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Sri Lanka: Who will take responsibility?

Posted by Bob Rae on November 21, 2012 | No Comments

There was no doubt from those who were watching on the ground as the Sri Lankan army carried out its blitzkrieg across the northeast of the island in the winter and spring of 2009.

In my last meeting with the chief political spokesman for the Tamil Tigers in 2005, there was an eerie exchange of messages and warnings.  He told me the cause was just and the LTTE would prevail.  I told him the international community wanted real negotiations and there were no guarantees a breakdown of discussions would not lead to renewed conflict.  A short time later Tamilselvan was dead, taken out by a targeted assassination.  While the “ceasefire” was not formally renounced by the government until 2008, conflict was well underway.

A civil war that had lasted, on and off, for forty years was brought to a close by a bloody, brutal, military assault on the Tiger territory that had been briefly protected by the 2002 ceasefire.  The hundreds of thousands of civilians who had returned to the Vanni, with the government’s support, found themselves trapped.  They would be shot by the government’s troops if they left, and would be condemned for desertion by the Tigers.

So they moved north east, in the tens of thousands, to a tiny strip of land on the coast.  Government planes and artillery pounded civilians and hospitals, with nothing but an international “tut tutting” that the government of Sri Lanka knew full well would produce no practical reaction from the UN and the international community.

The Tigers, for their part, continued to recruit children, refused permission to leave, and, by forcing civilians to dig trenches and help their cause, exposed everyone to greater harm.  As the UN report of March 31, 2011 put it:  “All this was done in a quest to pursue a war that was clearly lost; many civilians were sacrificed on the altar of the LTTE cause and its efforts to preserve its senior leadership.”

In a new report the UN has pointed to its own failures as an organisation – it succumbed too easily to pressure from the Sri Lankan government and withdrew observers from the field when it was clear the absence of witnesses allowed both sides to get away with murder.

There were serious efforts to effect a real ceasefire to allow for a surrender, but this was turned down by the Tigers.  This has now been documented, both in the UN Petrie report and in Frances Harrison’s stirring book Count the Bodies.

The Sri Lankan government denied entry to Carl Bildt, Swedish Foreign Minister, and then to me, to see the refugee camps for ourselves.

The important question now is:  will the UN and its members learn from the tragedy of Sri Lanka, or just move on, oblivious?  The dead number in the tens of thousands. There is still no accountability in Sri Lanka, or internationally.  Governments wag their fingers – three years too late – at the government of Sri Lanka.  And in Syria and elsewhere, more tragedies unfold with no effective response.

The League of Nations collapsed because it proved to be irrelevant as Europe descended into a chasm of belligerence and wars of conquest in the 1930s.  The humanitarian tragedies of our own time are different, yet the failure of international governance is no less grave.  We have laws, and rules, but no means of enforcement.  We have high ideals, but no apparent capacity for action.  We either wring our hands, or wash them, blaming someone else for our own inaction.

It is not simply the UN as an institution whose reputation is at stake – it is whether we have the collective means to curtail the violence that poses such a threat to human life in so many corners of the globe.

Bob Rae

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  1. Avatar of Kannan Nair Kannan Nair said on

    This is story is forgotten story.Resposibilities have been taken by Tamils themselves.I feel, they have got that much mental power.I understand no one or no body helped then sincerely.And also I do not understand,why this matter has come up now.

  2. Avatar of Richard Levy Richard Levy said on

    It has been painfully clear and particularly frustrating that the Liberal Party has been so passive and afraid to directly attack the pathetic Conservative economic record since Stephen Harper came to power.

    The failure to address the poor Harper economic record was a key weakness of both the Dion and Ignatieff leadership and directly led to the widely held public misconception that Harper and Flaherty lead a sound, efficient and steady economic team. Both the media and the public have bought into this myth.

    The Conservatives have been able brand themselves to the public as responsible and steady stewards of the nation’s economy when – in fact they have been the highest spending government in Canadian history and their spending has grown exponentially. Furthermore their Action Plan has been a dismal failure as a job creator with its lack of vision for modern evolutionary employment opportunities.

    In the face of the Harper government’s economic PR and continuing lecturing of the United States and Europe about the state of their economies amidst their own economic incompetence, there has been no attempt by the Liberal Party (or the NDP for that matter) to aggressively challenge the Tories’ putrid economic record and to remind voters that the Liberal party has been the only party in recent Canadian history to manage the economy.

    There has to be a coordinated media strategy to label both Harper and Flaherty as the economic incompetents that they clearly are.

    Despite the emergence of Justin Trudeau, the truth is that Liberals will not form a government unless we mount a strong coordinated attack to point out the dismal record of the Harper government, as the Tory tactic of consistently stating that they are strong economic managers has crystallized in the public mind.

    It’s time to stop being on the defensive because the Tories will again paint the Liberals as a tax and spend party that will endanger the economy. In that vein, the Liberal Party should also aggressively publicize the fact that the Tories have significantly raised taxes on consumers and businesses by introducing the HST. The Liberal Party, curiously, under Ignatieff allowed the Tories to brand the HST as a strictly provincial tax, when in fact the Harper government used it to stealthily increase taxes to replace the revenue that was lost when they cut the GST.

    It’s time to go on the offensive on the economy folks. Other issues – like the Tory treatment of our troops – are problematic for the Harper government, but they don’t resonate with voters like the economy does.


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