Saturday, June 04, 2011

Silence on Sri Lanka screams of duplicity

By Cynthia Banham | The Sydney Morning Herald

This week Sri Lanka celebrated the second anniversary of the end of its 26-year civil war by holding an international ''defeating terrorism'' conference. It is a kind of brag-fest, to talk about the lessons learnt in its brutal victory over the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

There's one aspect, however, of the protracted battle that the Sri Lankan government does not like to talk about, how in the final stages - a United Nations ''panel of experts'' says - up to 40,000 civilians may have been massacred.

And the international community is not terribly interested in such a discussion either. But, for the record, here are some of the horrific findings contained in the UN panel's nearly 200-page report, published in April.

In the final throes of the war, from September 2008 to May 2009, in the ever-shrinking areas controlled by the LTTE, and where hundreds of thousands of civilians still lived, the Sri Lankan government allegedly did the following.

Its army shelled a number of hospitals, killing patients. It shelled food distribution centres, killing and wounding civilians. It shelled civilians gathered in a government-declared no-fire zone. It also starved some of its population by deliberately underestimating the number of civilians in the LTTE areas, meaning only a fraction of the food aid needed got in. It stopped medical supplies getting into the worst-affected areas. The army shelled women and children queuing at a milk powder distribution line. And it abducted and caused to ''disappear'' not only suspected Tigers, but other government critics, including journalists and humanitarian workers.

Of course, atrocities were not just carried out by the Sri Lankan government. The Tigers were also bad. They forced children to become fighters; they used civilians as ''human buffers'' to protect their leadership; they fired on fleeing civilians - and all this after decades of carrying out deadly acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings.

Despite this you may have noticed a reticence on the part of the international community - so outraged in recent months about the killing of civilians in Libya - to talk about these allegations of war crimes.

There are various reasons for this. Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, recently wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that ''against the backdrop of the 'global war on terror', a majority of nations were quietly glad that the Tigers were defeated''.

Sri Lanka is no doubt a much safer place these days without the Tigers. But it makes a mockery of the feel-good international principle which underpinned the action in Libya - the ''responsibility to protect''.

''R2P'' was adopted by the UN in 2005, based on the idea that when a nation state fails to prevent atrocities, or commits them against its people, the international community can step in to save lives. Military action is meant to be a last resort.

So where was ''R2P'' two years ago in Sri Lanka? Moreover, where is the self-examination by the international community today, now we have the UN experts' report, that more wasn't done to save tens of thousands of civilians in 2009?

Our own Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, just last week gave a speech about ''R2P''. He was vocal in advocating for the international community to intervene to protect Libya's civilians against the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He mentioned Libya. He also mentioned Rwanda and Srebenica. But not a peep about Sri Lanka. In fact, as his department confirms, Rudd has not uttered a word about the UN report since its release. One wonders if the sole interest of the Rudd and now Gillard governments in Sri Lanka has been asylum seekers. Basically, we do not want them. (In 2009-10, Sri Lankan asylum seekers accounted for the second largest national grouping after Afghans.)

All of which suggests two things. First, it is a potent sign of how Janus-faced the Gillard/Rudd government foreign policy is. This is a government that wants a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-14, as Rudd reminded us in his National Press Club address on Wednesday. Yet it does a deal with Malaysia - a country that tortures refugees, and has not signed the UN Refugee Convention - to take asylum seekers off its hands.

But it also tells us a lot about the flaws in the much-lauded R2P principle. The UN Security Council authorised action in Libya because the Arab League backed intervention, so Russia and China did not wield their veto powers. In Sri Lanka's case, the civilians were not so lucky. The Sri Lankan government had the support of India and China.

The UN Human Rights Council actually adopted a resolution in May 2009 applauding the government's defeat of the Tigers.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was in Australia last week and criticised Australia for its asylum seeker policies (much to Rudd's displeasure). I asked her about the discrepancy between the actions of the international community on Sri Lanka and Libya. Did it not demonstrate the shortcomings of the R2P principle, that it was subject to political will and therefore completely selective?

Pillay agreed. ''It is. It's at the will of the member states when they want to act to implement it,'' she said. ''So it's exactly what you are saying - but it doesn't mean when you set out a good principle that everyone will be supportive of applying it at all times. They should, but it's not done.''

Pillay's frank response made me think of something else I read recently, in John Howard's memoirs. I found it striking that of all the concluding statements he could make, Howard saved the second last paragraph of his book - the one before he thanks his party and his family - for an exhortation to Australians to be ''wary'' of multilateral organisations.

''We should be wary of giving unqualified assent to the dictates of multilateral bodies whose rules are written sometimes by majorities which include nations neither believing in nor practising the rule of law.''

That could be read as an obstinate Howard defending to the end his foreign policy decisions, especially on Iraq. But I also found it refreshing. Howard's scepticism of multilateralism is at least consistent. The current government's embrace of multilateralism is anything but.

© The Sydney Morning Herald

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