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Opinion: ICG’s Hollow Sri Lankan Advocacy

March 29, 2009

by Chandra Almeida


In Sri Lanka, before you fire away that report, talk to the press, or release a communiqué make sure those scathing words from your NGO/UN local HQ are aimed only at a certain “non-state actor”.

The rebels, or the “boys” as the locals call them, don’t want to alienate the aid organizations that are the lifeline for beleaguered Tamils and whose displeasure will only further tarnish the guerillas’ unenviable international standing. Harassment of aid organizations, especially by a “bunch of insurrectionists,” will not be brooked by the global community.

With rare exceptions, both sides have silenced local dissenters. While one is a military regime waging a popular, but existential, struggle for Tamil self-determination, the other is a Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian regime that treats minorities and critics as potential enemies of the state. For many, the democratic state has metastasized into a security state.

The successive ultra-nationalist Sri Lankan governments, never wanting to be outdone, have also honed their expertise at expelling and threatening foreign NGO/IGO officials, and assaulting, murdering, and even raping local members of the country’s civil society with impunity. UN agencies, Transparency International, ICRC, Action Against Hunger, Berghoff Foundation, Peace Brigades International have all suffered at the hands of a government that sees them as a subversive force. Local NGOs and civil society members are seen as proxies of this larger conspiracy. The present Sri Lankan regime has been made bold by its successful “Look East” policy (China-Pak-Iran) and continued Western apathy for stern measures.

The result? Aid organizations in Sri Lanka who are also intent on bearing witness, understandably, choose dry rations over inking a charge sheet. Who can blame them? Even the otherwise quiet UN Humanitarian Affairs head, John Holmes, has publicly stated Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers.
Nevertheless, advocacy groups like HRW and AI remain unbowed, but only because they tend to make discreet visits to Sri Lanka — without authorization (or so the state charges) — to document human rights violations. Unable to shut them out, officials have only managed to lash out every time a damning report is issued.

Little surprise then that global advocacy groups rarely maintain an in-country presence in hotspots. Unlike most aid organizations, there’s no real need for them on the field, and field conditions in most places will likely be less tolerant of advocacy groups.

In all this, only one major international advocacy organization maintains a long-term presence in Sri Lanka — International Crisis Group. Their website declares:

“What distinguishes Crisis Group from other organizations working on conflict analysis, prevention or resolution is a unique combination of field-based analysis, sharp-edged policy prescription, and high-level advocacy.”

The group receives generous funding from foreign governments and influential private foundations like George Soros’ Open Society Institute to sustain its work. ICG’s words have sway in the diplomatic arena as shown by its growth over the years and the long list of major global movers and shakers on its board.

So it’s of little surprise when ICG’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, the Barron Chris Patten, says,

“What Crisis Group does is to fill the need that policy-makers in national governments have for smart, honest analysis and practical proposals for preventing disaster, or at least mitigating its consequences. We often find ourselves saying the things that governments would like to say but find too difficult.” [bold emphasis mine]

ICG was given a harsh reminder of its boundaries when ICG president Gareth Evans championed Sri Lanka as a perfect R2P scenario around 2 years ago. This rankled the Sinhala communal sentiment so much that Evans had to don the hat of a verbal contortionist.

In response, Sri Lankan government authorities gave one senior NGO figure associated with organizing the Gareth Evans lecture a taste of the ‘minority treatment’. Fortunately, she lost out on the locals only premium package “offered” to journalist Tissanayagam and countless other Tamils, and so was only thrown out of the country. Ready to Pack is what awaits those who invoke R2P, mocked the “patriots”.

Ever since then, ICG is careful not to offend its benevolent host, the Sri lankan state.

How any international group can continue advocacy in Sri Lanka given the current climate is mind boggling. ICG does not even maintain a permanent in-country team for Sudan, DRC or Iraq; it is not a question of ICG being caught off guard by a sudden surge in hostility towards NGOs, but if its in-country presence is about quiet diplomacy directed at GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) then its reading of the crisis not only misleads the public and the media, but also the international community.

ICG’s Report – A Review

ICG’s overdue commentary — Conflict Risk Alert: Sri Lanka on the Sri Lankan crisis not only fails to offer any new information on one of the most terrifying humanitarian emergencies in the world, but also under-reports the scale and scope of the suffering.

However, it is ICG’s recommendations that set it apart from the reams of reports, stories, briefs etc. that other IGOs, NGOs and the media have made public over the past few months.

Some of the highlights include:

Expecting the Tamil polity to embrace Mahinda’s Chinthana

Maybe ICG hasn’t seen or heard of the internment camps planned to detain and interrogate over 200,000 Tamils – men, women, children, the elderly – all of whom are now refugees in their own land. Already, there are over 35,000 families wasting away in these camps. But one cannot blame ICG for omitting what the mainstream media has called concentration camps. After all, how can the Colombo Office do so when GOSL defends them as “welfare camps.”

ICRC, UN, and other independent organizations are barred from registering the refugees in a country only 2nd to Iraq in disappearances. Stories of kidnapping, torture, murder and rape abound. ICG’s omission in its new commentary is troubling.

