Way forward internationally after war crimes


By Jehan Perera

The war in Libya has something in common with the last phase of Sri Lanka’s own war, and can provide perspective on how Sri Lankan society must deal with its fallout. Like it happened in Sri Lanka with the LTTE, the remnants of the former Libyan army were encircled in the city of Sirte where, in the midst of civilians, soldiers fought their last battle to save their leader. The air bombing of Sirte by NATO aircraft and the presence of Western coalition military personnel, including advisors in Libya, means that responsibility for this extra judicial killing, and for the killing of an unknown number of civilians, has to be shared. It will strengthen the argument of those who say that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well.

The triumphant tone in sections of the Western media today at the death of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi is offensive. It has overpowered another ethos that has a long history. This ethos was articulated in the year 1624 by John Donne who said, not to know for whom the bell tolls..." This verse is worthy of being quoted in full on account of its relevance in public and personal life and its deeper truth that is too often lost sight of in the world of the five senses.


"No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee. "


This kind of thinking based on the inter-connectedness of life, which religious teachers like the Buddha explained in depth over two thousand years ago, has gave rise to the concept of universal human rights. Human rights belonged to human beings irrespective of whether they were black of white, European or Asian, dictator or democrat. The rule of law, which it applies equally to all, whether high or low, arose from this basic understanding. It is on this basis that Western countries have demonstrated their commitment to universal values within their own societies that have made them a beacon to would-be-immigrants and students from all parts of the world.

Post-war conduct

So far there has been little or no international condemnation from either governments or international human rights watchdogs for what happened. Undoubtedly, a big part of the reason is that the very countries in the forefront of the war in Libya are also those that are the proponents of human rights. The ability to say one thing and do another internationally is due to the weakness in world government. When institutions are weak then there is different application of the rules to different parties, depending on their wealth and power. This is evident within Sri Lanka itself at this very time where the investigation into the killing of former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra is concerned.

However, it is not only the wealth and power of the anti Gaddafi coalition headed by the United States and NATO that is responsible for the relative absence of criticism of the last phase of Libya’s war. There is also the hope that after the war there will be democratic reforms in Libya that will make the future better for its people. Western countries have scored high in this area after World War II. They learnt from the mistake of World War I that punishing countries by heavy sanctions is a recipe for a further outbreak of conflict in the future. Once they destroy their enemies they build up what remains to be much better for the majority of people of that country. There is no better example of this practice of Western countries than how they treated Germany and Japan after World War II.

After the war ended, the Western countries helped the defeated countries to recover. They brought bags of wheat to feed the people, toys for the children and money for the rebuilding of their industries. They also helped them to come up with new constitutions and more democratic forms of government. As a result the healing of relationships took place very rapidly and the victors and losers are today partners on the same world stage. It is likely that a similar scenario will unfold rapidly in Libya also.

This is what Sri Lanka failed to do in the immediate aftermath of war and created a very poor impression for itself in the world. Instead of comforting the victim population that had been held hostage by the LTTE, they were further victimised by being put behind barbed wire camps guarded by armed soldiers and told that they might have to stay there for two to three years. Fortunately, wiser counsel and the need to win votes at elections intervened, and the people were out of those camps in about six months, but it was six months too late. Even today, those people have barely any resources to restart their lives in the war-destroyed lands of the Vanni districts. It sends a very negative message that this year too, the government’s budget has a sizeable increase of the already massive defence budget which is over Rs. 220 billion, and a further shrinking of the already small resettlement budget to less than Rs 0.5 billion.


Repentant leadership

There is also another reason why the coalition of Western countries is likely to emerge unscathed out of the Libyan war, as they have after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have been prepared to have investigations done, both during and after the wars, into possible abuses. When stories began to surface in 2004 about systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops in the country in the Abu Ghraib prison, the US government had those abuses investigated. The evidence that emerged was horrific, and several soldiers and other military personnel, including high ranking officers were punished with imprisonment and demotion. The latest information from Wikileaks documents reveals that abuses still continue, but the willingness of the US authorities to investigate specific cases is a reason why there is no sustained pressure.

 By way of contrast, until a few months ago, the Sri Lankan government denied that there was any significant level of civilian casualties in the last phase of the war in the Vanni. The government seemed to equate its publicly stated policy of zero civilian casualties with the reality of the battlefront which was entirely different. It was well known that LTTE cadres were in the midst of a large civilian population that they were either holding hostage or who were trapped along with them in the face of the advancing Sri Lankan military. The stubborn refusal of the Sri Lankan government to accept that it was inevitable that significant or large numbers of civilians would be become collateral victims in such a situation have made it easy for human rights groups to insist on an investigation.

In this context, the forthcoming final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa offers an opportunity for Sri Lanka to get back into the world’s mainstream. It is to be hoped that the LLRC would propose that best practices from other countries that have experienced bitter and protracted conflict will be suitably adapted to Sri Lanka’s own situation. One such best practice that has been proposed by civic groups within Sri Lanka is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a follow up to the LLRC which could look into the entire history of the war, and not simply the last phase. All victims need an opportunity to know what happened to their loved ones and all identified perpetrators need an opportunity to repent.

On May 7, 2004, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the following statements regarding Abu Ghraib before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility. It is my obligation to evaluate what happened, to make sure those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice, and to make changes as needed to see that it doesn’t happen again. I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in US custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong. To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of US armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation."

Serious human rights violations due to war and counter terrorism in Sri Lanka arising from the unresolved ethnic conflict have been occurring from 1979, when the army was initially set into Jaffna to deal with the militancy and terrorism of that time. Human rights violations did not take place only in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war they took place right through the course of the three decades long war. These all need to be investigated, not just the last phase, and not only the present government but the conduct of previous governments need to be investigated. The investigation would necessarily include the international community, not excluding foreign governments and members of the Tamil Diaspora who promoted the continuation of violence within Sri Lanka.

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