooperative partner when comes to accountability for war time violation. Sri Lanka’s leaders many of whom have on multiple occasions publicly repudiated the pledge for a justice mechanism and yet as recently as April a minute from a U.N. peacekeeping mission recorded members of the international community commending the government for demonstrating its commitment to move ahead to establish a judicial accountability mechanism. Indulging in fiction might preserve some goodwill when it comes to the low hanging fruit of the reform process, but fundamentally it also provides political cover for total inaction.’’
He concluded by saying the following, ‘’ I think now is the time that all member states and U.N. member states need to really be looking at what they can do to broaden the accountability process. Seeking to collect and preserve atrocity crime evidence. The protection of witnesses, which is particularly important should the situation change in Sri Lanka. It might lend support to efforts to prosecute perpetrators outside the country.’’
On behalf of the APPG for Tamils, Wes Streeting, Ilford North MP and Vice Chair of APPG for Tamils stated ‘’There is a real risk of British Foreign policy and the desire to strike trade agreements outside the EU trumps what I would describe as conventional foreign policy of defence, development and diplomacy. The truth is the efforts of the British Government and I give credit to not just the Labour Government,the work David Miliband as Foreign Secretary did but actually what David Cameron did in particular that built a strong cross party support. Because of the actions of the British Government did in sponsoring the resolutions and putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government is really important and the real risk in terms of Brexit is, in future that trade trumps over, human rights in terms of relationships with other countries. That is a general challenge but specific concern in relation to Sri Lanka , so we cannot be complacent but we have to make sure when the new Foreign Secretary is appointed by end of the week and when the minister is in place for bilateral relationships for Sri Lanka, higher standards for human rights is at the forefront of foreign policy and this is important as a general point of principle. What we do not want is that the Sri Lankan government that has signed up to commitments to the international community be allowed and enabled to wriggle out of the commitment by the British government that may be more interested in signing a trade deal than getting true justice and accountability.’’
Rt Hon Stephen Timms, MP for Eastham quoting Tamils who fled to UK since 1983 Black July pogrom stated, “Out of that tragedy, terrible event and very likely qualifiesas genocidehas emerged a successful positive community here in the UK and other countries. People forced to flee from Sri Lanka coming here to the UK forming a great community that’s today is doing well and making a very positive contribution to national life in Britain. He concluded, “Sri Lankan Government’s Progress over the last few years has been glacial or non-existent I stand with what Wes Streeting said earlier that many of us across the House of Commons will feel very strongly about the great deal of work to be done. We must continue to press for a satisfactory and Just outcome in Sri Lanka.”
Margaret Owen OBE, Director, Widows for Peace through Democracy stated, every government has a duty to keep a list of all the people, men, women and children who are in detention, those who are looking to find out the fate of their loved ones and families, to find out whether they are in detention? In prison? Or are they in mass graves? Or tortured? Where are their bodies? The military and the Sinhalese are now taking over whole tracts of lands, that these people who have lived there for generations, that’s where they belong! I think there are still many women, who are still unsettled, they’re still living there. There’s an enormous amount of sexual violence as well, I hear about intimidation, abduction into military brothels.
Sri Lanka has never even signed up to develop a national action plan for the UN Security Council Resolution #1325, which is international law where in any peace process, women must be at the table. Sri Lanka hasn’t done that. Sri Lanka is in total breach of CEDAW.
Concluding remarks, ‘’Why did the international community fail to adopt more critical or vocal stance on Sri Lanka in the immediate years following the end of the civil war?’’ was delivered by the moderator Sarmila Varatharaj. She summarised the discussions as follows.’’ International community failed to see the historical reasons behind the conflict and was misled by the Sri Lankan government’s use of the international terrorism narrative existing at that time. Sri Lanka’s strategic location, provides an opportunity for the Sri Lankan government to play the regional power game, setting one player against the other, to gain an advantage to control external influences and continue with its genocidal war on Tamils.
Sri Lanka has been effectively managing the power play between the regional powers and has been effective in controlling and influencing all nations at United Nations. De-politicising and de-contextualising problems with just human rights language to discuss Sri Lanka, fails to identify the root cause of these abuses. The universal language of rights focuses on legal remedies and a simplified view of perpetrators and victims, but this can inadvertently strip conflict of its political, ethnocentric and structural dimensions. This narrative hides the real reasons behind the conflict, and hence fails to address the root cause of the abuses.’’
The event concluded with a Q & A session with active participation of the next generation of diaspora human rights activist.
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