Any Tamil under the age of 60 is a suspected terrorist. This was only reinforced in the BBC Hard Talk interview with the Sri Lankan Minister for Human Rights. As discussed below, this is another reason why ICG’s limited recommendation for international monitoring is puzzling.

Another confidence building measure put in place by the regime is the appointment of Karuna, one of the most feared paramilitary group leaders, whose group is behind an array of war crimes — including the rape and murder of NGO staff — on behalf of the state as Minister for National Reconciliation and Reintegration. Then again it is of little surprise since any ‘liberated’ Tamil region becomes the fiefdom of some paramilitary group or other.

Maybe it’s best Tamils forget the perpetual bullheadedness of the Sinhala polity in addressing legitimate minority grievances, also evident in a recent charade — the All Party Representative Committee, which ostensibly sought to forge a political solution, but was nothing more than a state public relations exercise. ICG is well aware of this.

Does the ICG really believe that this regime, of all its predecessors, is the most likely to address them?

One should not be surprised by ICG’s position. In its conflict history section on Sri Lanka, ICG completely ignores the failure of decades of Satyagrahic struggle – viciously rebuffed by the majoritarian state — for equality by Tamil democrats even before the rise of Tamil militancy.

But denuded now of any potent bargaining power, Tamils are expected to accept what is given under the Sinhala hegemonic status quo. The message reads no strongman = no representation/voice.

ICG’s Recommendations to the International Community

Modest really. They include:

a) Relief

b) Pressure for a surrender and support supervision of the ‘physical safety’ of surrendered cadres

c) Augmenting a naval cordon not to prevent re-armament by both sides, but only that of the rebels (and their escape routes).


d) Prosecuting the rebel leadership for war crimes. (i.e. the international community’s role is primarily that of security not that of introducing a just peace.)

ICG’s request signals to the West to quickly step up and widen the nature of its present support to the Sri Lankan state. Apart from the Pak-Iran-China Axis, the West along with India have also had a heavy hand in training and equipping the Sri Lankan forces so it’s no surprise if some of these recommendations are realized.

Expecting the rebels to surrender presumes that they have been decisively defeated, forgetting that although they have confronted the military through conventional warfare, at the core they’re a guerilla force. Nonetheless, the rebels’ inability to maintain or likely restore parity of military power cannot be denied. While secession through military means was always unlikely, the rebellion stood some chance of forcing a generous devolution of powers by the government. Now even the latter seems impossible. I am not saying that this is a war that can lead to a just solution for all communities through a stalemate, but that just peace can only be achieved with tenacity for a rights-driven engagement by the West.

What’s more, there’s no mention of the paramilitaries’ fate. Has their “democratic transformation” been so convincing? ICG calls for international monitors to guarantee the ‘physical safety’ of the surrendees. According to ICG’s rationale, so long as they’re not abused or murdered then all other measures (including indefinite incarceration) are acceptable. Somehow, the Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration approach has been abandoned.

If the majoritarian politico-security establishment is unable to even treat the rebel war dead with dignity (desecration of bodies and graves), it’s unlikely monitors, who’re there to only ensure the “physical safety” of rebels, will convince many to capitulate. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that this is not subsumed within a broader call for a supranational human rights body to establish a monitoring mission with a bold mandate to address not only the brutal human rights violations by the rebels, but also those of the state.

One has to wonder if the tens of thousands of Tamils and members of other communities savaged by the State are undeserving of justice. Is ICG advocating that international justice be applied selectively in any conflict? This will validate the stigmatization of the country’s Tamils as the aggressors and the Sinhalese as the aggrieved.

This sort of vilification of the Tamils has profoundly shaped the Sinhala psyche for centuries, and ICG’s proposed approach does little to facilitate meaningful reconciliation and conflict resolution. Instead, ICG’s rationale seems to be that somehow the rebels are the ‘greater evil’ because they have inflicted misery on a population they claim to represent. Hence, the reference to ‘cult’ in relation to the rebels comes as no surprise. ICG does, however, seem to concede the undeniable and overwhelming sympathy for the rebels among the Tamil minority. Strange. But this international justice measure- a likely reference to the International Criminal Court- seems to be contingent on rebels continuing to carry out abuses in their areas of control. Perhaps Tamils in the GOSL controlled areas have not informed ICG of their newfound paradise in detention centres awaiting permanent disappearance or of the many instances where they’ve been expelled from their lands through state colonization and militarization schemes.

GOSL has the right to respond to terrorism and protect its territorial integrity, or so we are told by ICG. That’s what Slobodan Milosevic kept telling himself too. ICG could take a few hints from Navi Pillay’s, the new (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, recent remarks on Sri Lanka. ICC’s Luis Moreno-Ocampo already has. This sympathy towards the insurgents is likely a reaction to the actions of GOSL, which has not only brutalized far more civilians within its own majority community, but also that of the minorities’.

The risk of ICC prosecution should only be used as a tool to get both sides to the table to negotiate a lasting federal arrangement. Justice and healing could be sought through a process not hinged as much on prosecution as it is on education and awareness through dialogue if co-existence at all is to be meaningfully realized.

The US, India, and EU rebuking/censuring/cautioning GOSL has done, or will do little to counter the Japan-China-Russia-Pakistan quartet, which has provided Sri Lanka with considerable financial, military and or diplomatic assistance bereft of any human rights conditions so ICG asking the West and India to convey a “strong message” will do little to remedy this.

ICG is flawed in its approach as it fails to articulate the necessity of major disincentives for the GOSL if it fails to cooperate with the international community. Likewise, its calls for a Special Representative from the UN, while commendable, is hardly reassuring as we have all witnessed the recent failures of Ibrahim Gambiri to Myanmar and Jan Pronk in Sudan. Another problematic approach on the part of the ICG is that no recommendations have been made on confidence-building measures by the international community directed at Tamils (not just in Sri Lanka but in the Diaspora as well). In its recommendations, ICG expects the international community to corrall global Tamil public opinion behind it. But developments in Geneva and New York have also battered an already shaken faith in the UN and Western governments.

None of this matters to the ICG. For ICG, it is all about focusing on a clean and comprehensive victory for the state, which it believes should dictate the course of events. Appeasement is still in trend. ICG only hopes to “help mitigate some of the Sri Lankan government’s suspicion about international motives,” which it believes its recommendations can achieve.

The difference with the humanitarian advocacy ICG conducts on behalf of other crises cannot be starker. In 2007, ICG co-launched the ENOUGH Project with the Centre for American Progress to tackle genocide and war crimes because it argued they are not “inevitable.” ENOUGH hopes to reverse the “wait and see approach” adopted towards crimes against humanity by the West. Strangely, this initiative only focuses on Darfur and South Sudan, Eastern Congo, Northern Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chad and Somalia. But as ICG Board member, Chris Patten, stated ICG is only echoing the West’s position on Sri Lanka.


ICG’s recommendations for the government of Sri Lanka are underwhelming. It would be a mistake to believe that this recent report is the product of a lone voice from within ICG. Lakhdar Brahimi, a hotshot UN diplomat and ICG board member, echoed similar thoughts in his recent article in the International Herald Tribune. Maybe it’s no strange coincidence that the UN has been reluctant to release casualty figures in its possession, or that there’s frustration among NGOs of the UN’s muffling of internal reporting from the war zone . The principle of sovereignty and a state’s monopoly on violence trumps all – even the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the island’s embryonic democracy.

It would also be a mistake to think that ICG’s commentary is driven primarily by humanitarian concerns. If that were the case, the government’s mass internment efforts would not have been omitted (especially while calling for the evacuation of  tens of thousands of civilians from rebel areas), a call for human rights monitors would not have been ignored, the issue of seeking justice for only victims of rebel leadership would not have been put forward, and punitive measures for GOSL’s uncooperative stance would not have gone unmentioned.

While ICG’s recommendations are not inherently flawed, including that of disarming the rebels, its recommended steps for peace in Sri Lanka are inadequate. They’re stripped of broader measures that should be premised on international will to not just confront the rebels, but also the chauvinistic state with equal rigor. There is no talk of federalism or the application of a human rights perspective in their commentary. One cannot put an end to a conflict without jointly addressing–even superficially–the political (including human rights), security, and humanitarian dimensions sans partisanship.

ICG has conveniently awaited a decisive outcome in the battlefield to offer its vision of a solution to stave off the worsening of the crisis. If ICG’s debased vision is implemented it will only aid the comprehensive and uncompromising Sinhala Nationalist politico-military dominance over minorities, so it is of no surprise that ICG has sneaked in some criticism of GOSL, including that of “safe zone” bombardments (note: aid organizations have already publicized all this).  For all intents and purposes this is seen as a War on Terror and nothing else.

Any humanitarian intervention at this point is a fig leaf for the international community’s intolerance for forces that upset the sovereign status quo and a last ditch effort to save face by averting the massacre of many more civilians.

The last thing the West and Ban Ki Moon need is another indictment on their international ineptitude, inertia and indifference as witnessed in the Balkans and Rwanda. Any criticism of partiality will be blunted by GOSL allies arguing that the rebels have permanently lost parity of power, and with the end inevitable, it’s best to prevent further loss of life. This new morally bankrupt shade of R2P is touted by ICG from a fear that more slaughtered civilians could only revive further rebellions down the road. The end goal is not about justice, but about salting an already bloodied earth that may give rise to any future insurgencies.

All this might mothball the Howitzers, but will it end ethno-nationalist violence in Sri Lanka? Unlikely. Many will continue to be disappeared, abused and persecuted far away from the watchful eyes of the media.

Perhaps the new ICG leadership will someday recalibrate its Sri Lanka advocacy and analysis back to what ICG was once respected for.

After all, their incoming president did strive to establish a UN human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka sometime back.

It is always disheartening to see international organizations like ICG and the UN fail minorities, more so in times like these. There are exceptions, but Sri Lanka’s Tamils are not among them.

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