It’s Here (Apparently) . . .


Michael Dwyer @MikeDwyer 2h2 hours ago Camden Town, London

SOON: @marsal61 @francesharris0n @robpinney @SolheimDAC @vidar @AmarAmarasingam Review copies en route. ‪#‎Sri‬Lanka

I THINK this tweet is telling me the book is finally back from the printers . . .

To End A Civil War: London Book Launch


The launch of my new book To End A Civl War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, published by Hurst, was held in London on Weds 28 October 2015.  A series of European launch events was held over the following month in London, Oslo and Stockholm, followed by events in North America (Toronto, Ottawa, Washington DC) in January 2016.

South Asian launches were held in Colombo (3 March), Chennai 7 March) and Delhi (8 March).



Latest launch related information at:
Further book related information at:
Watch this space for the latest details!

India’s World – UN report on Sri Lanka War Crimes


Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

During a demonstration in Sri Lanka, relatives of Tamil activists held placards demanding the release of their loved ones who have been held in detention without trial for long periods of time.


Here’s a useful c. 25 minute discussion of the UN’s recently released report on war crimes in Sri Lanka further to the investigation conducted by its human rights arm, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

What makes this discussion distinctive – and in this instance particularly useful – is the fact that it’s taken from a Indian current affairs TV programme, and involves a knowledgeable group of Indian Sri Lanka watchers.

Anybody used to breathless CNN panel debates – and unfamiliar with the ways of more upscale Indian media – will be pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the inputs, and the civility of the presenter’s interventions.

Worth a watch: not least if you’re a post-modern European convinced that notions of national sovereignty are a thing of the past.

History’s True Warning

Here’s a brilliant piece from the eminent Yale Professor Timothy Snyder summarising the argument of his new book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. The Holocaust, and other mass killings, occured – and continue to occur – in conditions of destroyed states. That, Snyder argues, underlies the connection between the Nazi Holocaust and such contemporary meltdowns as the US invasion of Iraq, with its devastating (and continuing) consequences; and most recently, the bloody Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Snyder’s basic thesis will be challenged from all sides. But it’s thoughtful, provocative and required reading nonetheless.

History’s True Warning

How our misunderstanding of the Holocaust offers moral cover for the geopolitical disasters of our time.

Kiev, June 23, 1941. Grushki district. Kiev, Ukraine.
Photo by RIA Novosti archive via Wikimedia Commons

The cantor is a vivid presence in any Jewish congregation, responsible for song, often a man with an outgoing personality and a sense of social engagement. Such a cantor was Eleazar Bernstein, who lived with his wife Martha and their three children in the southwestern German city of Zweibrücken in the 1930s. Among other good deeds, Bernstein would visit Jews in the local prison to lift their spirits. There he befriended a guard, a police captain named Kurt Trimborn, with whom he would play chess.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Germans destroyed hundreds of synagogues, including Bernstein’s. On the day after this national pogrom, the infamous Kristallnacht, Bernstein was arrested, along with thousands of other Jewish men throughout Germany, all bound for concentration camps. His neighbors looted his apartment, broke his windows, and stole his furniture. Bernstein’s two sons were too small to understand. Coming home to find a wreck, they amused themselves by throwing things through the gaping window frames. Martha made her way across the rioting city to find her husband’s police captain friend and ask for help. Trimborn told Martha to pack, released Eleazar, and escorted the family across the French border. The car was so full of suitcases that the children had to lie flat on top of them in the back seat.

Four decades later, from America, Bernstein sent Trimborn a letter. The two little boys had grown up to become engineers. His daughter was a teacher. There were grandchildren. All of this thanks to Trimborn.

The letter was written after Trimborn’s conviction for mass murder.

