HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE PATH OF RESISTANCE
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 27 Dec 2009
The Use of Political Violence as a Means for Achieving Rights in Sri Lanka
Around his neck, every day, he wears a little glass vial, no longer than a bullet, a pendent of sorts. If bitten into, the broken glass will break the skin on the inside of his mouth. This is painful, of course, but it is only a logistical burden. From inside the vial, a fatal dose of cyanide begins to enter the bloodstream. Within about seven seconds, he is dead. Death is a duty, a fate better than capture.[i]
This is the life of a Tamil Tiger. Can this be human rights? Militant martyrdom is merely a caricaturization of the Tamil resistance movement. Yet it is quite indicative of the approach of insurgent groups who use strategies of terrorism and other types of political violence in which esteem for humanity becomes a negotiable, instrumental decision.
Debate over this issue tends to take two sides: one asserting that human life should never be instrumentalized under any circumstances; the other claiming that the end achievement of human rights may require pragmatic use of political violence along the way. One thinker on the topic, Mohandas Gandhi, developed the system Satyagraha emphasizing the importance of means in the pursuit of truth. This position is drawn from a conclusion that human action is the only controllable part of human existence. In turn, perfect means and methods are the only assured path to perfect ends. Clearly from this perspective, a strategy of political violence that violates rights has little chance of achieving human rights ends. However, those who see the concept of human rights as a political tool that must be calculated and balanced are not completely satisfied by such moral perfectionism. Thinkers such as Michael Ignatieff have instead maintained a ‘lesser evil’ attitude about achieving human rights ends. Their arguments hold a belief that a bloody history of human rights struggle has been unavoidable and perhaps necessary. This assumed, insurgents seeking a particular right, for example the right to self-determination, might only need to restrict their means to the point that it does not violate certain norms (i.e., last resort, civilian immunity, prisoner treatment, etc.).[ii]
Considering these points, this article seeks to answer whether the Tamil Tigers should have used political violence as a means for achieving rights in Sri Lanka. In doing so, the following article will support a core concept of human rights that allows for only a nonviolent range of strategies – perfect means and ends rooted by the universal equality of esteem. Circumstances often exist for minority groups where nonviolent strategies appear hopeless against an oppressive state, and thus violence seems the only feasible means to overcome the unbearable odds. However, this is a shortsighted appraisal of nonviolent resistance and human rights. Strategies that do not themselves respect human rights, both externally and internally, fail to potentially optimize the power of participation, creative pluralism, and mutually defined goals. Instead, political violence, especially terrorism, can only guarantee a climate of insecurity, undermined development, loss of life and an array of other results antagonistic to human rights.
This conclusion is reached by assessing nearly forty years of conflict endured by the Sri Lankan Tamils since intensely committing to a strategy of guerrilla insurgency and terrorism. Observing the various internal human rights failures that have taken place and continued under the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the use of political violence has proven to be not only futile against the state but also counterproductive. This is evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of deaths suffered in only a few decades, the mass exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils to India and the West, and the terror inflicted by the LTTE while claiming to be the only voice of the people. Such results suggest that even if nonviolent means fail to bring about desired ends, they still avoid potential death, suffering and rights abuse, which are guaranteed by an insurgent strategy that violates human rights.
The course of this article will begin with an appraisal of the contrasting points of view considered in regards to the question. This will be followed by a review of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Finally, the principle argument will be discussed in regards to the Tamil people, especially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Human Rights and Terrorism
As a massive and ever-expanding discourse, the subject of human rights accumulates towards a better understanding of what is considered the concept of human rights. In its conceptual form,[iii] the subject allows us to stand back from the pain and misery that is involved in abuse and suffering so that we can better analyze why such events take place. And using the abstract rights language that is created to give such matters a voice, the goal from all sincere sides of the subject embraces a mutual attempt to stop this suffering. It is important to distinguish, however, that the discourse and the concept of human rights are not one in the same. Whereas the discourse is an immense consortium of competing claims vying to be heard in the context and rationality of their respective arguments, the concept of human rights is essentially contending as one voice.
Accepting this distinction, one can begin searching for some core meaning in the concept of human rights, some sacred and intractable heart, that gives life to the entire subject. As reverberated throughout the history of the concept, this core contains the desire to end suffering and cruelty to others as well as the tendency to see some good in a shared humanity. This, in its positive form, means a commitment to the progression of our species that is ‘radically pluralist’ rather than merely tolerant. In its negative form, it is a demand that human beings never be discriminated against or dehumanized as means for others because ‘each and every person should be given the chance to flourish as a human being, to do the best they can with the capabilities they have’.[iv] Contending as one voice for faith in humanity, the core of human rights intends for individuals to each pursue their own desired paths – his or her imaginary, personal utopia – while never irreconcilably trampling on the similar or competing paths of others.[v] It is a morally perfect core.
There is another term – not quite a concept – that one could also consider gives language to some of the pain and suffering that takes place: terrorism. The parallel of the two terms – human rights and terrorism – is obviously not a result of any synonymous denotation but because they are each loaded with a tremendous amount of meaning constructed over the course of their respective lives. Take for example the long history of governments failing to recognize certain instances or types of human rights abuses abroad and domestically. Such denial, or perhaps spin, is intended to direct the discourse of human rights in a political manner for a number of reasons: to avoid responsibility, to delegitimize dissent, and to protect related interests. But the same can be said about selective labeling of terrorism or terrorist to the variety of political violence.[vi] The most predictable of this sort is reluctance to acknowledge state terrorism. Another is the strategic use of the romanticized term freedom fighter in regards to those non-state actors dissenting against a commonly regarded, antagonistic regime.[vii] The tragic irony, however, is that despite their often parallel goal – end recognition and achievement of a particular or group of rights – the means of terrorism and of human rights are in direct opposition to each other.
Terrorism as an Insurgent Strategy
For the purposes of this article, terrorism is most properly identified as an insurgent strategy.[viii] Consider the reasoning behind an insurgent’s target choice. Once choice, direct targeting of state agents – political leaders, military and security personnel – is intended to weaken and undermine the operational capabilities of the state. By sustaining this strategy, the insurgent side can attempt to accumulate its own power and support in anticipation of more conventional battle. Another choice, strategic targeting is directed at society because of the assumption that civilians have lower levels of tolerance.[ix] This is essentially an assault on the morale of society such that once tolerance is saturated the government will be forced into appeasement. Identified solely as a strategy, terrorism is more properly assessed by its intention to exact change through various tactical targeting either of the State or the representative society.
Nonetheless when talking about the concept of human rights, how is a strategy of terrorism different from any other political violence that causes loss of life and immense suffering? The simple answer through this lens is that it is not. However, attempts to judge any type of violence are often sought in terms of the desired ends. A fundamental problem of such instrumentalization of political violence is that political opponents of those using the strategy operate to disconnect any such connections. This is an example of the ‘battle of the narratives’: those defending tactics of terrorism seek favorable perception by focusing solely on their motivations, while the receiving side propagates broadly stroked anti-terrorism rhetoric, intent to dehumanize the insurgent minority for their mere employment of the strategy. Such vilification of the ‘terrorist’ takes place even when it is only an occasional tactic – sometimes long after the strategy has been abandoned to avoid stigmatization – since association with such means can easily discredit any chance of legitimacy being recognized in the primary motives.[x] An argument for human rights that remains true to its nonviolent core is not an attempt to ignore the motivations or desired ends of those insurgents who use strategies of terrorism or political violence, much less to take sides in this battle of narratives. To the contrary, it is a confirmation that grievances are always real regardless of their recognition beyond the claims-makers. At the same time, it demands that the means of resolution to such grievances must never themselves go so far as to violate human rights.
Terrorism Violates and Undermines Human Rights
The means of terrorism, however, seriously violate and undermine human rights. In fact, ‘there is probably not a single human right exempt from the impact of terrorism’ – from the fundamental notions of liberty and security to the broad spectrum of civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.[xi] This has been asserted by many resolutions from both the UN General Assembly[xii] and the Commission on Human Rights,[xiii] which expectedly declare that terrorism ‘can never be justified as a means to promote and protect human rights’.[xiv] Essentially, ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’ which terrorism disregards in its actions causing death and injury.[xv]
An unconventional extension of violating the right to life – whether direct or indirect – is the threat intent on destabilizing ‘democracy, civil society and the rule of law’.[xvi] Without these institutional structures, the protection of human rights becomes nothing more than privileges granted by the powers that be.[xvii] Of course, democracy itself comes in many forms and can be adapted to the needs and demands of a particular culture and society. Nonetheless, terrorism is designed to purposely undermine the specific human rights maintaining any breed of democracy: political participation, voting and the freedoms of speech, opinion, expression and association. In practice this takes place because legitimate authority is undermined, civic participation is impeded, ideological and political platforms are imposed on society, or democratization and development is hindered. To this effect, terrorism ‘strikes at the constitutional framework of deliberative public institutions which makes the existence of all other human rights possible’; it ‘replaces politics with violence, and dialogue with [fear]’.
With human rights at work there is a subtle process that takes place, but just the same it is a powerful force. The achievement of human rights demands participation and pluralism so that goals are mutually defined while allowing for all policy options to have a seat at the table. While in pursuit of collective and individual goals, human rights provide protection over the wellbeing of those who may not share interests or political sway with the majority. Human rights even go so far as to protect the majority from the minority who may feel driven to assert their will through unsavory methods. And then of course there is the entire list of economic, social and cultural rights dedicated to the quirks of human existence that make it possible and worth living to begin with – from food to religion to work. On the contrary, terrorism is a tactic that attempts to advantage itself by violently asserting certain rights claims, and respective desert of them, above the suggestively secondary, competing claims and desert of others. Blindly or intentionally, the universal equality of esteem is compromised, and human rights are subverted in their process.
The Universal Equality of Esteem[xviii]
When speaking of terror and human rights, Michael Ignatieff rightly notes – for the reasons discussed above – that the two terms appear as a simple antithesis. His precision on the two subjects for the most part ends there. Ignatieff does nothing to deny that human rights and terrorism are not inherently antagonistic in their conceptual forms, but his argument intends to demonstrate that, as well as opposing terrorism, ‘human rights – notably the right to self-determination – have [equally] constituted a major justification for the resort to political violence, including acts of terrorism, in the 20th Century’. Where Ignatieff immediately begins to lose sight in defending this claim is his narrowing of the subject of human rights to only some sort of calculated, ethical precommitment. It may seem comforting to have an algebraic defense of the subject, but the effect is a matter of waiting for the creative accounting to begin. And so it does. Although giving an accurate estimate in regards to the usefulness of human rights as a political tool as well as the challenge of precommitting to any principled doctrine, Ignatieff is quick to abandon the ship when passing through ‘terrorist states of emergency’.
The rhetorical nuance of Ignatieff’s defense is that human rights are indeed universal across all cultures yet somehow this does not further extend between all persons or times of application. In other words, they possess no universal equality of esteem. Defending his stance, he alludes to the trend of human rights law to tolerate public emergencies, derogations and exceptions to the rule of law, so long as particular instances are publicly justified to accountable bodies. This is poor evidence for his case, however, considering that the construction of human rights law as well as the operations of such bodies has always been unavoidably political.[xix] If judges, lawyers and politicians were the final authority, it would be easy to close the book on many human rights issues. For those enduring abuses back in reality, such convenient finality would not be so pleasant and few would be too impressed with the results.
Even given situations of public emergency, there remains no agreeable hierarchy, or line in the sand, to distinguish which particular rights are nonnegotiable in their timeless universality. Although this is hard for Ignatieff to accept – instead choosing to toil over his rights-abacus – a more formidable thinker on the subject is Amartya Sen who is credited with demonstrating the indivisibility of rights through their inter-conditional relationships. An economist by training, Sen assembled a development framework where the cluster of civil and political rights was unavoidably interdependent with the entire spectrum of economic, social and cultural rights.[xx] Essentially, a rights-based approach to development was effective in that it raised levels of accountability, gave preference to empowerment, required a high-degree of participation, and gave particular attention to discrimination and vulnerable groups.[xxi] With these factors in mind, the approach saw no trade-off between achieving goals and respecting human rights. This is why it famously lent itself to debunking the ‘Asian Values’ position for pandering to elite, state interests over that of the weak and vulnerable – minorities, migrants, women and other domestically marginalized groups.[xxii] Wearing his "realist" gloves, Ignatieff abruptly dismisses Sen’s groundbreaking work as analytical kitsch that is not universal in ‘dangerous times’. One is swiftly told that some rights are just more fundamental than other rights in such a context – that sacrificing the not-so-essential end of the spectrum is an acceptable ‘lesser evil’ – end of story.[xxiii] But not really. This is not only a simple failure to comprehend the universal equality of esteem found in the core meaning of human rights, but also a misunderstanding of rights as being inconsistent with the interests of security.
Rights as a Type of Security
Those unsentimental to power – the tough-minded realists like Sen who are well aware of the temptations of authority, the impatience of law enforcement and the arrogance of executive judgment – understand that rights themselves are actually a form of security in these ‘dangerous times’.[xxiv] In respect to security, such ‘lesser evil’ posturing about human rights – a subject meant to safeguard against such results – is especially dangerous and perpetually counterproductive in the face of terrorism. Upholding the spirit of the concept itself, the discourse of human rights must draw a line in the sand and thwart these claims by insisting that any talk of evil begins to dehumanize the other side.[xxv] The resounding truth of this argument should not be taken for granted, yet this same belief in the core meaning of human rights must be dually applied to the other side as is being done in this article. Thus, strategies of terrorism and other political violence cannot and should never be justified in terms of human rights. Among all of its most essential elements and perceptions, the subject of human rights finds its strength in lifting others up and not by tearing them down – a commitment that has no room for lesser evils.
Human rights, nevertheless, often carry the unsolicited baggage of serving to legitimize different forms of political violence, especially when grounded by the right to self-determination. Obviously when dissenting groups resort to violence, this does not eliminate that rights violations may or may not be happening. But with such co-option of the moral authority of human rights taking place, the subject is taken into dangerous territory. To those firmly against strategies of terrorism, indiscriminate or not, the subconscious wheels slowly turn, associating human rights with ‘the terrorists’.[xxvi] And on the other side of the story, to the thousands, or even millions, of supporters within and beyond the borders of any particular conflict, human rights claims are opportunistically thrust upon a sympathizing public eager to achieve victory and seek justice by any means necessary. The vengeance of such attitudes fails to fundamentally understand the charity, love and esteem of human rights and its flagrant opposition to, never justification for, terrorism.
To each person or group and to each respective right, there can never be any legitimate trumping of another’s human rights – especially in the spirit of the subject itself. Ignatieff was even able to work this out before surrendering the concept as obsolete:
If believing in human rights means anything, it means believing that killing civilians for political purposes can never be justified. In short, there are no – and there cannot be – deserving victims of political violence. Terror justifies itself through a belief in the idea that victims deserve their fate, or at least if they do not deserve their fate, then that it is a secondary matter. Thus for a committed terrorist, there are no innocent civilians. Civilians who benefit from or collaborate with occupation or oppression are just as guilty as the agents of the state directly responsible for the oppression. For a human rights believer, this violates the bedrock of human rights, the Kantian idea that human beings are ends in themselves, never to be sacrificed, coerced, or destroyed for the sake of even the noblest end.[xxvii]
One such noble end, the right to self-determination, is highly desirable and necessary for all individuals and collective groups to fully experience the political urges of community and individuality, which is why it is an obvious human right.[xxviii] Yet, no particular right exists as an infallible trump serving to warrant the entire spectrum of methods and tactics in its pursuit.[xxix] One group’s right to self-determination is equal in worth to the next group’s other rights and so on. This is a caveat for all human rights. At their most ridged peak of hardheaded moral perfectionism, human rights are universal in that each right is ubiquitous in individual application and desert of respect. Successfully stripped down, the ‘bedrock of human rights’ is a commitment to the universal equality of esteem throughout the eternal struggle for liberty, freedom and all other rights – nonviolent means and ends even in the face of oppression.
Human Rights and Nonviolence
Determined to obtain the best possible results, the subject of human rights can only honestly endorse perfect means to its perfect ends. Mohandas Gandhi, the fountainhead thinker and demonstrator commonly associated with this philosophy, saw a complementary and ‘inseparable connection between means and ends’ which could not be reconciled separately.[xxx] Although truth was the desired end and obvious direction for any path towards a greater existence, the passionate focus of his life became increasingly about the chosen means. The result was a personal commitment to nonviolence more urgent than the need for realizing any particular ends. One observation put forward to this effect was that while ‘ultimate ends’ are unknowable and especially unpredictable when human action is involved, the means chosen are always concrete and certain. Thus, if the means themselves progressively constitute any outcome, then the chosen methods and tactics should be of primary concern for those interested in approaching any desired ends. This has a resounding familiarity with the concept of human rights.
It is tempting to simplify and castrate Gandhi’s approach as mere pacifism, but it is really meant to be a call to action. As he coined it, Satyagraha (literally ‘soul-force’) merely armored itself in methods of nonviolence and noncooperation.[xxxi] George Orwell interpreted the attitude of its struggle as ‘a sort of nonviolent warfare… defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred’.[xxxii] The desired goal, however, was not as simple as defeat; instead it was the much more challenging and fruitful reward of coming to mutual terms. Gandhi’s appeal was that a just person ‘does not make others suffer for his mistakes’ because ‘sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others’. Some may write this off as simply idealistic, but the unapologetic truth is that it is a rigorous platform of strong-minded, moral realism.
