Come Hear Me Talk About Sri Lanka

PSA: I’ll be participating in a screening and discussion of “No Fire Zone“, a documentary about the Sri Lankan Civil War, along with the director, Callum Macrae. It’s next Monday (2/2), 12:30-2pm in room 1512 at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. I have it on good authority there will be snacks.

Check out the trailer below, and if you want to come, more details and RSVP info are up on the Pulitzer Center’s website.

WTF Friday, 1/16/2015: Sri Lankan Election Edition

Last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unexpectedly unseated in an election in which nearly 82% of eligible Sri Lankans turned out to vote. I was there, and wrote about how exciting it was for the The Washington Post’s political science blog, Monkey Cage.

I left a few highlights out, though, so to supplement that post, I give you my top 5 WTF moments of the Sri Lankan presidential election:

1. In the last week of the campaign, Rajapaksa made a visit to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where he asked Tamils to vote for the “known devil” (himself, the commander-in-chief who presided over mass bloodshed in the region at the end of the civil war) over the “unknown angel” (Sirisena). Shades of Charles Taylor’s “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him“, anyone?

2. Campaigning ended on Monday, January 5 at 11:59pm and all campaign posters were supposed to come down at that time. They didn’t. A day or two later, someone got around to blacking out Rajapaksa’s face on billboards around town. This is what it looked like:

campaign poster

3. In the final hours of the campaign, state-aligned media paired coverage of the terror attacks in Paris with graphic footage of LTTE bombings, reminding voters that Rajapaksa had been responsible for the defeat of the insurgency.

4. On election day, Rajapaksa went to cast his vote accompanied by a doppelganger of his rival Maithripala Sirisena (now the president). The look-alike was one of several “joke candidates” fielded by both sides in an attempt to confuse voters. You can see him here.

5. In the days following Rajapaksa’s ouster, a number of things have emerged, not just coup attempt rumors and allegations of corruption, but secret helicopters (actually a persistent campaign issue symbolizing Rajapaksa extravagance) and illicit elephants.

Electoral Politics at Its Best

Former commander of the Sri Lankan Army Sarath Fonseka is on the campaign trail in Uva province, and he’s brought some unconventional props with him. Fonseka, who was badly wounded in a 2006 suicide bombing in Colombo, is traveling with the shrapnel-pierced Peugeot 406 he was riding in at the time, and a cardboard cutout of the woman who attacked him.

If this is successful in winning seats for his Democratic Party in the Uva provincial polls, I can’t wait to see what candidates decide to lug around in next year’s presidential election.

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 9.56.41 AM

via The Republic Square, photo from the BBC Sinhala’s Facebook page.

WTF Friday, 7/25/2014

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Wednesday to establish an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Israel during its current Gaza offensive. Of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor, 1 (the U.S.) against, and 17 abstained.

Gaza vote

UNHRC Gaza votes

Four months ago, I was in the Council chamber as another probe into possible war crimes was debated. Here is the outcome of voting on that resolution, which established an international investigation into alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009:

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

Notice anything?

With the exception of a handful of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries, almost everyone has flipped their position.

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes. In March, I heard numerous Western countries stress the legal obligation to provide justice for international crimes and the duty of the Council to stand with the victims of human rights abuses. I heard non-Western countries object categorically to “country-specific” resolutions (i.e. initiatives that single out a country for censure or investigation without its consent) and emphasize that the Council must respect sovereign governments and avoid an interventionist approach.

This week, it appeared that none of these positions were particularly deeply held.

*Photos of the vote board are courtesy of the United Nations office at Geneva.

WTF Friday, 3/7/2014

This week’s WTF comes to you from Sri Lanka, where I’ve been for the last couple of weeks.

The Daily Mirror reports that late on Wednesday night, police in a Colombo suburb picked up two high school girls who were (gasp) waiting at a bus stop and wearing t-shirts. According to the cops, the decision was made to bring the girls into the police station to “protect them from rapists who were in the vicinity”.

