Monday, September 29, 2008

'Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka: a double standard?

As part or their training, introductory international relations students are asked to master contending theories that purport to explain how the ‘international system’ works. One of the most popular is ‘realism. Realists believe that international behaviors of nation-states can best be explained by a nation’s self-interest. Moral considerations enter into the picture, if at all, only to the degree that their are aligned with national self-interest. Realists pay particular attention to the self interest of ‘great powers’ because of the disproportionate influence they can exert.

Presently, Sri Lanka’s government is attempting to end the decades-long conflict with a separatist Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam through an aggressive military offensive. In the North, where fighting is fiercest, civilian casualties have grown. Since the LTTE view all Tamil civilians as allies in their struggle, protecting the rights of non combatants and avoiding civilian casualties are not priority concerns. Indeed civilians with deviationist views and those speaking out for some accommodation with Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese dominated government have been targets of LTTE assassination squads. Several of my friends had been victims. As the Tigers suffer reverses on the battle field, they are stepping up bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. The effects on Sri Lanka’s tourist and foreign investment dependent economy have been devastating. Much of Colombo’s downtown area, as I wrote in a posting on my last visit, is a high security zone.

As civilian casualties mount, Sri Lankan’s government is being subjected to increasing pressure from western nations, especially the United States, regarding ‘human rights violations and civilian casualties.’ Withdrawal of preferential treatment for Sri Lankan goods under international trade regimes is being threatened. Many Sri Lankans I know, themselves strong supporters of human rights and not necessarily supporters of the present government, feel resentful.

I believe their resentment is justified, at least with respect the country whose policies I know best, my own. When it serves national security interests, the U.S., like other great powers does not hesitate to implement policies that can devastate civilian populations. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the most recent examples of many. Even at home, U.S. governments, and not the George W, Bush administration alone, can be quick to curtail human rights in the interests of [American] “national security.” Like good realists proponent argue [to domestic audiences at least] that national security must, in times of threat, be the overall policy and moral imperative.

I am not saying that this is necessarily wrong, only that I can understand Sri Lankan resentments. I can understand, too, why Sri Lanka’s government is now looking elsewhere for international allies - to China, Iran and Russia. To the internationally beleaguered leaders of the developing worlds most resilient democracy, this policy seems, no doubt “realistic.”

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