Not long after helping the Bernstein family, Trimborn joined the German security police. He was trained for a special task force, an Einsatzgruppe, which was sent behind the invading German army to the Soviet Union. When Trimborn joined his Einsatzgruppe in occupied Soviet Ukraine in October 1941, its men were already murdering entire communities of Jews. That December, as the Red Army halted the German advance and the Americans joined the war after Pearl Harbor, Hitler proclaimed that the Jews were responsible for Germany’s predicament. In 1942, Trimborn personally ordered that hundreds of Jews be murdered, and carried out neck shots himself. One day he herded 214 children from an orphanage into a gas van—a truck refitted so that its exhaust fumes were pumped into the hold rather than into the atmosphere. The children screamed and pounded the walls as they were asphyxiated.

One lesson we have learned from the Holocaust is to emulate the rescuers. It is right and good to work against the current, as did Trimborn in 1938, to resist the oppression of groups by helping individuals. But this was not enough to stop a Holocaust in 1941; it was not even enough to stop Trimborn from participating in that Holocaust. We have further lessons to learn. We know that we should resist anti-Semitism. But we overlook that the program of eradicating Jews required sending men such as Trimborn to destroy neighboring states. The SS was not a special state institution but a racial one, grounded in a biological understanding of the world. Its task was to destroy states so that a racial struggle could unfold.

When Trimborn saved the Bernstein family, Germany was just beginning to undo European states. When Germany absorbed Austria in 1938, Jews were humiliated. When Germany dismantled Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, Jews were depatriated. After Germany allied with the Soviet Union in 1939, each power invaded Poland with the aim of annihilating the Polish political nation; the Soviet Union also destroyed the three Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, separating Jews from their property and traditional legal protections.

Already in 1939, during the invasion of Poland, Germany sent Einsatzgruppen behind its army, to kill Polish political elites. In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Nazis identified the Soviet political class (quite falsely) as the Jews. Einsatzgruppen commanders blamed Jews for the evils of Soviet rule, inviting local people to clear themselves of their own past collaboration with the Soviets by turning on their Jewish neighbors. Germans and locals joined together in the anti-Semitic lie that Jews were responsible for communism. In a war with no rules, German troops blamed Jews for the partisan response they feared and killed them. In a land without laws, German policemen were willing to shoot Jews, thousands at a time, people who were accused of no crime.

When Trimborn arrived in Ukraine, just three years after he had saved the Bernstein family, German leaders had learned how statelessness enabled the dark politics of mass murder. Far from Zweibrücken and quiet nights of playing chess, Trimborn would kill, again and again. And so the Holocaust began. Jews who lived before the war in places that became stateless had about a 1-in-20 chance of surviving. Elsewhere in places under German control, even in Germany itself, the probability was more like 1-in-2. The entirety of the killing would take place in a zone of Eastern Europe where the Germans brought anarchy.

A man walks past an unexploded rocket in in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, on Feb. 11, 2015.
Photo by Volodymyr Shuvayev/AFP/Getty Images

Seeing the Holocaust as an encounter of general anti-Semitism and local statelessness helps us to make sense of the two great geopolitical disasters of our century: the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In part because Americans misunderstood the Holocaust as the oppression of a minority by an authoritarian state within its own boundaries, they could believe in 2003 that regime change by force of arms in Iraq would automatically bring positive consequences. By the early 21st century, we had convinced ourselves that the Holocaust was caused by an authoritarian regime acting against a minority within its own borders, which in the main it wasn’t, and that we acted to stop it, which with a few minor exceptions we didn’t.

The Holocaust was the mass murder of Jews beyond the borders of prewar Germany, in a zone from which conventional political institutions had been removed, and the Holocaust was largely over by the time Americans soldiers landed on Normandy. American troops liberated none of the major killing sites of the Holocaust, and saw none of the thousands of death pits in the East.

The American trials at concentration camps reattributed prewar citizenship to the Jewish victims, helping us overlook that the eliminations of citizenship—usually by the destruction of states of which Jews had been citizens—were what permitted mass murder. A large body of scholarship on ethnic cleansing and genocide concludes that mass killing generally takes place during civil wars or regime changes. Nazi Germany deliberately destroyed states and then steered the consequences toward Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions creates the space for the kind of disaster that continues to unfold in the Middle East: in its civil wars, religious totalitarianism, and refugee crisis.

There are many differences between the American invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also one clear similarity: In both cases, the Holocaust was used as moral cover. Russians quite rightly remember that the Red Army bore the brunt of the German attack in 1941 and did liberate the Nazi killing zones. But they prefer not to recall that the Soviet Union helped Nazi Germany begin the war in 1939, jointly destroying four East European states and bringing the European order to an end. When Germany betrayed its Soviet ally and attacked the USSR in 1941, spreading anarchy, Soviet citizens joined the Germans as collaborators, tens of thousands of them taking direct part in the shooting. Unnervingly, Russia justified its March 2014 attack on Ukraine by claiming that its neighbor wasn’t a real state, its president invoking the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact of 1939 as normal diplomacy.

Since Russia chose to send its troops to Ukraine, claiming absurdly that it meant to combat fascists and save Jews, its war has killed at least 8,000 people and almost certainly far more, driven 2 million people from their homes, and called into question the European legal order. The deliberate creation of a lawless zone in the Donbas has predictably led to kidnappings, executions of prisoners, and other abuses of human rights. The last time a European country invaded another and annexed its territory was the Second World War. European integration was meant to strengthen European states, and thus prevent the political collapse of the 1930s from happening again. The collapse of the European project could mean a return to the bad old days of old-fashioned power politics.

We cannot know the exact scenario that might follow if the trend of state destruction proceeds. What we can say is this: Since destroying states was one cause of the Holocaust, the Holocaust should not be used as a reason to destroy states. When institutions are broken, few of us would behave better than the Europeans of Hitler’s era. Hitler seduced Germans by the vision of a world with no rules, where states would crumble and all was permitted. In 1938, while playing chess, Trimborn was a friend. In 1942, in a zone of anarchy, he was a murderer. One of Bernstein’s children lives today in California in a house full of chess sets. Trimborn’s children, until they met Bernstein’s children, were unaware that their father had once known the rules.

Central Europe’s refugee conundrum

Keleti Station, Budapest.

Everybody has seen footage of Budapest’s Keleti (East) station this past week by now. The crowds of exhausted refugees camped out around the station, the lines of dour-looking police stopping them get in – or out, depending on the moment. An atmosphere morphing rapidly between fear, chaos, anger and desperation. Plenty, too, will have heard Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban describing the influx of ‘Muslim’ Middle Easterners as a threat to the very foundations of ‘Christian’ European civilization. And in a frantic bid to stem the heathen hordes, they will have noted Orban’s decision to roll out an extensive new barbed wire fence along the country’s border with Serbia.

For anyone who knows Hungary as the invigorating, inviting country it is – and its inhabitants for the proud, resourceful and creative people they are – the spectacle of Orban’s anti-humanitarian populist demagoguery being rolled out in response to the migration crisis confronting Europe today – and yes Viktor it’s about your country as well: not just Germany as you would have us believe – is, to say the least, sickening.

Two things are worth saying at this point, however. First the Hungarian Prime Minister is emphatically not speaking for or on behalf of all his fellow citizens. Quite the opposite. Little covered by international media, many ordinary Hungarians have helped set up the organization Migration Aid, which is currently doing an by all accounts sterling job of providing emergency assistance, advice and material help to the refugees camped out at Keleti station. Moreover, beyond ordinary humanitarian reflexes – of which ordinary Hungarians possess neither more nor less than others – there’s little doubt that their reactions to these latest developments is informed by deep awareness of their country’s none-too-distant history.

In a recent report from the Keleti station, for example, the BBC’s Nick Thorpe notes that one woman said quietly to him, “You should remember that many of us, Hungarians, were refugees too“. It turned out that she was from Romania’s Hungarian minority, many of whom fled Romania in the 1980s  to escape the appalling treatment meeted out to them by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Equally, however, she could just as well have been thinking of relatives who were among the over 250,000 Hungarians who fled the country – and again, across the Austrian border – in November 1956 following the arrival of columns of Soviet tanks and the subseqent supression of the national Revolution that had begun the previous month.

