The Sin of the Silent Spectator

The Sin of the Silent Spectator

People died. No. Innocent and unarmed men, women and children were murdered. It was deliberate. It was strategic. In the war between the secessionist terrorists and the ironhanded oppressive state, civilians were mere sacrificial pawns. The former used them as shields, and as targets, the latter. How many, you ask? Seven thousand. Fourteen thousand. Eighty thousand. Or maybe even more. Nobody’s certain. These figures merely represent the downplayed or exaggerated numbers of casualties in the last month or so of the Sri Lankan civil war. Perhaps the very phrase requires qualification. What began as a civil war morphed into “war against terrorism” resulting in the annihilation of not just the terrorists but of a substantial section of the Sri Lankan Tamil race too. Again, one cannot be accurate or sure. What transpired, who should be held accountable, what is justice and how are the dead and the survivors of a brutal war going to receive it are questions of importance. While trying to answer these questions briefly, this essay shall look into the role of the international community – a key player in this strategic game of violence who could have intervened in time to prevent the loss of lives of tens of thousands of harmless nationals of a country – Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims.

Why postmortem?

The process of discerning what transpired during the war is instrumental to achieving reconciliation. Truth is a precondition for appeasement. Holding the culprits accountable, and bringing them to book is essential to finding closure and moving forward.

Who should investigate?

Proposition One – Sri Lanka should independently investigate:

President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has categorically stated that he needs no foreign intervention.  So far, the international community including India seems to be content with such a response. To Sri Lanka, the international community is two-faced and works on double standards. The United States, particularly, with its actions in Iraq and Afghanistan has no moral right to talk about human rights[i]. Furthermore, as a Sinhalese pro-government journalist[ii] said it is not for the international community to act as stumbling blocks to the peace and reconciliation process already on in Sri Lanka. Besides, who are these members of the international community? What sort of mandate do they hold? Who are they appointed by? Will they be unbiased? Will they even be capable of understanding a sixty-year old difference leading to conflict within and between substantial ethnic groups in the country? It is for the international community to “not impose (their) values” on Sri Lanka but to allow the “real healing story (to be) scripted in Sri Lanka” by the Lankans themselves. Most importantly, an indigenous solution is preferable to the US/West-sponsored resolution – the same West that for decades played host to the LTTE before turning against it – because the latter will only add to the still raging ethnic fire.

Proposition Two – International Community along with the Sri Lankan state should investigate:

The primary and possibly the most poignant criticism of Proposition One is that the Lankan government appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)’s credibility, legitimacy, accuracy have been contested by the international community especially Amnesty International and international human rights groups. The whole process of fact-finding was not transparent. LLRC did not really have the mandate to look into the violations of the war. Most people on the commission were “close to the President”[iii]. There was no witness protection provided while the Commission was carrying out its task of finding the truth. It used a dismissive, patronizing approach to those who came forward with information unless of course they were supportive of the government. We have to remember that the culture of impunity goes further back even before the last few months of the war. In Sri Lanka, we are dealing with a larger crisis – a crisis of democracy, of corruption, of centralization of power resting largely with the President’s family.

Left alone, Sri Lanka’s approach towards reconciliation is nothing less than colonization and domination of the Tamils. There’s heavy militarization of the northern and eastern parts of the country.  Dr V Suresh, the sole non-Sri Lankan participant of the historic March 1, 2012 conference of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court lawyers (Sinhalese and Tamil) in Jaffna[iv], points out how

“landing in Colombo on March 1, 2012 was like landing in a war zone, a big media war at least. Huge banners and hoardings called upon Sri Lankans to defeat the U.S.-UNHRC resolution on war crimes against Sri Lanka. Ministers, politicians and ex-servicemen were leading processions across south Sri Lanka demanding these: “Defeat Geneva conspiracy,” and “Let’s not lose victory achieved by heroic forces.” In contrast, there was an eerie silence in Jaffna. The streets verged on being empty; those who could be seen seemed anxious to complete their work and get back home. The ubiquitous presence of armed security forces, weapons drawn, fingers on the trigger was fearsome. Every 100 metres on the Jaffna highway there was a security picket; every three kilometres, an army post; every 10 km, an army camp. The army was everywhere, running roadside shops, hotels and hospitality businesses. Even funerals or marriages or social functions in Tamil areas needed army permission in advance.”