That’s some fine police work, sirs. We can only hope that law enforcement in all of our communities would respond to the news of rapists on the loose by rounding up any unattended young women with such alacrity.

(And for readers who lack the ability to detect absurdity and/or sexism, Groundviews helpfully gives us the story rewritten as if the kids were boys.)

Today in Political Phenomena I Don’t Really Get…

A couple of days ago my “Death, Destruction, and Unflattering Pants” google alert turned up the news that Sri Lanka has been holding “government-backed protests” against the draft UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for accountability for war crimes committed in the suppression of the Tamil insurgency.

My first thought was “wha…?” followed quickly by “‘government backed protests…’ what are those, exactly?” And then I learned that in addition to the thousands-strong turn out for the protests, Sri Lanka’s Banks Association has released a statement opposing the resolution.

This was all a bit confusing for me, because my understanding of the UN Human Rights Council’s process for consideration of draft resolutions suggests that it is not exactly responsive to protests (popular or bank-based) within violator states. So I put on my incipient-political-scientist hat (it’s green, thanks for asking) and thought, “Well, the Sri Lankan government must know that this isn’t likely to influence the policy of international actors, so they must have some other goal in mind.”

The most plausible explanation is that the protests are aimed at domestic, not international, audiences, but I don’t know enough about Sri Lankan politics to take this analysis any further. So, someone with more country expertise, help a girl out?

I see from the AP article reporting the protests that rising fuel prices have led to civil unrest and clashes between civilians and security forces. Is this an effort to diffuse that tension and convince the public to “rally ’round the flag” against an external threat? I also see that domestic opposition figures have criticized the government for failing to stand up to the US and the UN. The objections to international interference have all been framed in terms of sovereignty incursions. Given that Sri Lanka is a post-colonial state, is this an important enough issue to the electorate that the government feels it needs to bolster its sovereignty credentials through a public display?

Anyone know what gives?

Does "Responsibility to Protect" Mean "Duty to Retreat"?

James Traub, policy director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”, for those without enough acronyms in their lives), has an interesting Op-Ed about Sri Lanka in yesterday’s Washington Post. In summary:

  1. The LTTE are super bad dudes who invented suicide bombing, killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and are currently holding thousands of civilians hostage in a desperate attempt to withstand the Sri Lankan government’s military assault against them.
  2. The Sri Lankan government is attempting to crush said bad dudes militarily, once and for all.
  3. This is endangering the lives of the civilians being held hostage. The government’s tactics (indiscriminate artillery fire, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions) are also totes uncool. They’re getting away with bad behavior by claiming that the LTTE are terrorists, and cloaking themselves in the mantle of the Global War on Terror. (Silly Sri Lankans! Only the US gets to do that.)
  4. Therefore, the “responsibility to protect” gives the Sri Lankan government a duty to retreat from the battle, even if the LTTE does not release the civilians it’s currently holding prisoner, and even if that means that the LTTE survives within Sri Lankan territory.

In other words, Traub believes that the responsibility to protect comes with a minimum competency requirement: if a state cannot achieve its military goals without going beyond a certain acceptable level of civilian casualties, then it should not be allowed to try.

That’s not a new theory: the principle of proportionality has long been a part of just war theory, (that would be “just” as in “justice”, not “just” as in “only”), and the jus in bello principles that govern how wars may be fought. Article 51(5) of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions prohibits indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including those which may be expected to cause harm to civilians or their property “which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” The same principle was enshrined in Art 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute of the ICC, which extends the same protection to the environment as well as civilians, but requires that the harm be “greatly” excessive instead of just plain-vanilla excessive.

When you think about it, that “anticipated” is kind of amazing, because it refers to the likely outcome, rather than the goal. In other words, this rule weighs the likelihood of military success against the harm to civilians, not the importance of the military objective. It’s always good to base calculations in the real world, but that presumably means that there is a sliding scale: the less competent an army is, the less likely they are to achieve their goals; and so the fewer civilian casualties they can risk.

