Brian Stewart: Why Canada is calling Sri Lanka to account

For years, the world gave Sri Lanka a free pass while it was fighting the insurrectionist Tamil Tigers. But now its human rights abuses are too big to ignore, Brian Stewart writes.

Human rights violations are too big to ignore, Canada and the UN now say

When victims of mass abuse are ignored they are twice victimized: first by their oppressors, secondly by the world's indifference.

That's why few failures in the field of human rights are more discouraging than the old double standard of favouring one set of victims over another.

Just ask the ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka. In the past three years they've absorbed brutality, military defeat and world indifference all at once, as other of the world's injustices took centre stage.

In the spring of 2009, at the end of that country's long civil war, as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly slaughtered by the Sri Lankan military as the insurrection by the Tamil Tiger independence movement collapsed.

This number, based on estimates by the UN and respected human rights' groups, is considerably higher than the number of Libyans or Syrians killed in their respective uprisings, yet it still receives miniscule world attention by comparison.

Western nations like Canada sent fighter-bombers to help in Libya and have even agonized (vaguely) over possible intervention in Syria.

But they have done very little until only recently about the massacred men, women and children in Sri Lanka. Why is that?

No 'safe zone'

Of course this was not a conflict with many redeeming qualities. For over 26 years, civil war raged mainly in the north of Sri Lanka before the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) were defeated by a full government offensive.

A supporter of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa shouts anti-UN slogans in Colombo in February 2012, in one of a growing series of demonstrations aimed at Western 'meddling.'

As usual in civil wars, human rights abuses were committed on both sides. The Tamil Tigers were notorious for assassinations, for using child soldiers and for shaking down their own countrymen who lived abroad.

But now it is being widely reported that that final offensive in May 2009 turned into a giant killing machine as government forces used heavily artillery and bombings on civilian Tamils.

Shocking satellite pictures obtained by the UN show the corpses of thousands of civilians killed by shelling within a government-designated "safe-zone" for non-combatants. The dead often lay near emergency food-distribution points.

What's more, the killings apparently did not stop with the surrender.

In the last few months alone, human rights activists and others, including a Sri Lankan reconciliation commission, have called for further investigation into widespread allegations of killings and disappearances of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Last year, a particularly searing British documentary, "Sri Lanka's killing fields," lit a similar fire with the international community. 

Western 'meddling'

Throughout all this the Sri Lankan government steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on its part and there have been huge street demonstrations in recent weeks, including by the country's colourful Buddhist monks, supporting the government and attacking the West for trying to raise these concerns.

Sri Lanka's actions, beginning with its decision not to let foreigners in to document the end of the civil war in 2009, are typical of a nation trying to get away with oppression on a huge scale because it believes the rest of the world will let them. It's that simple, really.

"They did not believe that anyone in the international community was willing to stop them, and they were right," says John Holmes, a British diplomat and former head of UN humanitarian operations, in the U.K. documentary.

The "they" in this case may well have been thinking of Western governments like Canada's.

During the long conflict, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives were quick to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization (it was one of their first actions on taking power in the spring of 2006) and reluctant to criticize the Sri Lankan government, a fellow Commonwealth member and long-time friend.

After the war was over, Canada's roughly 300,000 Tamil-Canadians felt largely betrayed by the Harper government and perhaps even by the Canadian public.

When their massive pro-Tamil protests in Toronto tried to warn of the slaughter of civilians they were widely dismissed as being self-absorbed and criticized for disrupting traffic.

Within a very short time, it seemed, their cause faded from the headlines.

The UN takes note

Only now are we starting to see Sri Lanka called to account. Over the past year a substantial case has been put together detailing humanitarian crimes on the island that other nations can no longer ignore.

For this we can thank the quiet and dogged persistence of human rights' groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

This week, the UN Rights Council in Geneva finally passed a tensely debated U.S. resolution calling on Sri Lanka to "address serious allegations of violations of international law" through credible investigations and prosecutions of guilty soldiers.

This particular UN council has a great deal to make up for. Right after the war it passed a resolution praising Sir Lanka's conduct during the conflict — which was typical of the kind of easy pass that the country had received for years.

But the UN council is not the only body to reverse course.

To its credit, the Harper government has recently morphed from defender of Sri Lanka into one of its strongest critics, for refusing to investigate these alleged crimes.

Canada co-sponsored the American resolution and lobbied hard for its passage.

We are also directly urging Sri Lanka to take on serious reconciliation with its Tamil minority, and sending a fact-finding team of MPs there this week.

Another about-face

As expected Sri Lanka's government has denounced this recent pressure as Western meddling. It has long felt safe if it could keep friendly China and, especially, big neighbour India onside.

This week, it was shocked when India abruptly switched positions and voted for the UN resolution.

India's about-face, rather like Canada's, was clearly connected to skilled Tamil political pressure. The main party representing the large Tamil population in southern India successfully threatened to scupper the Indian coalition government unless India backed the UN resolution. 

Meanwhile, it is a good time to remind everyone that any future investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka will be messy. An inquiry will have to investigate allegations against both sides to have any credibility.

I'm not overly hopeful. I've been disappointed before in Sri Lanka but I am also reluctant to see its cause further ignored.

I remember Sri Lanka, following the disastrous tsunami of 2004, as an achingly beautiful country battered by war and nature and just dying to be restored to peace.

It cannot achieve that dream now by suppressing the pain of its Tamils.