Genocide row obscures wider debate
Interesting debate at London’s Frontline Club on Tuesday on Sri Lanka. It was supposed to poll involved media views on the expected defeat of the LTTE Tamil Tiger separatists and – theoretically – the end of the country’s debilitating and corrupting civil war. Instead it got dug into the rising argument that the savage end […]
25 Feb 09

Interesting debate at London’s Frontline Club on Tuesday on Sri Lanka. It was supposed to poll involved media views on the expected defeat of the LTTE Tamil Tiger separatists and – theoretically – the end of the country’s debilitating and corrupting civil war.

Instead it got dug into the rising argument that the savage end days now being fought out in the country’s Vanni region are in fact genocide.

Much worse was expected; the journalists’ club officials say they received death threats after an initial plan to invite a spokesman for the Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) group to join the panel was downgraded to a highlighted spot in the audience. Though the threats had nothing to do with TAG, organisers felt that a debate about whether charges of genocide had legal credence without a Sri Lankan government respondent would be one-sided.

In any case, it felt that such a debate was not what was needed when the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni remains so desperate –– as many as half-a-million civilians are reported trapped in fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Tigers, two of the world’s most redoubtably vicious civil combatants.

In contrast to the widely reported but otherwise remarkably similar Israeli assault on Gaza  the slaughter in the Vanni is totally barred to the media, human rights groups and the humanitarian aid community. What evidence of the cruelty that is being picked up comes from the few refugees able to escape the free-fire zone.

More to the point for a press club they wanted space to address the parlous state of free expression in Sri Lanka, recently illustrated by the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Lasantha’s journalist brother Lal spoke at Tuesday’s debate by videolink to reiterate this.

TAG supporters and others kept up the case from the floor though, echoing the argument made by US activists who accuse the Sudanese government of genocide in Darfur, that genocide is worse than other crimes against humanity, and thus to question whether atrocities qualify as genocide is tantamount to ‘moral cowardice’, by minimizing, denying, or excusing it.

Darfur expert Alex de Waal has noted that in terms of stopping the killing and prosecuting those responsible, use of the term ‘genocide’ may initially help draw attention to the disaster, but in the case of Darfur it subsequently became something of a distraction to effective action.

Mass murder and all the other crimes associated with a brutal military assault through territories packed with refugees do not cease to be crimes, whether or not they are committed as part of a genocide. That includes the kind of violence and humanitarian crises now being inflicted on the Vanni, which TAG allege fits the definition of ‘genocide’ under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, namely the “deliberate infliction of conditions of life calculated to destroy the group in whole, or in part.”

This was the argument made by the UN inquiry into Darfur when it declined to formally and legally declare Darfur a ‘genocide’. But it did note that ‘international offences such as the crimes against humanity and the war crimes that have been committed in Darfur may be no less serious and heinous than genocide’.

Under the broad definition provided by the Convention the crimes committed in Sri Lanka may well be genocidal, and most independent opinion would say there is a prima facie case for hearing a legal test of this charge.

TAG are trying to organize just this, engaging US lawyer Bruce Fein, former associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan, to press for the indictment of Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and national army commander Lt.General Sarath Fonseka under the US Genocide Accountability Act.

Rajapakse has joint US-Sri Lankan citizenship, and Lt.General Fonseka, bizarrely, has a green card and US residency rights. Fein delivered a three-volume, 1,000 page model 12-count indictment with a view to persuading the US Justice Department to make the two the first to be charged under the act, which was passed with the vote of then senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2007.

With the clock ticking down on the continuing existence of the Tamil Tigers as a viable conventional army in Sri Lanka, TAG’s urgent aim is to get the US to respond to Sri Lanka in the same way it reacted to Darfur in 2004: to formally determine that an event was genocide while it is in progress.

The catch was that while it partially addressed Darfur campaigners’ demands, the US reading of the Genocide Convention was that even though they recognized Darfur as genocide, that verdict entailed no specific action by the US government under the Convention. As a result US policy on Sudan did not change and the campaigners’ hopes for a UN endorsed US led armed intervention were effectively dashed.

A similar ruling against Rajpakse and Fonseka, even their conviction and sentencing, would likely deliver a similar non-specific result. It would however give enormous weight to TAG’s ambition to raise the same kind of popular outrage against the Sri Lankan government that transformed the Darfur debate in the US, George Clooney led protests and all.

TAG’s popular campaign might bring down enough pressure on Colombo to call a ceasefire in the Vanni and lift the horrors now being inflicted on its citizens trapped there (and as Colombo says and the Tigers know, will give the rebels a chance to regroup and rearm).

But as de Waal said in the Darfur context, ‘the danger of the word ‘genocide’ is that it can slide from its wider, legally specific meaning, to a branding of the perpetrators’ group as collectively evil. In turn, this narrows the options for responding. Having labeled a group or a government as “genocidal”, it is difficult to make the case that a political compromise needs to be found with them.’

It may well be that TAG’s supporters, by emphasizing the term ‘genocide’ over and above other heinous crimes against humanity being committed in the Vanni may have just that objective; to end attempts at compromise and bring an absolute end to Colombo’s blitzkrieg on the Tigers.

While a ceasefire in the Vanni is a moral imperative, isolating Colombo and rejecting dialogue on the grounds that it may be legally guilty of genocide is not.

Even when Sri  Lankan army tanks reach the far north and president Mahinda Rajapaksa declares an Iraq-style ‘Mission Accomplished‘ the conflict there, no less than in Iraq, will swiftly turn into a vicious insurgency as the conventional Tiger forces return to their guerilla roots and restore their rarely challenged record as the world’s most ruthless and effective suicide bombers.

It is here –– in what will, nominally at least, be ‘post-war Sri Lanka’ –– that dialogue, international intervention and a free-speaking truth and reconciliation commission will be essential to restore democratic rule of law and true peace to the country, free for ever of the cruelties that Colombo and the Tigers have inflicted on it for decades.

* You can watch the Frontline Club debate on their website:

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.