Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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On rights, the Diaspora and the LTTE

Why does HRW have difficulty establishing credibility with the Diaspora?... HRW enunciates human rights principles but are (at best) dangerously careless of the wider political impact of their work. The Diaspora on the other hand pursues the collective human rights of their community through the goal of self-determination and the LTTE.

by J. T. Janani

Tamil Guardian [Aug 9 2006]

In a complete reversal of their position, New York based NGO, Human Rights watch (HRW), which earlier this year described the Tamil Diaspora as caught in a ‘culture of fear’ of the LTTE this week turned to Tamil expatriates to exert their influence on the LTTE in support of human rights.

In March this year, HRW published a damning report claiming Tamil expatriates were being terrorised by LTTE fund-raisers extorting money from them to finance the war in Sri Lanka. The report, which was specifically cited by the Canadian government when it banned the LTTE in April, caused outrage amongst expatriates.

But on Saturday August 5, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams joined Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings in asking for the Diaspora to exert their influence on the LTTE to implement their recommendations on human rights.

At an event in London, Professor Alston launched a Tamil version of his report, which says, among other things that “the diaspora has a responsibility to use its considerable political and financial influence and funding to promote and to insist upon respect for human rights.”

Professor Alston and Adams said it was vital that the Diaspora make it clear to the LTTE that the war would not be won by territorial and military considerations alone but by considerations of legitimacy and respect for international human rights standards.

The Diaspora had a duty to ensure the LTTE met these standards, they argued. Supporting the LTTE unquestioningly, said Professor Alston, was like bringing up your child to do whatever he liked; it was counterproductive and not helpful to the child because he would not learn to act as a responsible adult.

The metaphor where the LTTE was likened to a ‘child’ of the Tamil Diaspora is astonishing in the context of previous policy statements by HRW and United Nations.

On the face of it, the event should have been a walk in the park for the organisers. After all, who doesn’t subscribe to human rights standards as a matter of principle? Philip Alston provided an additional incentive (as if the matter of principle was not sufficient). He said one had to be seen to be meeting international standards of legitimacy in order to achieve political goals, including that of a separate state.

But instead of support, the organisers were met with anger and a litany of complaints against their organisations’ conduct from many of the Tamil Diaspora. The event highlighted systemic disagreement between the panellists and the sections of the Tamil Diaspora being addressed by the former’s appeal.

After the conference, a clarification was sought from HRW on their understanding of the extent of voluntary support for the LTTE compared to the proportion that was being reportedly being pressured by the Tigers.

Adams replied on behalf of Human Rights watch that he had absolutely no idea. A member of the audience had claimed that the LTTE had the support of eighty percent of the Tamil Diaspora. Mr Adams thought that might well be true, but he admitted he did not really know.

In essence, Adams admitted they had no statistical information on the extent of LTTE support among the Diaspora, and further that they had no capability to obtain such information. The Asia Director of HRW said this was the first time he had been to London to meet the UK Diaspora.

But Adams did not even accept that statistics had any bearing on Jo Becker’s controversial report on fund raising by the LTTE and related organisations. In short, HRW did not know if the people who had alleged intimidation by fundraisers were a statistically significant proportion of the overall population or not – even though the report had repeatedly alluded that it was.

Adams argued that, in any case, HRW’s position was not a question of mathematics or science. He refused to accept there was even a question of proportionality. He said that if even one person felt that they were being intimidated then HRW would find itself obliged to report on it.

But for anyone who read the original HRW report this comes across as a major shift in position. The report painted a picture of a community gripped by fear and ill served by British or Canadian police or their parliamentary representatives. An entire section of the original report was dedicated to why no prosecutions had been brought in the western democracies where these offences were allegedly taking place.

It even claimed: “in Canada, the Tamil community forms a powerful voting bloc, and many members of Parliament from ridings (electoral districts) in the Toronto area are dependent on Tamil votes. Some Canadian Tamils suggest that as a result, many members of parliament are reluctant to address LTTE intimidation.”

Jo Becker, the author, in an interview with the BBC Sinhala service had countered allegations of an underlying political agenda by saying “Our only agenda is to safeguard the human rights of the expatriate Tamils.”

But Adams’ revelation that he has no idea what the Diaspora really thinks or wants and that further they had not taken trouble to find out sharply contradicts Miss Becker’s emphatic need to save the community from the LTTE.

HRW had previously issued a qualification of its report, saying it was ‘qualitative rather than quantitative’. Brad Adams said on Saturday was that the estimated several dozen people interviewed worldwide (the HRW report itself prominently leaves out the sample base) between October last year and February for Becker’s report had “appeared to give credible accounts.” Readers have to take Jo Becker’s word for it because the witnesses remained anonymous.

But even on a ‘qualitative’ basis the report runs into difficulties. A search of the HRW website reveals that Becker, an experienced human rights researcher, has written only two reports on Sri Lanka, both of them virulently anti-LTTE. This despite the fact that of the over thirty five thousand civilians killed in the Sri Lankan conflict the overwhelming majority have been Tamil civilians killed by government forces.

