Second-guessing Sri Lanka
Published: Sunday | June 28, 2009
Lakshman Kadirgamar, the former Sri Lankan foreign minister, was one of the most incisive legal minds of his generation. A former president of the Oxford Union, he made significant contributions to the International Labour Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation, among other entities. Whoever met him, as I did, could not help but be impressed with his knowledge of international affairs, his passion for peace in his homeland and his razor-sharp intellect.
An ethnic Tamil, he was proud to serve as foreign minister in the Cabinet of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kamaratunga, a Sinhala, though he knew in so doing he put his life on the line. And, as so many others of the best and brightest Sri Lankan Tamils of our time, he paid for it dearly. He was gunned down one evening in August 2005 in his own home in Colombo by a sniper using an infrared, telescope-equipped rifle. As customary, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the deadliest and bloodiest terrorist organisations, banned in 32 countries, never acknowledged authorship, though it is widely accepted no one else could have pulled off such a complex, high-tech task.
Sri Lanka's former foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, talks to reporters during a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in this February 27, 2004 file photo.
As terrorist attacks spread from Baghdad to Bombay to Baluchistan, and the Afghan war spills into Pakistan, one would think that the end of the 25-year-old war in Sri Lanka last May would be widely greeted. In a subcontinent in which terrorism runs so rampant that the Sri Lankan cricket team was the target of a terrorist attack in once peaceful Lahore, and the Indian Premier Cricket League has to be held in South Africa, this should be especially so.
Combining moral turpitude with high-tech savvy, the LTTE invented the suicide bomber vest, pioneered the deployment of female suicide bombers, killed one president at home and a former prime minister abroad, and developed the extortion of the Tamil communities abroad to a high art, accumulating, according to some estimates, a US$300 million to US$400 million war chest. They set up both a navy and an air force, and a specialised suicide bomber unit, the so-called Black Tigers, whose career high point was the 'last meal' (vegetarian) they had with LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, before departing for their final mission.
Their end should thus be welcome. Yet, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is being criticised in many western quarters, particu-larly in Scandinavia and in western Europe.
Critics argue that the international community, invoking the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, should have intervened to stop the fighting earlier, since "the Sri Lankan government is as responsible as the LTTE for civilian deaths". Others like, Vidar Helgesen, have argued that the outcome of the Sri Lankan conflict shows "conflict resolution the post-American way", one in which the brute use of force would replace "emerging international norms and architecture for human security, the responsibility to protect, peace mediation, peace-building, etc", making them "obsolete before they even got started".
The resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict would thus be comparable to the Rwandan genocide, the Srebrenica massacre and the "killing fields of Cambodia". The first task now, therefore, would be an international investigation as to what happened, and how to allocate responsibility for eventual war crimes or crimes against humanity between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
This does little favour both to Sri Lanka and to the very valuable Canadian-initiated concept of R2P, one of the most exciting and innovative notions in IR and international law today. This R2P has triggered resistance in many countries of the Global South precisely because of its potential misapplication to situations such as the Sri Lankan one.
In Sri Lanka what obtained was a straightforward civil war, initiated by a separatist, terrorist organisation, which cost up to 70,000 lives. Throughout, Sri Lanka remained a full-fledged democracy: five general elections were held, and the government changed hands three times, though the LTTE killed one president, at least one foreign minister and the army chief barely escaped from another suicide bomber.
Though the war took its toll, press freedom suffered and human rights violations were committed on both sides, the most remarkable thing is how well Sri Lanka's democratic institutions withstood the terrorist onslaught.
During these 25 years, Sri Lanka called on the international community for help through a variety of peace-mediation efforts. All of them were taken advantage of by the LTTE to continue to pursue their objectives of a separate, independent Tamil Eelam through their policy of indiscriminate killing of all those it considered stood in their way, be they Sinhala or Tamil, and thus came to naught. President Rajapaksa finally realised that only a military solution could bring peace to Sri Lanka.
One of the great successes of the LTTE was their manipulation of Western public opinion. They masterfully played on the identity politics prevalent in advanced democracies. Prabhakaran died with a side arm in one hand and a satellite phone in the other, gambling, to the last minute, that the international community would rescue him and his acolytes.
The main task for the international community today is to help Sri Lanka in its reconstruction effort in the north and the east, and in addressing the very legitimate grievances of the minority Tamil community. The last thing south Asia needs is a finger-pointing exercise aimed at questioning the Sri Lankan state's legitimate right of self-defence and of using military force and to protect its territorial integrity. To confuse this with a genocidal exercise like that of Rwanda would have made the international lawyer in Lakshman Kadirgamar cringe.
The end of the Sri Lankan conflict should be seen for what it is - a victory of one of Asia's older and most established democracies over one of the great scourges of our time, terrorism.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) , in Waterloo, Ontario. He served as Ambassador of Chile to Sri Lanka from 2004 to 2007.