The People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka
Its inception and its goals
Following the terrible events in Sri Lanka, supporters of the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka, Initiative Peace in Sri Lanka and the International Human Rights Association Bremen met in June 2009 in Bremen, Germany. We discussed the extent of the humanitarian tragedy that the Sri Lankan government (GoSL) had unleashed on the Tamil people and the role that the International community played in this crime. And how, even after declaring that the war was over, the Sri Lankan government continued to proclaim that there were practically no civilian casualties and that its war was simply a successful mission to rescue the Tamils who were held against their will by the LTTE. And even when the regime incarcerated all the 280,000 Tamil people it had ‘rescued’ in concentration camps, the Apex bodies of the international community could do nothing more practical than to recommend that the GoSL investigates its own atrocities.
We discussed how this tragic state of international complicity had come into being. Certainly, the discrimination against the Tamil people, the oppression and racial pogroms that they have had to suffer in the island since Sri Lanka was given independence over 60 years ago, has been well documented and available to all in the international community. That the genesis of the conflict is rooted in the oppression of the Tamils, and that over a hundred thousand Tamils have lost their lives in the previous stages of the conflict, is no secret. In fact the wide-ranging international proclamations of support for the 2002 Peace Process in Sri Lanka – on the basis that the solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was political and not military – underpinned this reality. But in the wake of the Iraq war and under US pressure, every part of the International community changed their position from supporting a political solution to backing the Sri Lankan government’s decision to execute a military solution to the ethnic question. Thus the powerful countries and the apex bodies of the international community had allowed the cry of the Tamil people, which started and continued for 30 years as a Gandhian non-violent protest for justice, to end in a blood-bath in 2009. If Geo-Strategic calculations guided by self-interest has driven the powerful countries to compete with each other to give support to the government of Sri Lanka, and if this state of affairs had relegated organisations like the United Nations to issuing toothless warnings to cover up its impotence to take any concrete actions to prevent this massacre, then it follows also that it is very likely that the grave injustice suffered by the Tamil people will be covered up.
It was an emotional meeting. The members of the initiatives from Germany and Ireland, consisted mainly of European and exile-Sinhalese activists. As we had worked strenuously for the peace process in Sri Lanka to yield results, we were all devastated. Having failed dismally to convince the powers that be in Europe to maintain their original position of promoting peace in Sri Lanka, we all felt that we had failed in our responsibility to the Tamil people. Our attempts to activate the democratic institutions within Europe to maintain their pro-negotiations position was before our very eyes overwhelmed by US/British statecraft which succeeded in pushing the EU to support the military option. After the EU crumbled, one by one, country by country, started supporting or covering up the Sri Lankan government’s military onslaught. The pressure for a military solution, and the argument for its supposed inevitability had a corrosive effect on even human rights organisations, INGO’s and they started talking more and more about ‘post-conflict’ scenarios while the Tamils were being massacred. Virtually everyone was betting on the Sri Lankan government winning and were positioning themselves for the aftermath. Humanitarian principles were replaced by realpolitik.
When the crime was committed with the support of forces that have such influence in world affairs, it is clear that the interests of these actors to hide the massacre – or at least their complicity in it, will prevail. Even worse, those powers that were most to blame for promoting the military solution and practically aiding the Sri Lanka regime are now in the process of taking up the issue of war crimes as a lever to pressurise the Sri Lankan state to conform to their geo-strategic interests in the region. Under these conditions, it is clear that to investigate this in a fair and just manner, an entity is needed that has no vested interests in the competing international power configurations. This is what led us to choose the ‘Permanent People’s Tribunal’ to conduct the investigation. Further, because, the mainstream international community failed to respond to the relentless series of protest actions from the Tamil Diaspora which lasted over an year – and thereby turned its back on the suffering – it was thought fitting that we, being non-Tamils, and representing an alternative to the mainstream international community should initiate this Tribunal. This, we thought would be a message to the Tamil people as well as to the rest of the world, that there is a part of humanity – albeit small – that is willing to take an initial step to acknowledge the grave injustice. It is in this context also we insisted that the funding and the resources for the Tribunal came essentially from non-Tamil organisations (as a result we are still in debt!).
The ‘Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka’ took on the heavy responsibility to physically organise the Tribunal, and carried this out in an exemplary manner, surmounting many difficulties. The ‘International Human Rights Association Bremen’ was given the task to prepare the ‘charges’ or ‘accusations’ documents to be presented to the Panel of Judges – one on ‘War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity’ and the other on ‘Crimes against Peace’. For the preparation of these documents we utilised the contacts we had with Sinhala exile activists who had had to flee the island at different periods of its tortured history. In fact the material in these two documents were written solely by Sinhalese people. Please note also that the texts, that we have made available on the website, specially the texts regarding ‘Crimes against Peace’, is based on an outline that we prepared to give an Panel of Judges a background to the issues involved. We are preparing a book based on the these two accusation texts. In it we will elaborate on the issues discussed and present our arguments in the context of the counter arguments – and we will do it in a more cohesive and accessible manner. This book will be translated into several languages.
The ‘Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka’ website is a continuation of the process that was started by the Dublin Tribunal. For us, the findings of the respected panel of judges in Dublin, is the initial step, on this long and arduous journey to involve people from all over the world to understand the part – in their name – their own governments have played in this genocidal attack on the Tamil people in 2008/2009. We feel that this democratic process is the best foundation to create the conditions where the more powerful international bodies feel obliged to deal with this issue in a just manner.
This is why we are convinced that the critical component for the People’s Tribunal process to succeed is your feedback and involvement.
International Human Rights Association Bremen – 28.03.10