I’m all about avoiding civilian casualties, and think that doing so is militarily savvy as well as morally correct. But wars are messy, dangerous things, and there is always some risk to civilian lives and property. Does that mean that once an army falls below a certain level of competence, they’re not permitted to take any action at all? (Seriously, not being tendentious here. Wondering if that is the logical extension of that rule.)

Traub acknowledges that the LTTE might not release the civilians, even if the government agrees to a cease-fire, but insists that the army must cease hostilities anyway. Does he really mean that? Getting rid of violent insurgencies in one’s own territory is a pretty valid reason to use military force, so why is all army action is unacceptable? Is it because there’s no way it end the LTTE insurgency without a disproportionate impact on civilian lives and property? Or is Traub advocating for a sort of three-indiscriminate-airstrikes-and-you’re-out policy, so that the army’s past violations of the proportionality rule disqualify it from any further military action?

It seems to me that the logical next step would be to demand that the army cease its current unacceptable tactics, not that it cease all military action. Traub, however, steams straight past it into demands that the army stop fighting, and calls for Security Council action. Is that because he thinks there’s no hope of changed tactics?

(Or is he a victim of the Op-Ed form, in which there’s too little room to get into details, and apparently some sort of legally-required paragraph excoriating the U.S. for violating a treaty/rule of customary international law/U.N. Resolution/Pirate Code, and demanding expiation via Security Council?)

Thoughts?

(If you want to learn more about proportionality, I recommend this and this)

(Hat tip: Enough’s Blog.)

Extrajudicial Killing Hot Spots: Sri Lanka

We’ve blogged previously about what a dangerous place Sri Lanka is for journalists critical of the government. Before being gunned down in his car earlier this year, investigative journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge accused the defense ministry (headed up by the president’s brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa) of being responsible for, or at least complicit in, the disappearances and violent deaths of dissidents. In a posthumously published editorial he even alleged that his own murder (which is my pick for the X-Judy award) was a government-sanctioned assassination.

Things have gone from bad to worse in Sri Lanka in the months since Lasantha Wickrematunge’s death, with human rights activists and diplomats crying “war crimes” with regard to the civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers.

Now, if it were war crimes week (like every other week around here), I’d probably have something to say about that. But it’s not, so instead I’ll direct your attention to a wry twist in the story of extrajudicial killings in Sri Lanka:

In her piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Angilee Shah notes that the Sri Lankan security forces under Gotabaya Rajapaksa “are alleged to have ordered or been complicit in the disappearance, torture and murder of thousands of Sri Lankan citizens.” Old news, right? Well, here’s some new news: Before becoming the Dark Lord of the Sri Lankan security forces, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a UNIX administrator at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

So for all of you who ever wondered if your law school’s IT department was populated by the evil minions of death and despair, the answer turns out to be yes. At least if you went to Loyola.

(HT: Anil Kalhan at SAJAForum)

Speaking Truth to Power and Other Inadequate Clichés

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga was gunned down by assassins last week.

Sri Lanka is a dangerous place to be a journalist; the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it number 5 on a list of “countries where journalists are murdered on a recurring basis and governments are unable or unwilling to prosecute the killers.”

Lasantha was the editor of The Sunday Leader and a frequent and prominent critic of several successive Sri Lankan administrations. Despite recurring threats and harassment, he continued to challenge governmental corruption and brutality. His bravery obviously did not stem from naïveté; before he was killed, he wrote an impassioned editorial titled “And Then They Came for Me” treating his death as a foregone conclusion and accusing President Mahinda Rajapaksa (a former friend) of complicity in his murder:

“You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted.”

His paper ran it this Sunday, three days after his assassination. It is an eloquent defense of the role of the press as a check on government. I recommend you read the whole thing, posted below.


Editorial

And Then They Came For Me

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that – pray excuse cricketing argot – there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing expos‚s we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering “development” and “reconstruction” on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I – and my family – have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am – and have always been – ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be – and will be – killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niem”ller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niem”ller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem”ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.