Question is with a long history of flawed government investigation (Amnesty International), can Sri Lanka provide justice after carrying out a truth-determining process independently?

There’s an entire generation of young Tamils who are angry, who are looking to the world to deliver justice. The International Community failed them once – by not preventing the massacre from occurring. The world cannot fail them again. If we fail, we’re sending an alarming message to those youngsters. And history can repeat itself. When Sri Lanka as part of the International Community looked into the affairs of Libya and “investigated” the death of Col. Gaddafi, why should it prevent the rest of the world from being part of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka now?

The world does not simply have the right to intervene, investigate and deliver justice. But it has the duty to do just that.

Rewind and Fast-forward

The demand for a Tamil state in the larger context of what the Tamils view as a Sinhalese domination or hegemony, as some would call it, resulted in a civil war that morphed into a war against terrorism. The war ended in May 2009 with the definitive victory of the Lankan army over the LTTE. The means and tactics of the army have come into a lot of criticism. Credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity have been made prominently and elaborately by Channel Four documentaries[v]. Sri Lankan government was naturally incensed by this. They made a counter-documentary[vi] that can only be considered propagandistic. Independent scrutiny of what happened in the war was impossible. Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism was a war without witnesses. Journalists, aid workers, international community members were all asked to leave Sri Lanka. Brave journalists both Sri Lankan and international have been intimidated, abducted, assassinated, and silenced, in many cases by self-censorship. In this regard, the LLRC was expected to play a key role, but it too quite unsurprisingly has come in for criticism.

Today, nearly three years after the ending of the war, we still have the traumatized victim Tamils on the one hand, the triumphant and triumphalist government on the other with no sign of possible reconciliation in the near future. The post-war scenario isn’t any better than what existed previously. On the contrary, “the ground situation of the Tamils in North and East Sri Lanka is grim and anything but normal. Continued militarisation, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and threats to freedom of speech and expression, displacement of Tamils due to military occupation, ad-hoc High Security Zones (HSZs), role of military in civilian administration, Sinhalisation and forcing the national anthem in Sinhalese on Tamils, sexual abuse and gender crimes and an endless list of threats to life exists, not just in the North, but increasingly, in the South too.” (Suresh, 2012)

The Lankan Lie 

All of this only exposes the total lie of the Sri Lankan government of restoration of normalcy. Sinhalisation or state policy of settling Sinhala families in Tamil areas is changing demography. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) itself recommended immediate de-militarisation, investigation of disappearances and meaningful devolution as necessary steps for reconciliation and a return to peace. It appears the Sri Lankan government has no intention to do so. It will take more than a UNHRC resolution to tackle the serious democratic issues of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Passage of the resolution is however a necessary first symbolic step. India needs to support the resolution[vii]. But India and the international community need to do a lot more to restore confidence among the Tamils about their “just” place in a “democratic Sri Lanka.” (Suresh, 2012)

The Sin of the Silent Spectator

It appears imperative to reiterate, The World failed the Tamils once, and we are in the midst of failing them once again, if we do not act immediately, i.e.. The International Community was aware, as can be read from UN representative Gordon Weiss’ account of the war in Sri Lanka[viii] and the secret cables of ambassadors of different countries to Sri Lanka made public by WikiLeaks[ix], of the human rights violations being perpetrated by not just the terrorist group LTTE but by the incumbent Sri Lankan army too. When the international community was asked and “mildly threatened” to leave the country, members did as they were asked to; the UN diplomats too, turning a deaf ear to the cries of pleas from harmless and helpless Tamils who knew what fate awaited them.

While Sri Lanka fed the world lies of not using heavy artillery, of following a zero-casualty policy, and incessantly tried to fight the “war against terrorism” without any witnesses, it cannot be disputed that the world now has evidence to indict the Sri Lankan government of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is however a shame to note that the international community including India failed to act while being aware of the terrible truth of the inhumane occurrences in the island nation.

This criticism of not just the United Nations but the whole world of inaction, of failure to uphold principles of humanity and timely delivery of justice is not without precedence. Two stark examples I can myself think of are the roles played by the UN and the International Community in Rwandan Genocide and the post-Soviet ethnic war in the Balkans resulting in the formation of the independent state of Kosova.

