Why no moral stance on the question of genocide?

Tamil women cry as they hold up images of their disappeared family members during the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at a protest in Jaffna, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Colombo on 27 August 2013Reuters

It happened just as apprehended. Actually, there had been such speculations in Geneva, London and Geneva over the last few days. Bangladesh voted against the proposal to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights the mandate to collect and record evidence and determine possible strategies for future trial of the grave human rights violations in Sri Lanka against civilians in suppressing the Tamil rebellion. However, the proposal was passed during the voting on Tuesday at the UN Human Rights Council.

The reason why these speculations surfaced is because this proposal was initiated by Canada, the UK and a few other countries of the West. The Canadian high commissioner in Colombo, David McKinnon, met with the Bangladesh high commissioner there, Tareq Ariful Islam, to discuss the proposal, and news of this meeting leaked out appeared in the 6 March issue the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island. Irate Canadian high commissioner McKinnon then posted a Tweet, asking if he was under surveillance.

According to UN estimates, around 80,000 to 100,000 people died in the civil war which lasted or over two decades, resulting from the struggle for an independent Tamil state. When the Tamil rebellion ended in 2009, the UN brought about allegations of war crimes against both sides. However, the Sri Lankan government claimed that the Tamil rebels had used the civilians as human shields. Allegations of extreme cruelty were raised against the Sri Lankan army. The Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksha who recently visited Dhaka, was the president at the time and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksha was defence minister.

Gotabaya won the election on 2019 and is the country’s president now. His predecessor president Sirisena made a commitment regarding investigation and accountability in connection to the human rights violations that took place during the war. However, Gotabaya backed away from this and so the international initiative was taken up.

Gotabaya had directly led the operation to suppress the Tamil rebellion. He had previously been in the Sri Lankan army. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and entered politics. He underwent military training in Pakistan in the seventies and has close ties with Pakistan army officers. He received special assistance from the Pakistan armed forces in suppressing the Tamil rebellion (Pakistan military offers assistance to Sri Lankan Air Force, The Economic Times, 11 February 2020). Human rights lawyer Yasmin Suka even filed a case against Gotabaya Rajapaksha, but had to withdraw it as he was elected president.

The unfortunate fact is that just on the day before that 50th anniversary of that horrific night of 25 March, Bangladesh has stood with Pakistan in an effort to protect Sri Lanka from being tried for war crimes

A budget of 2.8 million US dollars has even been approved for the proposal taken up by the UN Human Rights Council to collect and record evidence of the Sri Lankan civil war. In the 47-member human rights council, 22 countries voted in favour of the proposal, 11 countries voted against and 14 abstained. The 11 countries that voted against the proposal were Bangladesh, Pakistan China, Russia, Cuba, Bolivia, Eritrea, Philippines, Somalia, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. The other two South Asian members of the council, India and Nepal, abstained from voting.

It must be recalled that if Sri Lanka had not supported the Pakistan army during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence struggle, it would not have been possible for the Pakistan forces to attack in such a matter and the frenzy of killing Bengalis would not have been so widespread. As India had denied Pakistan overflight rights, Pakistan stopped over and refueled at Colombo and send troops as well as arms and ammunition through the corridor over the Indian Ocean. According to the Economic Times, Pakistan’s civil and military aircraft stopped over at the Katunayaka international airport 174 times. A Sri Lankan air force officer of that time recently even tweeted about his experience then.

When the Rajapaksha government was being hugely criticised for the genocide against the Tamils, Mahinda Rajapaksha was given a red carpet reception when he visited Dhaka in 2011. I wrote a column in Prothom Alo at the time, criticising this. The late journalist ABM Musa had also phoned me in London, reminding me of Sri Lanka’s role in 1971.

As a nation that has undergone genocide to achieve independence, why cannot we adopt a moral stand on the question of genocide?

The unfortunate fact is that just on the day before that 50th anniversary of that horrific night of 25 March, Bangladesh has stood with Pakistan in an effort to protect Sri Lanka from being tried for war crimes. Pakistan and Sri Lanka still share close ties. Even in this pandemic, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan visited Colombo on 23 February and despite their own financial crisis, Pakistan provided Sri Lanka with a 50 million US dollar loan for the defence sector.

Other than these events of past history, the UN and various human rights organisations have been continuously criticising Sri Lanka for certain recent incidents. One of these was making it compulsory to cremate the bodies of Muslims who had died of Covid-19. President Solih of the Maldives had even proposed that Sri Lankan Muslims be buried in his island state. Later, in face of criticism from the UN Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka finally agreed to allow them to be buried, but the Rajapaksha government fixed a remote island for the purpose. There are also allegations of journalists and human rights activists being harassed.

The question may arise, if countries like China, Russia and the Philippines can side with Sri Lanka, can’t Bangladesh also do so in its own interests? Perhaps our foreign ministry can answer this best. But our question is, what benefits has Bangladesh got or will get from Sri Lanka that it has taken such an unethical stand? Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksha didn’t apologise for collaborating with Pakistan in 1971. Foreign minister Abdul Momen quite proudly announced at the press briefing that Sri Lanka would back Bangladesh for membership in the next term of the UN Human Rights Commission. The Tuesday voting indicated how Sri Lanka will benefit if Bangladesh is a member of the human rights council. But as a nation that has undergone genocide to achieve independence, why cannot we adopt a moral stand on the question of genocide?

*Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir