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Friday, 15 November 2013

WHY SRI LANKA MATTERS By Emmanuel Onwubiko

Joe .A., a mutual friend who hails from Bayelsa state is a close confidant of many top political office holders in the current Nigerian government headed by the Bayelsa – state born President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
Joe is an environmental rights activist but not as radical as the late Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa who was killed after a charade of a court trial by the late maximum military ruler of Nigeria General Sani Abacha over issues relating to his avowed determination to stop the degradation and wanton destruction of the eco-system and environment of the crude oil rich Ogoniland in Rivers State and the rest of Niger Delta.
Joe called me few days back to inform me of his nomination to be on the Nigerian delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of government Conference of 2013 being hosted by Sri lanka and he was very delighted to have got this opportunity to visit this tiny but beautiful Island nation that only recently emerged from many decades of war and liberation struggles staged by the Tamils who desire separate political state of their own.     
At first glance, I expressed my desire to also visit Colombo, the political capital of Sri lanka but minutes after I had wished him safe journey, I made a dash for the newspapers of the day and the dominant foreign stories were concentrated around the issue of boycott and withdrawals of some Heads of government from the ongoing Commonwealth Conference.
Most of these high profile withdrawals were linked to questions around the wave of widespread human rights violations and stifling of press freedoms by the Sri Lankan government ironically headed by a former military general, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa whose key family members hold strategic positions in the current Sri Lankan government including the minister for Economy; minister of Defence and Speaker of parliament.
The commonwealth Summit which kicked off on Friday November 15th 2013 is being boycotted by Canada, India and even the tiny Gambia, ironically headed by a dictator.
My friend Joe gave me a final call as he boarded his flight on Wednesday 13th November to Colombo and I briefly discussed with him on the raging controversy and we both reasoned that come what may, President Jonathan will not boycott the event.
The next day being Thursday, I keenly observed that the Nigerian President ‘Shunned’ the Sri lanka Commonwealth event but instead headed to Onitsha, Anambra Sate to join forces with his political party (Peoples Democratic Party) to campaign for their governorship candidate in the Anambra November 16th 2013 election – Mr. Tony Nwonye.
On several inquiries from the seat of government in Abuja, those in the know told me that the Nigerian Presidency values winning the coveted seat of governor of a prime Igbo State of Anambra than President Jonathan personally attending another global carnival which to all intents and purposes, does not have any political mileage or value added to the Jonathan’s regime in Nigeria.
The vice President Mr. Namadi Sambo was dispatched by the presidency to be at the head of the Nigerian delegation and I was told that the downgrading in the hierarchy of Nigeria’s presence in the ongoing event of the Commonwealth in Sri lanka has nothing to do with any boycott even though president Jonathan reportedly visited President Yaya Djameh of Gambia only few days back.
On November 15th 2013 as I watched the opening ceremony from the comfort of my room through the British-based Sky News, I saw Prince Charles who stood in for Queen Elizabeth 11 [too old to embark on long haul trips], the leader of Commonwealth group of Nations, as he addressed the crowd in Colombo, Sri lanka but diplomatically avoided the political controversy trailing the hosting right given to Sri Lankan government accused of gross human rights violations in the bloody crushing of the Tamil Rebellions in 2009.
The Sri Lanka President, who spoke defiantly earlier, had defended his government by saying that his regime ended the rebellion to preserve respect to the highest human right which is right to life.
Wonders, they say shall never end because the next question that would follow is that how would you claim to be protecting right to life through military operation to end a rebellion when in that same counter insurgency operation by the Sri Lankan government over 40,000 civilians perished?
I watched with considerable trepidation in 2009 as that Sri Lankan government’s attack was unleashed because the international media relayed it live through satellite to the global audience. It was indeed a sordid and gruesome site/scene to behold.
Colum Lynch who wrote a column in Washington post of April 21, 2011 highlighted the imperative of ensuring that an independent probe of that military exercise against the Tamil Tiger fighters is carried out.              
Colum Lynch’s report followed the release of the United Nation’s panel on the incident.
Lynch wrote thus; “Sri Lanka’s decisive 2008-09 military offensive against the country’s separatist Tamil Tigers may have resulted in the deaths of as many as 40,000 civilians, most of them victims of indiscriminate shelling by Sri Lankan forces, according to a U.N. panel established by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.”

Colum continued thus; “The panel recommended that Ban set up an “independent international mechanism” to carry out a more thorough probe into “credible” allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which held more than 300,000 civilians “hostage” to enforce a “strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lankan army.”
Extensive portions of the report were published over the past several days by a Sri Lankan newspaper, the Island, and have been quickly repudiated by Sri Lankan authorities. U.N. officials reportedly confirmed the authenticity of the report but said the disclosure was incomplete. They said that the release of the report had been delayed amid discussions with Sri Lanka over the possibility of including a rebuttal in the report.
Colum observed that the panel’s findings constituted a devastating indictment of the country’s military conduct during the final stage of the 28-year war, accusing government forces of shelling hospitals, no-fire zones and U.N. facilities, and blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid to victims of the war.
The panel calls on Sri Lanka to “issue a public acknowledgment of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the war.”
But the journalist who wrote for Washington post nevertheless noted that investigators also faulted the United Nations for failing “to take actions that might have protected civilians” and called on Ban to conduct a “comprehensive review” of the U.N. system’s response to the crisis.
As a reporter then with The Guardian of Nigeria, I also watched in astonishment as the United Nations under the then stood by and allowed the genocide that took place in Rwanda.
War historians recalled that the Sri Lankan government launched an all-out offensive in 2008 in an effort to crush the Tamil Tigers, one of the world’s most violent and ruthless insurgencies. The operation, which centered on a Tamil stronghold in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka, succeeded in wiping out the armed movement in May 2009.
 But the operation took a devastating toll on ethnic Tamil civilians, who were largely trapped between the rival forces.
In the words of Steven Ratner who sat on the United Nation’s panel and a University of Michigan’s legal scholar, the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan administration in 2009 against the Tamil Tiger fighters, constituted persecution of the population of Vanni. 
I ask, should this bloodbath be allowed to go just like that without bringing any one to account?
Sri Lanka indeed matters because if the World fails to investigate such huge atrocities committed in the name of a government against civilian population, why then did the World successfully prosecuted and punished some key players in the events leading to the dastardly genocidal killings of 6 million Jews during the second world war?
Canada and India’s boycott of the Commonwealth event going on in Sri lanka is significant in the sense that most people are of the strong opinion that attending the carnival- like event hosted by a government whose officials are soaked with blood of the innocent in their hands, would mean that the international community has quickly forgotten the bloodshed.
But British Premier Mr. David Cameron who is also critical of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is attending the event on the ground that it would be better engaging Sri Lankan administration to campaign for greater human rights respect than to stay away.
To sum up the sentiments expressed by Canada and India which are boycotting the commonwealth event in Sri Lanka here is an appropriate quotation from the website and it goes thus; “It's a shame the Commonwealth has come to this," said former Caribbean diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders, now part of a Commonwealth panel charged with recommending reforms in the organization. Choosing Sri Lanka as a summit venue, which gives it the Commonwealth chairmanship for two years, "suggests we are not serious about Commonwealth values. ... That makes it a hypocritical organization."
As I sat down to write this piece, a thought flashed through my mind which questions the credibility of the 53-nation Commonwealth, which has its root from Colonialism by the British overlords who are yet to come clean and/or pay reparations or indeed offer apologies profusely for subjecting millions of their former Colonized people to situations worst than slavery.
Again as I research through a lot of literature publication on the commonwealth, I came to realize that the Commonwealth has seen members fail to meet its standards before. Pakistan, which has long struggled with democracy, was suspended in 1999 and again in 2007, while Robert Mugabe's dictatorship over Zimbabwe led the country to withdraw altogether after its 2002 suspension, so said observers.
Observers however said the Sri Lanka situation is unique, in that the country was chosen to host the summit even while the international outcry was mounting for a war crimes investigation.
"The summit's success now depends on what Sri Lanka does next," said South Asia expert Gareth Price of the London-based independent think-tank Chatham House. "That is one of the justifications used by leaders who are going, that the media is going to shine a spotlight on these issues." From all these facts we now know that Sri Lanka matters.

*           Emmanuel Onwubiko; Head; HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS’ ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA;;


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