Can cricketers do Rudd’s job for him?

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.

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kymbos
kymbos
10 years ago

Good piece. I have been searching for a good book on modern Sri Lankan history which covers the origin of modern Sri Lanka and this conflict.

If anyone could recommend one I would be grateful.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

The thought of what’s been going there has me shuddering.

NBS
NBS
10 years ago

Nice article but I’m afraid neither our government nor our cricketers are going to go anywhere near a microphone let alone lift a finger in regards to this issue. It will be many, many years before someone will be brought to account what went on for the simple reason that those who (at the very least) tacitly consented to the actions giving rise to these crimes are currently in power.
In terms of time line, I’m envisaging a Cambodian-style delay unless the political ground shifts dramatically and the UN Security Council does refer the matter to the ICC. Nothing short of a seismic shift is going to change the current status quo.
This is, of course, not to say that pressure should not be exerted. Abusers like nothing better than to have their abuse swept under the carpet and not talked about. Funny thing though, it always comes back to haunt them….

Russell
Russell
10 years ago

I suppose we’ll be entertaining the Sri Lankans at CHOGM in Perth, in a few months time.

It must be fatigue, and a feeling of ‘thank God it’s over’ that accounts for the silence. I had a Tamil Sri Lankan friend in the 1970s whose family had to flee the troubles in Sri Lanka. It just went on so long you wonder if the only way it could end, was the way that it did end.

observa
observa
10 years ago

We await with baited breath Peter Roebuck’s call to impose economic sanctions on China(you know Tianenmen Square, Tibet, Copenhagen, etc, etc) when he’s not too busy arguing cricketers should take up the cudgel against Sr Lanka and no doubt Peter is right behind meatworkers and their call to ban the live cattle trade to those ghastly halal mussies up north. Come to think of it Peter why should we sit down with any of the gaggle of gangsters in the UN? Let’s take the high road and ditch them all for our more exclusive United Liberal Democratic Nations and only trade and allow free capital movement among ouselves. I’m right behind you Peter and as for those two faced Pakkies hiding Osama…

observa
observa
10 years ago

I note Canada has just announced a boycott of the UNs Conference on Nuclear Disarmament whilst Nth Korea is leading it stating- ‘North Korea is simply not a credible chair of this United Nations body’ coming after Iran’s bid to sit on the UNHRC. Yes I could join a ULDN with Canada and happily leave the Irans, Cubas, Chinas and NKs, etc, etc to form their own gaggle of gangsters. What say all the Peter Roebucks and Bob Browns to that?

James Farrell
James Farrell
10 years ago

Thanks for the comments.

Kymbos, I haven’t managed to get hold of Gordon Weiss’s book (there’s link in the post) yet, but I imagine that would fill the bill.

NBS: You’re probably right, but if the status quo prevails it will be two generations before the Tamil population in the north become reintegrated socially and economically into the mainstream, and continuing Tamil braindrain will make things worse.

Russell: Whether it could have ended without gratutitous slaughter of civilians is precisely what an independent investigation would be looking to ascertain.

Observa: Your first comment seems to be the standard objection to mixing sport and politics; in the absence of an actual arguument to back the sarcasm, I’ll let it go to the keeper. The second one didn’t even land on the pitch: I have no idea what Roebuck and Brown would say about your proposal, but it has nothing to do with prosecuting Sri Lankan war crimes.

observa
observa
10 years ago

A ULDN has many benefits, not least setting reasonable and achievable standards among it members and to the extent that the usual suspects wish to hold members to their particular esoteric standards, that would lift the bar to any potential increase in membership. Those who aspire to joining our club (the odd Egypt or Tunisia) could have associate membership with speaking but non-voting rights until they can meet full membership status requisites.

Member countries would not be expected to take the human fallout from non-member countries but leave that to their group to manage, albeit ULDN countries may engage in beacon of light military policing and punitive measures against particular recalcitrant gangster regimes. There would be no cross investment/ownership between blocs nor unilateral trade but all trade necessary to sustain the liberal democratic work in progress (ME oil springs to mind here)would be conducted through a ULDN purchasing and tendering arm, to avoid the sort of ethical bind the AWB had with the Hussein regime. These are straightforward transitional arrangements (ie timed selling out of respective cross investment) and also the cost burden of aid to gangster afflicted countries would be removed from decent hard-working citizens globally, as well as reducing the administrative cost to them of the bloated, gangster inclusive, UN now. It’s high time to stop subsidising leftist tyranny and the ramblings of a 5th century brigand and paedophile.

perplexed
perplexed
10 years ago

James Farrell acknowledges the ‘appalling crimes’ of the Tamil Tigers without specifying that these, presumably, included suicide bombings. It is a hard ask to expect southern urban Sri Lankans who were largely the target of this ‘new paradigm’ in terror to easily forgive. That doesn’t excuse Rajapaksa who is probably the predictable end result of this long agony. I support an inquiry as outlined but I shake my head at the futility that I always felt for this ‘war’. I hold a similar attitude toward Sunni and Shiite conflict.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

Sorry, I don’t see what boycotting China has to do with the Sri Lankan civil war (James, can you help?)and helping hundreds of thousands very poor and traumatised people in Sri Lanka.
If we boycott say, the Japanese, someone will finally shut down that volcano in Patagonia, or wherever? I know it’s a pomo world, but boycotting China to help Sri Lanka seems one bridge too far, as to contingency.

NBS
NBS
10 years ago

@ Paul – I think the point of boycotting China is to put pressure on them to either abstain or support a move by the UN Security Council to refer the allegations contained in the report to the International Criminal Court. That is the only way the ICC would be vested with jurisdiction as Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the treaty which establishes the ICC and sets out the limits of its jurisdiction.
Of course this is unlikely to happen for so long as the Chinese have a commercial interests in Sri Lanka. The trick will be in convincing them that as a matter of pragmatism they should stop running interference on behalf of the Sri Lankans. This will need either a HUGE incentive (after all, all the dictators with which they do business will alter their price of doing business if they know they may be given up should a better deal come to hand) or alternatively a VERY, very big stick in the form of some blackmail, say the top 5 members of the ruling clique were having orgies with pet goats. Both of these events are unlikely to come to pass.
Unfortunately it is up to the victim to bootstrap themselves into a situation where their justified moral claims will be paid more than lip service. Perhaps in a couple of generations, if that.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

NBS, thanks. I was being flip with Observa’s comment, but here is more to this than meets the eye, after all.
Was China one of the nations getting fat on weapons sales to one or other of the warring groups?
They should remember that that which constitutes South Asia is OUR colony, not theirs..

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

good post James.

Regardless of whether the action taken was the social welfare optimising one or not, justice should be pursued here. It would probably be in the interest of helping matters normalise within Sri Lanka too, since the underlying problems there have not gone away and hence having the principle established that all leaders will be punished for this kind of behaviour would increase the likelihood of more reasonable solutions that diffuse the pressures towards extremism.

James Farrell
James Farrell
10 years ago

Well said, Paul.

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Thanks for the post James. What a perfect example of our dreadful press’s inability to cover stories on their merits rather than on whether others in the herd are following the story.