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India’s Responsibility Towards The Tamils In Sri Lanka

Intervene to protect

Editorial by MG Devasahayam, The Statesman, Calcutta, May 12, 2009

The Sri Lanka situation is the ideal one to invoke the R2P. It has been horrendous and shocking for the conscience, and cries out for action. The world Tamil diaspora is wailing in distress and agony but the Security Council is merely indulging in meaningless semantics and bureaucratic procedures... It is imperative, therefore, that India as the concerned state has to consider ‘other means’, including military action to meet the gravity and urgency of the situation...

With a ‘military victory’ of the Sinhalese over Tamils achieved by an army General who has openly declared that ‘Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese’ and near total political polarisation of Sinhalese vs Tamils engineered by a President who wants to ‘rule forever’ with that linguistic majority in tow, ‘Tamil Eelam’ looks like an agenda that has self-generated itself!

The AIADMK leader, J. Jayalalithaa, set the cat amongst the pigeons when she declared the other day: “If a government that listens to me is formed at the Centre, I will take action for the dispatch of the Indian army to the island nation and create a separate Tamil Eelam.” This demand had been raised earlier by her alliance partners ~ Dr Ramadoss of the PMK and Vaiko of the MDMK. 

Prof K Anbazhagan, the intellectual face of the DMK, responded: “Tamils are being destroyed in Sri Lanka. The place is full of widows who have lost their husbands, widowers who have lost their wives, and people who have lost their arms and legs. This has been going on for a long time. Sinhalas are making Tamils into heaps of corpse. But theirs and ours are different countries. The laws of that land are different. We cannot intervene”.

UPA’s views

He was only echoing what the UPA government, the Congress and Chief Minister Karunanidhi have been repeating ad nauseam. This is the concept that carries the benign nomenclature of “sovereignty” wherein the international system is structured to entitle states to impunity within their borders. Sovereignty enables states to determine for themselves whether human rights are indeed universal, or whether international standards and conventions can be omitted from their jurisprudence and conduct.

What does this mean in the context of Sri Lanka? That the Tamils there are urchins and orphans to be deserted on the streets and cast to the vultures and wolves to destroy and decimate as they wish? Can a civilised society tolerate this?

On similar lines, the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, had posed a challenge to the Millennium General Assembly in April 2000, by asking: “If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica ~ to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”
This challenge was the catalyst for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which was launched in September 2000. It published a report in December 2001 advocating the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). The commission was hosted by Canada and headed by Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister.

Heads of state and government from 150 countries, meeting at the UN General Assembly, unanimously accepted that sovereign states have a very explicit responsibility to protect their own people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. When they manifestly fail in that responsibility ~ as a result of either incapacity or ill-will ~ the responsibility falls upon the wider international community to take whatever action is appropriate, including in the last resort, and if the Security Council agrees, military action. This was contained in Articles 138 and 139 of the UN World Summit Outcome Document 2005. This commitment has been reaffirmed in the Security Council Resolution 1674.

According to Gareth Evans, R2P is intended to apply to mass atrocity crimes, which refer to “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.” State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself. Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international R2P. 

There is a ‘Just Cause Threshold’ for military intervention under R2P ~ large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or large scale ‘ethnic cleansing’, actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.

Under Article 24 of the UN Charter, the Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security. It has the power to impose sanctions, establish peace-keeping missions, and authorise military action.

As a signatory to the UN Charter, the 1948 Genocide Convention, and the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949, India is bound to invoke the UN Security Council to halt the crimes against humanity and gross violation of human rights and civil liberties taking place in Sri Lanka. When the Security Council fails or is prevented from performing this critical role, the countries concerned acquire the right under R2P.

The Sri Lanka situation is the ideal one to invoke the R2P. It has been horrendous and shocking for the conscience, and cries out for action. The world Tamil diaspora is wailing in distress and agony but the Security Council is merely indulging in meaningless semantics and bureaucratic procedures. China is reportedly blocking all efforts to even bring this issue on the discussion agenda.

It is clear that in Sri Lanka, the Security Council has failed to discharge its responsibility of protecting innocent civilians in ‘conscience-shocking situations that have been crying out for action’. It is imperative, therefore, that India as the concerned state has to consider ‘other means’, including military action to meet the gravity and urgency of the situation.

Legal obligation

As parens patriae (parent of his country) for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, being the original homeland for the Tamils, India has an added responsibility. It has the moral right, the legal obligation, and the standing under international law to intervene directly and bring the genocide to an end, as suggested by Professor Francis Boyle, an international law expert.

In the event, Ms Jayalalithaa and her alliance partners are on a strong wicket relating to India’s direct intervention to halt the ‘racist genocide’ and evolve a just and fair political solution to bring this conflict to an end.

As regards the ‘creation of a separate Tamil Eelam’, the Sinhalese seem to be facilitating it more than the Tamils. How else does one interpret the Western Province election results wherein the Sinhala people have given the full mandate to Mahinda Rajapaksa to go ahead in the war against ‘Tamil terrorism’. The trend could well be the same in any forthcoming elections under the Sri Lankan state system.

With a ‘military victory’ of the Sinhalese over Tamils achieved by an army General who has openly declared that ‘Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese’ and near total political polarisation of Sinhalese vs Tamils engineered by a President who wants to ‘rule forever’ with that linguistic majority in tow, ‘Tamil Eelam’ looks like an agenda that has self-generated itself!

The writer is a retired IAS officer and author