Peter Roebuck, the Fairfax cricket writer, has joined Mike Atherton in suggesting a boycott of Sri Lanka. For England that means next year; for Australia, next month. It’s good to see that someone outside the cloisters of human rights activism is prepared to make a stand against the arrogant, unaccountable gloating and spin of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.
The UK Channel 4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ shown on Four Corners last week was truly sickening. The Sri Lankan army, in the course of its rout of the LTTE in May 2009, appears to have recklessly if not deliberately bombarded civilians in ‘no-fire zones’ with artillery; and to have carried out summary executions of captured Tamils, including women, some of whom appear to have been raped.
As explained in the program, Sri Lanka is not a member of the International Criminal Court, so its leaders and generals could only be indicted if the case was referred to the ICC by the Security Council. Since this is not likely to happen, the only option is concerted international pressure, at two levels: on the Sri Lankan government to permit an independent investigation; and on the members of the UN Human Rights Council to revisit the issue, having voted a week after the fighting finished to congratulate Sri Lanka on its prosecution of the civil war.
In Britain, where the media have been much more active, there has been a political response. Alastair Burt, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, has written to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister demanding a credible, independent investigation by the end of the year. The Prime Minister reiterated the concerns in Parliament. (None of which is to say that the UK government is impeccable in its attitude to Sri Lanka — it continued to deport Tamil refugees, despite the obvious dangers.)
Here in Australia, however, the government has barely said a word. In his introduction Kerry O’Brien wondered whether the Four Corners program would elicit a public reaction, and perhaps even a decisive government response, in the way the program on live cattle exports did a few weeks ago. The contrast, as it turned out, couldn’t have been starker. Apart from a few letters in the Herald and viewer comments on ABC web sites, the reaction has been an eerie silence. As far as a government response is concerned, even if politicians are reluctant to take any initiative, it seems odd that the ABC and broadsheets haven’t followed up and pressed ministers for a response.
There was one sound bite from Kevin Rudd on PM the next evening. But when Ali Moore interviewed Rudd on Lateline later that Monday evening she didn’t ask a single question about Sri Lanka. (It isn’t as if Moore is untutored on the Sri Lankan issue: in April she interviewed Gordon Weiss on the occasion of the UN Report’s release. (Weiss, who featured in the Four Corners Report was part of the UN aid mission during the civil war, and has recently published The Cage.)
A possible reason for the lack of interest might be that everyone sees the Sri Lankan atrocities as old news. Channel 4, which seems to have done all the running, first showed incriminating footage in August 2009. They revived the story in December 2010 when one of the bodies in the video was identified as that of the LTTE newsreader Isaipriya, who was unlikely to have been a combatant, the new angle being that this was hard evidence for a war crimes prosecution. Then on June 14 the channel broadcast the hour-long report ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, this time prompted by the release of the ‘export report’ to the Secretary General.
But Cynthia Banham, writing last week just before the Four Corners program aired, and contrasting Rudd’s inaction on Sri Lanka with his passionate support for intervention in Libya, speculates that ‘the sole interest of the Rudd and now Gillard governments in Sri Lanka has been asylum seekers. Basically, we do not want them.’
Let’s make it clear: the message is not that the Sri Lankan government has been tried, found gulity and now awaits suitable punishment, but that it must submit to an investigation. Notwithstanding some dubious aspects of the Channel 4 story, there is obviously a case to answer. Claims that the video is an obvious fraud were rendered foolish by a Times investigation, and an analysis commissioned by the UN ‘Special Rapporteur’ on extra-judicial executions (something I must admit I’d never heard of — and who would have guessed that members of the Alston family would get involved with demonic organisations like the UN?)
But the war is over, everyone knows that the LTTE committed appalling war crimes themselves, and Sri Lanka faces a peaceful future. So why not let sleeping dogs lie? Also, as a practical matter, extra-judicial execution will be presumably be harder to prosecute in the light of Bin Laden’s murder by the American military. Any of the reasons supplied by the US Administration to justify the latter could legitimately be raised in regard to the LTTE leaders.
But there is more at stake here than upholding abstract notions of justice. Sunili Govinagge put it well in The Drum:
One of the Sri Lankan government’s consistent arguments against discussing what happened during the end of the war is that now the conflict is over, it is time to move on. The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission was established in an attempt to let bygones be bygones. But the UN panel found that this body failed to ‘satisfy key international standards’ and has ‘not conducted genuine truth-seeking about what happened in the final stages of the armed conflict’ (UN report, p v; also 88-96). The thing with forgiving a wrong is that the wrong must first be acknowledged. Notably, South Africa’s painful Apartheid history was addressed by its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which even with its name highlighted the need to uncover the truth….Burying traumatic secrets will only foster the ongoing resentment and anger that still festers between Sri Lankans both on the island, and abroad.
So, if the Government and Kevin Rudd won’t pursue this for the sake of long-term harmony in Sri Lanka, perhaps it’s left to the cricketers, who are the next most influential group when it comes to this particular country, since cricket is the foundation of Sri Lanka’s international prestige. I suppose it’s too late now to cancel the Australian tour, and not too many individual players could be persuaded to boycott; but I agree with Roebuck that the Australian cricket establishment should discuss it.