The Rwandan genocide was the 1994 mass murder of an estimated 800,000 people in the small East African nation of Rwanda. It was the culmination of a civil war between two ethnic groups – the minority Tutsis supported by Uganda and the majority Hutus backed by France. Belgium sent its United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) troops to settle the dispute but they too were defeated and accused of playing a part in fanning the fire of ethnic hatred between the two groups. A Canadian Lieutenant , Roméo Dallaire (United Nations Force Commander in Rwanda) notified the UN of the threat from one of the ethnic groups. But the UN did not act. It found the situation too “risky” to attempt any help. What followed can only be considered the greatest crime of the International Community – the sin of omission:

The UN’s mandate forbids intervening in the internal politics of any country unless the crime of genocide is being committed. France has been accused of aiding the Hutu regime to flee by creating Opération Turquoise. Canada, Ghana, and the Netherlands provided consistent support for the UN mission under the command of Dallaire, although the UN Security Council did not give it an appropriate mandate to intervene. Despite emphatic demands from UNAMIR’s commanders in Rwanda before and throughout the genocide, its requests for authorization to end it were refused, and its intervention capacity was reduced. In 2000, the UN explicitly declared its reaction to Rwanda a “failure”. Then Secretary General Kofi Annan said of the event “The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret.”[x]

The Guardian on April 12, 1994 stated that when viewing a woman “being hauled along the road by a young man with a machete”: “none of the troops moved. ‘It’s not our mandate,’ said one, leaning against his jeep as he watched the condemned woman, the driving rain splashing at his blue United Nations badge. The 3,000 foreign troops now in Rwanda are no more than spectators to the savagery which aid workers say has seen the massacre of 15,000 people”[xi]

Like the Rwandan instance, the case of Kosovo too exemplifies the role that the International Community plays in conflicts and conflict resolution, and its inability rather to properly handle intra-state conflicts. Just like Rwanda and Sri Lanka, Kosovo also deals with ethnic competition amounting to violence between the Albanian Kosovo people demanding autonomy and the Serbian-Yugoslav military resisting the demand. From March 24, 1999 to June 11, 1999, NATO launched an air campaign on FR Yugoslavia, while the Albanian Kosovo Army continued battles with Yugoslav Security Forces, amidst a massive population displacement estimated to be close to 800,000 people[xii].

An historical analysis of what transpired in Kosova, and the roles played by neighbouring countries as well the NATO and the UNO only go to show that thoughtless and untimely intervention by the International Community can only worsen the situation on the ground[xiii].

To the International Community, war is considered a separate and a present institution of international order, a State-to-State practice that the international society itself feels a need to exploit so as to achieve its own purposes. International society has sought to limit the right to go to war by forwarding and legitimizing a set of principles: legitimizing States as belligerents; circumscribing war’s worst excesses by agreed frameworks ; limiting the disruption and damage to third parties and restrict the reasons or causes for which a State can legitimately resort to war. Thus, the society of States aims to discipline or control war through diplomatic procedures, treaties, international laws, wars, and all other institutions that provide for communications and interaction among the States founded on the mutual recognition among government leaders that they each represent a specific society within an exclusive jurisdictional domain (Abazi, 2004).

The problem arises when the International Community tries dealing with intra-state conflicts. The traditional normative framework seems to be limited in facing the reality of intra-State conflicts where most of the belligerent parties demand for self-determination. The requests of sub-State actors that demand recognition and self-determination, in the same basis as the States, are considered as illegal as long as non-State actors are not recognized as States. This normative framework further pledges the preservation of the present territorial borders in the international system, censors the right of self-determination to belligerent parties and legitimises States’ refusal in accepting the non-state actor’s demand for autonomy or a separate State. Such a crass framework supported by the empirical evidence of the action and the inaction of the International Community in causing and failing to prevent violent, armed conflicts in Rwanda, Kosovo and Sri Lanka (three of the many examples present out there in the real world), reveals and highlights the International Community impasse towards intra-state conflicts and the limitations of arrangements prescribed to individual cases.

Is there a road ahead?

It is not just Sri Lanka that should learn lessons from its “war against terror”. India and the rest of the world too should.