Becker’s March report was leaked to the Sri Lankan minister of foreign affairs before it was published. The report immediately preceded and was cited in the Canadian government’s ban of the LTTE.

The UK launch of Miss Becker’s earlier (November 2004) report (on child soldiers) had been organised by well-known anti-LTTE radio station, TBC (Tamil Broadcasting Corporation). One of Miss Becker’s co-panellists at the launch was Virajah Ramaraj, the TBC’s program director. Ramraj, a veteran of an anti-LTTE paramilitary group, ENDLF, was arrested by Swiss police in March on long-standing criminal charges.

Ms Becker used a self-selecting sample for her March report. In other words, people who wanted to complain and who were linked into the network were invited. Ramaraj, also appears in Becker’s report, this time as a witness, rather than as a fellow author. The interviews had been conducted, in many cases, by long distance telephone calls to the UK and Canada.

The report accepts that the Metropolitan police in UK concluded in the face of specific complaints that there was no evidence of an offence. But Jo Becker went on to say that Scotland Yard turns a ‘blind eye’ due to political considerations. Adams reflected the same thinking when he insisted last week that for Diaspora witnesses, HRW (and not the local police force) was the ‘first place’ to which they could turn.

Yet Adams confessed that HRW did not have much knowledge of any of the local Diaspora communities. By extension, the organisations does not have the capability to assess the credibility or qualifications of its sources. To counter this failing, HRW contends that in many ways it does not matter: Adams says if even one person feels intimidated by LTTE fund raising strategies, then that is enough.

But this position has deep flaws. Lobbying for proscription of the LTTE (which is what HRW’s report does – successfully in Canada’s case) is to deny the expatriate Tamils their right to support the LTTE’s political project; politics. The politics of an entire community of respectable citizens is being tarnished by a select few associates of the likes of Ramaraj: the disregard for their views verging on the racist.

By ignoring ‘big picture’ analysis, Adams is holding on to a very simplistic view of truth. There are lies of distortion and lies of omission. HRW has indulged in both.

By focussing disproportionately on one human rights problem, others are marginalised. In the Sri Lankan conflict there are a plethora of abuses, including disappearances in government custody, torture, massive proportions of long term displaced, military occupation, arbitrary executions to name just a few.

HRW chose to prioritise a small group of people who unverifiably claim their rights are being violated over many of those who argue their rights are being defended against the Sri Lankan state by the LTTE. The point here is that HRW, when it writes on Sri Lankan affairs, even on a Diaspora issue, is intervening in the Sri Lankan conflict.

Even the merest respect for the numbers of rights abuses within the Sri Lankan question would have led to very different set of priorities from that chosen by HRW.

Almost a quarter of Tamils in Sri Lanka are internally displaced. Arbitrary, racially profiled, mass arrests of Tamils in cities such as Colombo are commonplace. So are cases of torture and disappearances.

In contrast to HRW, many of the Diaspora prioritise Sri Lanka’s rights abuses differently. Stopping the greatest abuser, the state military, is their concern. Many Diaspora Tamils argue for self-rule and autonomy on this basis and back the LTTE’s political struggle on this basis.

They are aware the LTTE does not have a clean sheet, but, in their view, this is not a concerning as securing the overall cause of self-determination which, when realised will protect Tamils from the Sri Lankan state.

Little surprise then that HRW has difficulty establishing credibility with the Diaspora: the human rights goals of the two groups may be broadly aligned in theory but in practice there is no agreement on implementation.

HRW enunciates human rights principles but are (at best) dangerously careless of the wider political impact of their work. The Diaspora on the other hand pursues the collective human rights of their community through the goal of self-determination and the LTTE.

For example, HRW deplored the impending exit of international truce monitors because with fewer people on the ground it would be harder to track human rights issues.

But the Diaspora saw the exit of the monitors as an inevitable consequence of their countries’ proscription of the LTTE. The Diaspora instead deplored the ban as a violation of their community’s human rights. They are also well aware HRW’s controversial (and now suspect) report contributed to the ban.

HRW deplored the large number of internally displaced people in the island. But Tamil Diaspora activists with organisations such as the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organsiation) were furious because the ban also indirectly obstructed their humanitarian fund raising. Again, such activists see HRW as having targeted their struggle (in support of the Sri Lankan state that caused those displacements in the first place.)

HRW’s apparent recognition that the Diaspora matters to Sri Lankan politics comes somewhat late in the day. Notably, the Diaspora’s views were not consulted before the proscription of the LTTE - in fact all of the protests and appeals by the Diaspora were bluntly ignored. Instead, HRW’s report was cited as evidence for a need to save the Diaspora from the LTTE.

Ironically, Alston’s original metaphor of the parent-child is correct: the LTTE relies on the Diaspora for financial, intellectual and moral support.

But then it is impossible to seek a cooperative relationship with the parent having just helped in the demonising and condemnation of the child. If the organisers of last week’s meeting with the Diaspora were shocked by the anger they were met with, they had only themselves to blame.

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