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Why Genocide is an issue in the British elections

[TamilNet, Thursday, 6 May 2010 08:15 No Comment]

This general election sees unprecedented levels of engagement of British political parties with issues that are important to the Tamil Diaspora. With three active party-affiliated campaigning groups within the Diaspora – Tamils for Labour, British Tamil Conservatives and the Tamils for Liberals and the reciprocal active engagement of candidates from a cross section of parties in issues specific to the Tamils, the British Tamil Diaspora is no longer expected to vote primarily for a single party that was ‘sympathetic’ to their issues. Voters will ultimately need to choose based on the relationships they have built and what they feel their candidates have achieved for them. However, in policy terms the priorities of the Diaspora are clear: Tamils need to see a fundamental shift in the way the conflict has been viewed.

This shift is best expressed as recognition of a long running genocide and accepting the Tamil struggle as a national question and dealing with it accordingly.

The present British government’s failure to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the Vanni this time last year has not helped it’s cause.

For the first time, position statement of the candidates have been collated in the Tamil media.

There is a clear consensus among candidates and parties that the Sri Lankan state is abusing the human rights of its citizens, that it is repressive towards the Tamil ethnicity and that something needs to change.

The challenge now for the voter is how to choose between the policy approaches of the candidates and parties and the issues that they have chosen to highlight.

Recognition of genocide in Sri Lanka is one of the most important issues in the debate. This is because policy decisions are made within a frame of discourse.

The frame of discourse can obscure even the most obvious genocides such as that which took place in Rwanda in 1994 where circa 800 000 Tutsi were killed while the UN debated whether peace-keepers should stay or go in Rwanda.

It is now admitted that for the early part of the genocide, the UN was in the wrong frame of discourse – that of a civil war. In reality the civil war and a genocide proceeded in parallel.

The framing of the Rwandan genocide as a civil war rather than a genocide explains the UN’s paralysis and Kafkaesque debates while tens of thousands died: the peace keepers were there by invitation of the parties, they had no mandate to intervene to protect civilians, it was important for the UN to remain neutral between the warring parties, the requirement of a threat to the regional peace was not met for intervention to be justified.

These debates were inappropriate in the event of a genocide where the state itself is the perpetrator. Even when it became clear that Tutsi civilians were being targeted for their ethnicity with a view to destroying in part that ethnic group– a genocide – the discourse remained in the frame of civil war and thus of the rights of the state.

But the choice of alternative frames – civil war or genocide – was a false choice: Rwanda was simultaneously both, as is often the case with genocides.

Sri Lanka in 2009 saw the same issues of the framing of the discourse in the UN as a civil war or more specifically ‘a war on terror’ notwithstanding the ethnic cleansing element and that Human Rights Watch termed it “a war against civilians”, echoing a classic definition of genocide.

We use Rwanda as an example, because it is clear that the frame of discourse is a barrier to action even where the scale of killing is several times higher than it was in Sri Lanka.

Similarly the frame of discourse can shift too easily – and wrongly – to that of a ‘post-conflict’ scenario with all its emphasis on strengthening the state via economic and reconstruction assistance.

Recognising the existence of a long running genocidal process focuses attention on coincident issues that normally are part of genocidal processes: ethnic cleansing, land grabs from minorities, forced assimilation, constitutional race discrimination via the privileging of one language and religion over others and so on.

Recognition of genocide would also imply recognition that it is the state itself that is the perpetrator, thus going to the heart of the problem. Recognition of war-crimes do not have the same effect: errant soldiers acting outside of a chain of command may also commit war-crimes. Whereas it is well understood that states are the most common perpetrators of genocide.

It would highlight the importance of aid being channelled through independent agencies to those who need it rather than being used as a mechanism to consolidate state control.

Increasing following the dominance of the war on terror framework, British government departments have worked in a coordinated fashion to implement policy that reduces global security threats from terrorist networks.

For example, development assistance has been seen as part of a package that solves issues of discontent at source, thereby reducing the possibility of ‘terrorism’ taking hold. This has been the approach to Sri Lanka – where the Foreign office, the Department of International Development and the Ministry of Defence have worked within a common, coordinated framework.

Tamil groups believe this framework to be misguided because they believe that the underlying dynamic is that of race-base oppression strong enough to form a genocidal processes formulated as a ‘long running structural genocide’.

The cleansing of civilians from Mullaiththeevu into a safe zone and then into concentration camps, and the attacks on the safe zone echo the now-recognised genocide in Sebenica. It is important that policy frameworks adjust to deal with these realities.

Recognising the importance of dealing with issues at the level of the frame of discourse, Diaspora campaign groups have prioritised genocide recognition as well as the establishment of an independent state of Tamil Eelam as campaign issues.

Some candidates have directly met this challenge head on.

Dr Rachel Joyce of Harrow West issued an election pledge to work towards the recognition of genocide in Sri Lanka.

Candidates from all parties have used the g-word in relation to Sri Lanka.

Andrew Dismore of the Labour party wrote an article in the Independent newspaper in 2009 characterising the Sri Lankan conflict as a genocide.

Lee Scott, Robert Halfon and Andrew Charalambous of the Consevative party have all referred to the conflict as a genocide.

Ed Davey of the Shadow Foreign Minister of the Liberal party asked a parliamentary question as to whether legal advice had been taken by the Foreign Office on whether this was a genocide.

The Liberal party has published a statement making reference to ‘land grabs’ while refraining from using the term ethnic cleansing.

Yet other candidates, many of whose statements are featured on the Tamil Guardian website this week have clearly supported self-determination – while some have been clear that they refer to an independent state (external self determination) and others have referred to greater autonomy. Many of these have, as seen from their statements have taken part in monitoring the recent referendum on the main principle of the Vaddukkoddai Resolution.

Candidates such as Siobhan Mcdonagh have chosen to focus on the economic boycott – raising the profile of the issue at the Labour party conference and joining protestors on the streets.

Other such as Simon Hughes, Susan Kramer and Ed Davey of the Liberal party were pivotal in facilitating Diaspora interaction with officials from the UN and European Union in that fateful month of May 2009. All of these approaches have a part to play.

Voters will ultimately need to choose based on the relationships they have built and what they feel their candidates have achieved for them.

Yet in policy terms the priorities of the Diaspora are clear: we need to see a fundamental shift in the way the Sri Lankan conflict has been viewed. This shift is best expressed as recognition of a long running genocide. Without this shift, we are doomed to experience more of the same failures that have plagued British and international foreign policy in relation to that country.

Legal groups are in parallel building the evidence and legal case. But as illustrated by conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia, political will is also a critical component of genocide recognition.

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