Why should India be concerned? If the fact that the leaders of India’s neighbouring State followed ethnocentric practices and policies for decades now and categorically tried to Sinhalese a significant Tamil population in a country 18 miles away from the Southern tip of India, and the fact that a highly militant terrorist group was active in Sri Lanka and was a threat to India too should not have bothered those at the political echelons, then such Indian nonchalance is not just worrying but also highly distressing. Suresh (2012) points out,

The Jaffna meeting was being held in the background of a resolution against Sri Lanka on war crimes to be taken up by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 23, 2012. At that time, the indication from India was that it would not support any “country specific” resolution. The role of the Indian government was debated with much distress. As one Sinhala origin lawyer pointed out, “All human rights violations are specific offences; perpetrators and victims are specific.” He said, “The real reason is India’s fear of independent international investigation of violations in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and the northeast.” Another senior Sinhala lawyer said with sadness, “India has forsaken the Mahatma; the land of ‘ahimsa and satya’ now openly colludes with Tamil butchers.”

To me, the International Community is the Police in Indian cinema – it always turns up at the scene of crime only after the hero has defeated the villain. In Indian feature films at least, there’s a hero saving his family, village, state, country or the world from harm, from complete elimination by use of heavy weaponry by the villain and his army. In reality though, sadly enough, there’s no saviour but only the sinning silent spectator – you, me and the rest of the world, barring a few – that continues to write academic articles, holds debates and conferences in posh universities and safe localities, while witnessing oppressive hands ruthlessly slaughtering, butchering and shelling innocent, harmless civilians.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that the world simply has the good apples and a few rotten ones threatening to spoil the rest of the lot. There are regions of grey between the dark and light regions of the world. But it is certainly not for the United Nations, the Red Cross, the Developed World or for the rest of the International Community to simply sit on the fence and watch people die while regretting and condemning acts later. There is certainly a brighter road ahead. What do we have academics, analysts, policy-makers, lawyers, activists for but to save the world from disintegrating? All this turmoil the world over cannot and will not allow one to sleep in peace. It’s time for the world to learn a valuable lesson and stop being the silent spectator.


[i] Narayana Swamy, M.R. (2012) Colombo needs to change, Geneva or no Geneva, The Hindu,

[ii] Sri Lanka’s Civil War (Complete), Asia Society talk, NEW YORK, December 6, 2011 — Documentary filmmaker Callum Macrae, Malinda Seneviratne, Editor-in-Chief of Sri Lanka’s The Nation, and Bob Templer of the International Crisis Group present and assess both the Sri Lankan government and international community’s perspectives on that country’s decades-long sectarian conflict. Tunku Varadarajan, editor of Newsweek International, moderates the discussion. (1 hr., 24 min.)

[iii] Billo, Andrew (2011) What Are Asian Nations Saying About Sri Lanka’s Conflict?’s-conflict

[iv] Suresh, V. (2012) Resolution necessary as symbolic first step, The Hindu,

[v] Channel 4’s documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,

[vi] Lies Agreed Upon Killing Fields Clear Titles Sri Lanka Counters Channel Four –
In the words of makers of this documentary, “This Investigative Documentary was produced by the Ministry of Defense, Sri Lanka as a response to the Channel 4 – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” directed by Callum Macrae. Channel 4 and Macrae attempts to discredit and tarnish the image of Sri Lankan security forces who fought a valiant war against a extremist terrorist group, LTTE. The LTTE is banned in 52 countries worldwide. Killing Fields features a Ms Thamil Vannykumar, a Sri Lankan born British citizen who claims to have been “caught up” in the high intensity battle zone of the terrorist controlled areas while “visiting relatives”. She is however, exposed in Lies Agreed Upon as an initiated trained cadre of the extremist terrorist group, the LTTE, and worked in their notorious Castro devision. The Killing Fields also feature various made for purpose though somewhat melodramatic propaganda videos of the LTTE media devision and claims them as authentic footage shot by bystanders.”

[vii] India has firmly vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 22 March 2012. The UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution urging Sri Lanka to investigate alleged abuses during the final phase of war with Tamil rebels.

[viii] Weiss, Gordon (2011) The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lanka then published An Unreliable Witness to counter Weiss’ claims.

[xiii] Abazi, Enika (2004) The Role of International Community in Conflict Situation. Which Way Forwards? The Case of the Kosovo/a Conflict. Balkanalogie VIII(1), June 2004, Pg. 9-31


Picture courtesy: Channel 4: