The most heinous atrocity of the 21st Century was committed on the shores of an obscure lagoon eighteen months ago and six thousand miles away. The world was in the dark about it and if not for a few brave British journalists, and thanks to our free press, it would have gone altogether unnoticed.
Thousands of innocent Tamil civilians and surrendering rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were massacred by Sri Lankan armed forces. Recently screened television footage suggests that hundreds if not thousands of Tamil men were stripped naked, their hands bound, and shot in cold blood. Women were subject to severe sexual abuse and then murdered – and this is not even the beginning of it.
The Wikileaks revelations portray no leader in a worse light than Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. They show his government was a large buyer of lethal weapons from North Korea. It also exposes the extra-judicial killing of elected Tamil politicians, kidnapping, extortion and the trafficking of Tamil children to fight and serve as sex slaves by paramilitaries working alongside the Sri Lankan army. There are more awful disclosures but not sufficient space to reveal them here.
Calls by our Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary – the best we have had in many generations, the US, UN and civilised countries in the West for an independent international investigation into these alleged war crimes have been dismissed out of hand by the Sri Lankan government, which instead has appointed its own commission to look at them. Leading human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group – co-chaired by Lord Patten – have all branded it as a whitewash. An advisory panel set up by the UN Secretary General to investigate these alleged crimes has not been allowed conduct its own investigations.
Yet Sri Lanka and its government – which seems to have entrenched itself in power permanently through various constitutional amendments – enjoys the unfettered privileges of a law-abiding member of the global community. Such impunity has encouraged it to suppress the remnants of what was a free press and any dissent. British Journalists amongst others have been deported and some are banned from entering the country. The British High Commission in Colombo has had to pay a very heavy price for Britain’s call for accountability. Cabinet ministers with the full acquiescence of the Sri Lankan government have laid siege to it on two occasions. General Fonseka, the challenger to Rajapakse in the last presidential elections, now languishes in jail and is unlikely ever to be released.
Tragically, if the only recourse that Western Civilisation has to hold Sri Lanka and other murderous regimes to account are hollow words, all we have to look forward to is another bloody century of pogroms, holocausts, and, in Britain, mass influxes of refugees from all corners of the world. If we wish to avoid making the same mistakes which gave succour to war criminals masquerading as heads of state, words alone are not sufficient. They need to be backed up by deeds.
Sri Lanka must be subject to a regime of punitive economic sanctions if it fails to heed our calls for an independent international inquiry into war crimes. Every bully and despot must understand that there are consequences for those who disregard our call not to crush democracy and human rights under foot. Otherwise, we risk being taken for lightweights and our words will count for nought.