A Strategy of Moral Realism
Like Satyagraha, the concept of human rights anticipates moral perfectionism in order to obtain its goals. At the same time, however, the concept stands apart in that it is designed to accommodate imperfect individual actors while still demanding that the collective group adopt perfect means – essentially never forcibly imparting pursuits and desires upon others. This is exactly what was understood earlier in Sen’s advocacy of a human rights-based approach to development. Fortunately, the interdependency of the spectrum of individual human rights does not limit itself. Whether seeking a right to fair trial or even a right to water, the interplay of the concept reinforces itself through a wholesale, means-based design. There should be no reason to believe that such a central feature cannot be extended to the pursuit of achieving rights, including ones like the right to self-determination.
What thus becomes required is reconciliation and remediation that respects the universal equality of esteem, which the concept of human rights affords, despite failed attempts at negotiation, bargaining and deliberation along the way. A positively infinite range of nonviolent means, which can be adopted and adapted to the situation at hand, always exists. The feasibility of such means may seem like only hypothetical truths, especially to those facing overwhelming odds, but this supposed shortcoming is not a failure of the concept; that is its power. Human rights are meant to allow for all truths and ends, hypothetical or not, to be pursued while never forcibly instilling any particular one upon anybody else. This is because, at every level, each right in the array of individual rights functions as a safeguard to protect the universality of the entire concept, especially for the marginalized, the powerless, the other. While violence has no such tolerance for weakest links, the core of human rights – impulsive to see virtue in others and slow to admonish their faults – goes out of its way to save the weakest and most vulnerable. However, such security intends for all to benefit: pluralism can better optimize dialogue and decision-making; participation can minimize opposition; and a collective desire for mutual prosperity can maximize stakeholders in the determined ends. This is the empowering vitality that should be expected of human rights.
These are not just meant to be comforting thoughts promising that in the end all good in the world will prevail. Nor are they intent on subjecting the weak to the ruthlessness of the strong. Rather, it is an assertion that one cannot begin to expect achievement of human rights, even when only a particular rights claim is at stake, if the implicitly nonviolent nature of the concept itself is denied. Rights are indeed worth defending and an infinite range of means exist that diverge away from choosing violence. Adopting means of terrorism and other political violence, on the other hand, can only hope for legitimization as a reluctant employment of ‘lesser evils’ – inevitably forfeiting the future of all sides towards a future of pain, suffering and fear, the finality of death and further departures from human rights. This is not human rights in action. It is only violence.
A Timeless Example
Recent discourse surrounding human rights and terrorism has been closely focused on the so-called ‘war on terror’ – including mostly Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Palestinian paramilitaries – with only little mention given to more domestically-oriented conflicts (Spain’s ETA, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, etc.). This is to a large degree another result of the battle of the narratives where the discourse has been forced to contend with the general misconceptions and ill-fated responses concerning a key group of actors and the perceived threat of international terrorism. Despite this being a necessary conversation, taking the initiative to revive focus on isolated, domestic resistance movements may actually be more helpful in understanding the shortcomings of terrorism strategies as well as how human rights play a dynamic role.
After several decades, an excellent ongoing example for this focus remains Sri Lanka’s Tamil resistance movement. Most notoriously represented by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, the Tamil minority has been engaged in a long-lasting violent rebellion in which all gradations of insurgency – sabotage, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and conventional civil war – have been experienced.[xxxiii] Despite international infamy for their ruthless use of political violence, the Tamil Tigers are seldom considered in the conscious imagination as far as the international ‘war on terror’. Nonetheless, the circumstances in Sri Lanka – two groups divided by a desire to equally assert their place in society and the state – resemble many other conflicts throughout history where terrorism has played a role. On one side are the Sinhala – predominantly Buddhist and speaking Sinhala. On the other are the Tamils – mostly Hindu but also Christian and Islamic speaking Tamil. In contrast to many ethnic conflicts, however, there is no intrinsic divide between the rival groups: no sacred texts interpreted to encourage struggle, no deep-seeded hatred found in their respective histories, and no irreconcilable divide in belief systems. Instead, there is simply a question of majority versus minority allowing the Tamils to operate almost in a vacuum – away from the crosshairs of the ‘war on terror’ and the public interests of Western politics.[xxxiv] Thus, the world beyond Sri Lanka and South Asia is afforded a reasonable opportunity to arrive at conclusions as rational observers influenced by the power of persuasion, as distant witnesses to oppression and violence, and as unbiased thinkers removed from their own ideological or religious investments in the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’.
Conflict in Ceylon
Unremoved from their world, however, the Tamil Tiger’s saga begins in Sri Lanka. Known as Ceylon before 1972, this South Asian island gained its independence from British rule only a year after India in 1948 and, like many other postcolonial nations, its modern history has been one of violence and a state of conflict. As mentioned above, the heart of the issue is a power struggle dominated by the Sinhalese majority, about eighty-percent of the population, who have failed to cater to the aspirations of the Tamil minority, about twenty-percent.[xxxv] The Tamils, however, are emboldened by their high-concentration in the northern and eastern provinces of the island where they hold a de-facto majority and have proximity to the large Tamil population of India’s Tamil Nadu State.
Historically, the Tamils have been a nonthreatening people. Characterizations to this effect convey that they were previously a group that did not ‘have to prove who and what they are by means of history as many other groups do because they confirm their identity by other means, namely religious, cultural, literary, social. They [were] secure as Tamils… they [were] timeless’.[xxxvi] This timeless identity has endured through a unique blend of Hindu religious practices and the Tamil language as well as characteristic song and dance. Even among those Tamils who follow Islam or have converted to Christianity, indigenous Tamil culture and traditions had been incorporated into the practice of those beliefs as well.[xxxvii] Sinhalese perspectives have not been so enlightened, instead choosing to assert their history as the only one for Sri Lanka. Originally promoted as pragmatic intentions to streamline bureaucracy and government, this Sinhalization of the state failed to take minority interests into concern. Legislative efforts to this effect have included: a ‘Sinhala Only’ official language policy; adverse university admissions quotas; refusal to recognize citizenship for all Tamils on the island; and settlement programs placing Sinhalese farmers into traditionally Tamil areas. One policy even went so far as to attempt repatriation of native-born Sri Lankan Tamils to India.
Display of any unity on the Tamil side, however, is remarkable in its own achievement. Like the Tamil Nadu and other Hindu counterparts in India, social circumstances for the Tamils are comprised of village loyalties, endogamous marriages and a structured caste system. To the lay observer, political cohesion of the Tamil masses would seem a far-fetched idea. Nonetheless, there have been compelling elements enabling the group to overcome such circumstances and to close ranks. Predominantly, this has been the shared awareness of a common enemy, complemented by formidable leadership. At the same time, and arguably more importantly, technological advancements have also played an overwhelming role. Galvanized by mass communication, modern transportation, a trade-enabling monetary economy and also print, electronic and digital media, the Tamil minority has increasingly coalesced into a force intent on achieving equal rights as Sri Lankan Tamils. Nonetheless, internal inequality exists and has been pigeonholed while grievances of the larger group are still being addressed – nearly six decades later.
The Nonviolent Experience
Among the Tamil movement, nonviolent resistance was popular for several decades as respectable demonstrations were routinely organized under an honest belief in the power of Gandhi’s Satyagraha.[xxxviii] The first major nonviolent display was in 1956 by Tamil parliamentarians and volunteers who held a sit-in while debates over the Sinhala Only bill took place in the capital city of Colombo. This was complemented by a tarring campaign that covered over Sinhalese lettering on buses in Tamil areas, and a pilgrimage-like march on Trincomalee – designated as the likely capital for a future autonomous Tamil region. Several years later, the largest ever mobilization of Tamils took place: volunteers blocked entrances to government buildings; Tamil civil servants refused to conduct business in Sinhala; workers in the tea and rubber plantations held strikes; and the Tamil’s uncompromising Federal Party created its own postal service.
Sri Lankan state security forces uninhibitedly suppressed these particular attempts, which in turn brought along waves of anti-Tamil sentiment and riots by the Sinhalese people. One of the earliest examples followed the 1956 effort that ended in the tragic loss of 300 Tamils who were overwhelmed by a Sinhalese mob, brutally beaten and stoned to death. The government did little to deny complicity. Even when political progress appeared to have been made – the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact 1950 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement 1965 – dissent from the Buddhist and Sinhalese elite often held sway leaving promises unfulfilled and negotiations thwarted. Between the timespan of those two written agreements alone, over 500 Tamils had met their fate at the hands of chauvinistic violence. Discouraged and associating their lack of progress towards equal rights and self-determination to be a result of adherence to nonviolence, many Tamil political groups like the Federal Party began to reconsider their means by focusing more energy on militancy.
However, it appears that such futility was mostly due to a lack of imagination – something that human rights is optimized to overcome by including all voices – which failed to adapt nonviolent resistance to the unique conditions of Sri Lanka. The nonviolent movement itself was led strongly by Samuel Chelvanayakam, known to many as the "trousered Gandhi", who insisted that goals be achieved by ‘weapons which call for strength of will and honesty of purpose’. His alleged failure in these circumstances, however, was not inherent to the Satyagraha philosophy itself. Unlike their counterparts in India where Gandhi struggled with an imperial power far away from the conflict, the Tamils were facing an ethnically chauvinistic yet still democratically elected Sinhalese majority. (A more pluralistic and amenable strategy might have looked to the United States where Southern blacks similarly endured amongst an oppressive white society.) Considering the power of pluralism, it cannot be avoided that internal Tamil inequality likely denied potentially innovative voices within the movement, which inevitably found itself radicalized and militant.
Radicalization and Militancy
A turn towards militancy was not surprising. Radicalization of Sri Lankan politics – both left and right – existed well before the Tamil struggle and subsequent abandonment of Satyagraha. This was attributable to influences ranging from the Communist and Trotskyite parties to Buddhist, Sinhalese nationalists, and a reasonable feeling of vulnerability since the end of British governance. For such reasons, many Tamil organizations had felt compelled to maintain some degree of militancy since the 1950s. Sometimes radically inspired, but always hawkish and separatist, these factions were mostly intent on achieving a separate Tamil Eelam State. The most significant boon for these groups, however, came after years of discriminatory Sinhalese policies left the disenfranchised Tamil youth especially vulnerable to economic stagnation and high unemployment. A vulnerable yet highly influential subset of society, young Tamils were bluntly disempowered through university admission quotas that favored Sinhalese students. As the Tamil historian Neil DeVotta points out, ‘Typically, when minority peaceful protests are suppressed and moderate leaders fail to deliver the requisite resources and opportunities to their constituents, a political vacuum develops, which extremist elements may attempt to fill’.[xxxix] Thus while the old guard shuffled nonviolently, an overwhelmed and disgusted generation chose to energetically embrace a promise they believed existed in the burgeoning guerrilla movement.
Although the primary conflict was between the Sinhalese and Tamils, there also existed a vicious struggle for leadership between the various militant offshoots. Predominantly originating from the Tamil United Liberation Front, the aggressiveness of these groups was further ripened by competition for quality membership.[xl] The most ruthless and successful of the bunch – founded in 1976 out of a radicalized student’s association – was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This was the only group that required an oath of loyalty.[xli] Notorious around the world for their scathing use of terrorist tactics,[xlii] the LTTE leadership was inspired by an ideological mix of hyper-nationalism, youth indoctrination and guerrilla insurgency. Above all, they were committed to an independent Eelam, and their forceful methods for achieving such ends provided a ruthless edge over their adversaries.
While the first phases of insurgent fighting had been taking place since 1973, they were relatively insignificant in scale. By 1981, however, the consolidated strength of the LTTE-led insurgency and a responsive Sinhalese backlash prolonged a murderous Tamil campaign throughout the rest of the decade. Initial, small-scale violence was often suppressed by the governing authorities, which allowed for a retributive culture to consequently take hold. As the Tamil minority became radicalized and the majority-dominated Sinhalese police and paramilitary forces became more repressive in the name of security and revenge, thousands of once nonviolent Tamils finally flocked to the guerrilla movement. This was most evident following the 1983 ethnic riots creating a boom in violence where hundreds were killed, thousands injured and at least a hundred thousand refugees produced. In 1987, this period of civil war was subdued to some degree by Indian military intervention, but Sinhalese resentment and perpetual attacks from the LTTE convinced the Indian government that peace was not possible. Unfortunately, such hopelessness concerning peace far outlasted the decade itself. Doing little to help, more than 200 suicide attacks and one-off tragedies (i.e., the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon) have taken place since. For a generation of Tamils and Sinhalese, the only Sri Lanka that they have ever known is a country smothered in terrorism and political violence.
An Era of Political Violence
It is undeniable that the initial employment of political violence – which may have seemed a necessary and convincing means to an earlier generation of Tamils – has budded into a force of insurgent terror. For good reason, however, a stunted definition of terrorism has already been avoided; doing otherwise would have offered little to an accurate portrayal of the Tamil cause. Nonetheless, and despite its most appropriate labeling as a guerrilla insurgency, the LTTE has clearly engaged in acts of terrorism. On the one hand, spawned from frustration, desperation and humiliation, there have been intense, offensive outbursts designed to inflict vengeance on the enemy. On the other, political violence has been used in its communicative capacity to demonstrate the Tamil Tiger’s ability and determination to achieve their desired ends. Considering its targeting and intended effects, such tactics can clearly be considered terrorism as an insurgent strategy.
Internally, terrorism has also been a surprisingly attractive option for the LTTE who initially struggled to be heard amongst an older generation of politically entrenched rivals. During the wave of militancy in the 1970s, there were thirty-six Tamil separatist organizations contending for control of the larger resistance. A classic method of terroristic violence, assassination was used by the LTTE to squash internal dissent – in some cases with comparable enthusiasm to attacks directed at the Sinhalese. This immature desire to be at the forefront of the movement was quite reflective of the LTTE’s characteristically young membership. Enlisting with the Tigers was not only an opportunity to strike fear into the hearts of a common enemy; it was also often bluntly sold to the youthful imagination as a chance to impress others. Amongst the more than 70,000 Tamils killed in conflict who have been remembered as martyrs, special idolization has been given to the elite ‘Black Tigers’ who engage in what the LTTE prefers to label thatkodai (self-gift) as opposed to thatkolai (suicide). Participation in this group is selective to the point that many volunteers are rejected for not being among the most disciplined, skilled and battle-tested: successful applicants are subjected to rigorous amounts of further training and finally a dinner with Prabhakaran, the personality behind the LTTE. Under such mystique, a culture is created where terrorism and suicide become ‘instrumental decisions’ personally taken on in order to catapult oneself to the forefront of a national struggle and as a chance to posthumously enjoy the perks of society’s respect for the dead.
Particularly influential in maintaining an LTTE strategy of political violence have been the protagonists – journalists, ex-soldiers, ousted politicians, landless peasants, town dwellers in squalor, rival minorities, religious fanatics – who provide a ‘shadowy influence over the crowd’ justifying damage and disorder. They are also the ones who have refashioned the Tamil’s peaceful, ‘timeless’ identity into a myth that lends credibility to violence and militant rhetoric. For distraught Tamils, such myths have been designed to construct the conflict as an eternal struggle throughout Sri Lanka’s history while ignoring the reality of postcolonial circumstances. Brooding with time, the myth has perpetuated itself into reality by exacerbating ethnic division and entrenching a bloody existence for those in the region.
Stratified Goals and Voices
In its fourth decade seeking the right to self-determination and an independent Eelam, the militant, Tamil resistance movement has had limited results. What has been accomplished – crude regional control by a de-facto LTTE government – is attributable to a broad climate of insecurity and not any specific, tactful use of insurgent violence. This prolonged stalemate between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil forces demonstrates the worst fallout of a failed insurgent strategy: the death toll steadily climbs while the rights and development of a promising region are paralyzed under conflict. Neither side is able to win yet the Tamil people have guaranteed loss. Even the most charismatic Tamil leadership would have trouble finding enough hot air to float such results as human rights in means or ends.
Justice in the minds of many Tamils might not even be about coming to mutual terms – instead unpalatably choosing to return suppression against the Sinhalese. Evidence of this is suggested by LTTE political violence often timed to wreck any chances of peaceful reform. Such efforts are designed to make devolution of the state, much less political reform, virtually impossible and to force the Tiger’s decided solution upon the rest of Sri Lanka. Even in a current era of peace negotiations, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have tussled over who would manage international reconstruction aid. These are obvious opportunities to turn away from conflict, yet aggression is ironically threatened as a bargaining factor so that political points can be scored with the people. While the elite play out such rhetorical battle and high-voltage politics, the supposed beneficiaries privately admit to care nothing for conditionality so long as there is an end to the violence.
The perseverance of this uncompromising charge is mostly attributable to a particularly influential and authoritarian personality: Velupillai Prabhakaran. Gaining notoriety for the assassination of Alfred Duraiappah, a former MP and mayor from the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Prabhakaran took control of the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) in 1976, firmly placing himself in Tamil history by his twenty-second birthday. The TNT was immediately renamed as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam allowing Prabhakaran to reshape the organization to his own image and what he believed to be the only voice for the Tamil people. A large part of this identity has conveyed him as an instrument and student of revolutionary history. For example, after being inspired by the Hezbollah suicide attacks in 1983, Prabhakaran went so far as to claim that adopting such tactics would be the only way that victory could be seen in his lifetime. His definition of victory, however, is quite narrow and makes little room for the intricacies – equality, participation, personal security – that would realistically compose a movement inspired by Tamil rights.
In fact, Prabhakaran unsurprisingly isn’t interested in human rights for the Tamil people – at one point in 1986 even admitting that ‘the government of independent Eelam will be a socialist government; there will only be one party supported by the people; I do not want a multi-party democracy’. This mentality is not limited to Prabhakaran. The moderate politician Appapillai Amirthalingam put forward in 1964 that he would ‘rather have a division of [Sri Lanka] than surrender’. Also, expatriate Tamils, many of whom finance the insurgency, lobby internationally and manage apologetic Tamil websites, influence the selection of means and ends conveniently from around the world. Whether from behind desks and podiums, from the frontlines or abroad, these voices often fail to recognize the great costs endured by those most vulnerable who live day-to-day in Sri Lanka while the Tigers continue to operate.
The Cost of Violence
Still a struggling minority, the Tamil people have found little progress towards their desired ends except to substitute a barbaric LTTE for the Sri Lankan government. Militancy prompted anti-Tamil riots in 1977, 1981 and 1983 bringing death to over a thousand. It has also brought about hostile and expectedly counterproductive reactions from the Sri Lankan government. An independent study by the University of Washington and Harvard Medical School estimated that by 2002 at least 215,000 (as high as 338,000) Tamil and Sinhalese people had been killed in a country of only 20 million.[xliii] Not even seven months into 2008, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense reported that it had already killed nearly 5,000 Tamil Tigers alongside the loss of over 400 of its own soldiers.[xliv] Beyond these alarming death tolls, there has been developmental devastation as well: nearly one-third of Sri Lanka’s public budget goes towards the military, over 800,000 Tamils have fled to India and other numerous Western countries; and 15,000 reported children separated from their parents have been trafficked in Colombo and southern resort towns for sexual tourism.[xlv] Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall are correct to notice, ‘It is not a myth that violence can alter events. It is a myth that it gives power to the people’. In the end, only Tamil and Sinhalese extremists have benefited – and even then only to the effect that they are able to operate off the hatred that violence has perpetuated – the classic case where ‘revolutionaries turned rulers become more oppressive than their predecessors’.
It is undeniable that even with an eventual victory, the cumulative costs of political violence will have been colossal. Is this the power of human rights at work? Certainly not. No type of violence can substitute for the support of the people. Even when human rights, the moral realist’s nonviolent kind, appears to have failed, the prosperity of future generations and movements is never quite so greatly jeopardized as it might be. More importantly, the people cannot be free until they give consent and are given respect of their human rights. Militant action may coax oppressors to leave at great cost, but political violence, especially terrorism, can never achieve the spoils of peaceful efforts. Violence is intrinsically negative. It is not a learning tool. Instead, the higher-road will strive for optimized decision-making and consensual goals – inclined to see some good in a shared humanity, prepared to end the pain and suffering of others, and committed to the mutual progress of all – intending for each to pursue his or her own desired path while never treading upon that which is inviolable to character or conscience. This is the nonviolent core of human rights.
In answering whether the Tamil Tigers should have used political violence as a means for achieving rights in Sri Lanka, this article has unapologetically sought to support a core concept of human rights that allows for only a nonviolent range of strategies. Under this concept, the pursuit of achieving human rights is morally perfectionist in that it requires perfect means and ends rooted in the universal equality of esteem. Since terrorism and other political violence cause pain, suffering and death as well as violations to every single human right, it can be concluded that such insurgent strategies are not only ineffective but also morally unacceptable as means towards such ends. However, this does not disregard the potential shortcomings of nonviolent resistance. Methods such as Satyagraha are only as dynamic and effective as the people who employ them. Successful resistance therefore demands optimized goal-setting and strategy construction – pluralist, participatory, never discriminating – only possible through external and internal respect of human rights.
Taking this article into action, advocacy of nonviolence and human rights should always intend to be heard first. Obviously, this means identifying human rights violations in their embryonic stages as is already done quite well by the current human rights movement. More importantly, however, it means actively surveying and communicating the costs of political violence to afflicted groups before it can begin. This is because once short-term benefits (i.e., vengeance, retribution) of political violence are enjoyed, and satiation by illusory progress is achieved, then it may be too late to refocus the rational, moral assessment of means in relationship to their desired ends. The advocacy would also need to incorporate an awareness of how nonviolence works – laying organizational groundwork, enduring against opposition, maintaining solidarity, and fostering coalitions – to ‘evaluate intelligently its potential utility in various types of conflict situations’.[xlvi] Additionally, there would be as many specific, nonviolent alternatives presented as possible. The American HBCU example demonstrates just one tactic along the spectrum including methods of: protest and persuasion, social and political noncooperation, economic boycott and strikes, and tactical nonviolent intervention.[xlvii] Regardless of the issue or the group, the range of nonviolent strategies is adaptively infinite.
Finally in regards to the subject of human rights, one must admit that our present world is a place where abuses are taking place all of the time. This reality motivates many to act and react – passionately, sometimes overwhelmed, sincerely and spiritedly – to reclaim what they believe is just and good. Staring into the unwritten pages of history, aware of the unforgiving pace of time, they are compelled to answer what Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of Gandhi’s influence, called ‘the fierce urgency of now’.[xlviii] Nevertheless, immediacy is not impatience, and the trails chosen in every journey ultimately define the destination. By taking higher ground and enduring together, humanity can hope to reach coexistence.
[i] Dackerma. Luthra, ‘Discipline, Death and Martyrdom’, BBC News, 9 June 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5051652.stm
[ii] See ‘Human Rights, the Laws of War, and Terrorism’, Social Research 69 (2002): 1137-158.
[iii] See C. Douzinas, Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (New York: Routledge, 2007), 9-13; M. Freeman, Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach (New York: Polity Press, 2002), 4-6.
[iv] C.A. Gearty, Essays on Human Rights and Terrorism: Comparative Approaches to Civil Liberties in Asia, the EU and North America (London: Cameron May, 2008), 7.
[v] See C. Douzinas, ‘Human Rights and Postmodern Utopia’, Law and Critique 11 (2000): 219-40.
[vi] A. Guelke, The Age of Terrorism and the International Political System (Boston: I. B. Tauris, 1998), 9-14.
[vii] W. Laqueur, The Age of Terrorism (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1987), 7.
[viii] P. Wilkinson, Terrorism Versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response (New York: Routledge, 2006), 1-19.
[ix] L. Freedman, ‘Terrorism as a Strategy’, Government and Opposition 42 (2007): 325.
[x] United Nations Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (53rd Sess), Terrorism and Human Rights: Progress Report by Special Rapporteur K Koufa, UN Doc E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/31 at 29 (2001).
[xi] B. Saul, ‘Defining ‘Terrorism’ to Protect Human Rights’, working paper 20 (FRIDE, Brazil, 2006).
[xii] UN General Assembly Resolutions 3034 (XXVII) (1972), 1; 32/147 (1977), 1; 34/145 (1979), 3; 38/130 (1983), 1; 40/61 (1985), preamble, 2-3; 42/159 (1987), preamble, 2-3; 44/29 (1989), preamble, 2; 46/51 (1991), preamble, 2; 48/122 (1993), preamble, 1; 49/60 (1994), preamble; 49/185 (1994), preamble, 1; 50/186 (1995), preamble, 2; 42/133 (1997), preamble 2-3; 54/164 (2000), preamble, 2-3; 56/160 (2002), 2-3; 57/219 (2003), preamble; 58/174 (2004), 1; 58/187 (2004), preamble; 59/191 (2005), preamble; 59/195 (2005), 1.
[xiii] UN Commission on Human Rights Resolutions 1995/43; 1996/47; 1997/42; 1998/47; 1999/27; 1999/30; 2000/30; 2001/37; 2002/35; 2003/37.
[xiv] Preambles to resolutions: 1996/47; 1997/42; 1998/47; 1999/27; 2000/30; 2001/31; 2002/35.
[xv] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art 3, 5.
[xvi] Preambles to UN Commission on Human Rights Resolutions 1998/47; 1999/27; 2000/30; 2001/31; 2002/35; 2003/37.
[xvii] See A.J. Langlois, ‘Human Rights without Democracy? A Critique of the Separationist Thesis’, Human Rights Quarterly 25 (2003): 990-1019.
[xviii] For an elaborate description of what esteem means to human rights, see Gearty, Can Human Rights Survive?, 4-6.
[xix] For behind-the-scenes documentation of this process, see J. Morsink The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2000); also see D. Kennedy, ‘The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?’, Harvard Human Rights Journal 15 (2002): 101-26.
[xx] A. Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor, 2000).
[xxi] ‘Rights-based Approaches’, Human Rights in Development, 2002, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://unhchr.ch/development/approaches-04.html
[xxii] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Rights-based Approaches’, Human Rights in Development, http://unhchr.ch/development/approaches-04.html
[xxiii] For a more fully developed version of this argument see Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (New York: Princeton University Press, 2004).
[xxiv] D. Luban, "Eight Fallacies about Liberty and Security," in Human Rights in the ‘War on Terror’, ed. R.A. Wilson, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 245-7.
[xxv] C.A. Gearty, ‘With a Little Help from Our Friends’, Index on Censorship 34 (2005): 102-109.
[xxvi] N. Hicks, ‘The Impact of Counter Terror on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: A Global Perspective’, in Human Rights in the ‘War on Terror’, ed. R.A. Wilson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 210.
[xxvii] ‘Human Rights, the Laws’, 1147-8.
[xxviii] G.J. Simpson, ‘The Diffusion of Sovereignty: Self-determination in a Post-colonial Age’, Stanford Journal of International Law 32 (1996): 261.
[xxix] See R. Emerson, ‘Self-determination’, American Journal of International Law 65 (1971): 459, on how the appeal of a moral right to self-determination put into operation becomes a matter hedged in by limitations and caveats.
[xxx] D. Cortright, Gandhi and Beyond : Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism (New York: Paradigm, 2006), 17.
[xxxi] Satyagraha: Non-Violent Resistance (Ahmedabad: Navajihan Press, 1951), 15.
[xxxii] ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, in A Collection of Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954), 183.
[xxxiii] The Tamil Tigers are often described primarily as a guerrilla movement because of their size, tactics, control of territory and populace; B. Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 35.
[xxxiv] W. Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 31.
[xxxv] C. Orjuela, ‘Reaping the Harvest of Peace? The Politics of Reconstruction During Sri Lanka’s 2002 Peace Process’, Critical Asian Studies 40 (2008): 213.
[xxxvi] D. Hellmann-Rajanayagam, ‘Tamils and the Meaning of History’, Contemporary South Asia 3 (1994): 6.
[xxxvii] A.J. Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Boston: C. Hurst, 1999), 1.
[xxxviii] D. McConnell, ‘The Tamil People’s Right to Self-determination’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21 (2008): 64.
[xxxix] N. DeVotta, Blowback : Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (New York: Stanford University Press, 2004), 10.
[xl] D. Hellmann-Rajanayagam, The Tamil Tigers: Armed Struggle for Identity (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994), 40.
[xli] M. Roberts, ‘Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency,’ Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28 (2005): 496.
[xlii] C.A. Gearty, Terror (London: Faber & Faber, 1991), 102.
[xliii] Z. Obermeyer et al., ‘Fifty Years of Violent War Deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia: Analysis of Data from the World Health Survey Programme’, British Medical Journal 336, no. 7659 (2008), http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/336/7659/1482
[xliv] United Press International ‘39 Tamil Tigers Die in Sri Lanka Fighting,’ 21 July 2008.
[xlv] B. Ackerman, 463. Gary Lewis, representative of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime in South Asia, also estimates that around 188,000 have been forced from their homes since conflict escalations in April 2006, see S. Aneez, ‘S.Lanka Conflict Raises Human Trafficking Risk: UN’, Reuters, 25 March 2008.
[xlvi] G. Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, ed. Marina Finkelstein (New York: Porter Sargent, 1974), 449-814.
[xlvii] G. Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, ed. Marina Finkelstein (New York: Porter Sargent, 1974), 109-445.
[xlviii] ‘Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence’ (speech, Clergy and Laity Concerned, Riverside Church, New York, 4 April 1967).
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