Lastly, her mind could have been turning back to 1989, in particular the then communist government’s decision to dismantle Hungary’s border fence with the GDR (East Germany), thereby setting in motion a momentous series of events that held herald the beginning of the end of communist rule and Soviet domination of central-eastern Europe.

1989: East Germans pouring across the Hungarian border into Austria. Votava

Whichever of these historical echoes we now turn to, however, they all speak to a simple proposition: Hungary’s relationship to migration and refugees is a good deal more nuanced and complex than may appear to be the case.

The same consideration – albeit for historical reasons that differ from country to country – applies to other ex-communist states of the region. In the article reproduced below the former Le Monde Editor

Healing Europe’s east-west divide is central to a lasting refugee solution

Why are central and east European countries so reluctant to take their fair share of refugees? You’d think their history would make them rather sympathetic towards those who flee war, persecution and dictatorship. At the start of the summer, I was in Bratislava when several thousand people took to the streets to demonstrate against migrant quotas and immigration generally.

Some banners read “Against the Islamisation of Europe”, “This is our home”, and “Slovakia is not Africa”. Traffic was blocked and there were scuffles with the police. It was a dismal scene, especially for those of us who had witnessed, 25 years ago, the democratic transformation of eastern Europe, with slogans such as “love and truth will prevail over hatred and lies”. It is equally absurd if you consider that Slovakia has taken in just 200 refugees from Syria and insisted that all of those had to be Christian.

Of course, racism and xenophobia are not limited to Europe’s eastern regions. France has the EU’s largest far-right party. But from Poland to Bulgaria, a bloc seems to have formed against any generosity or openness on the migration issue. Hungary offers the worst spectacle, with its leader, Viktor Orban, raging about migrants being a threat to “European civilisation”, equating them to terrorists and building a fence to keep them out. And it doesn’t seem that Orban’s talks in Brussels yesterday have made him shift gear. As EU leaders grapple with the magnitude of the ongoing refugee crisis, the east-west split within Europe is a factor that needs to be addressed.

Ten years after many eastern European countries joined the EU, a political and cultural gap divides the continent – and its scale may well have been underestimated. It’s not new. Remember “old Europe” and “new Europe” from 2003, when Europe was starkly divided over invading Iraq: easterners sided with the US, while France and Germany opposed George W Bush’s plans. Equally, over Ukraine east-west sensitivities have differed – one side being much more worried about Russian militaristic nationalism than the other.

And on the euro crisis, although much was said about a north-south divide, there was a strong eastern European push for stringent conditions to be laid on Greece. Countries like the Baltic states, that had undergone massive reforms in record time to gain their EU and euro credentials, often took harsher positions than Germany on Syriza.

Much has to do with how central and eastern Europeans have related to the EU from the outset. The reunification of Europe was seen as something that corrected the historic injustic of whole nations being abandoned by the west behind the iron curtain. An entrenched fear of Russia made them see the EU, along with Nato, as a security haven. Because the Soviet system had done so much to crush these nations, reasserting cultural and even linguistic identities was a survival instinct.

Nor were democratic traditions easy to revive, if they ever existed in the inter-war period. These countries were rightly entitled to join the club and made great efforts to get in, but they also retained specific historic memories and resented anything that smacked of cultural dilution. (I remember a prominent Polish politician saying, in the 1990s, that he dreamt of a “Europe of cathedrals”.)

None of this excuses xenophobia. Nor should all east Europeans be equated to Viktor Orban supporters. As in western Europe, grassroots movements are sprouting up to show solidarity with refugees. Hungary has a nationalistic, intolerant government but that is not necessarily the case elsewhere in central Europe. European coalition-building on the refugee issue is possible. After all, some form of unity was finally mustered on Greece, as on Ukraine.

The one thing obviously lacking is moral leadership. Vaclav Havel isn’t around any more. He had the strength to saythat the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after the second world war had been a national disgrace. The current picture must also be seen precisely in light of the legacy of that war. As the historian Tony Judt has described, mass killings and huge population transfers left central European states with more homogeneous populations. Later, there was nothing comparable to the immigration (mostly from former colonial possessions) that western European countries experienced in the 1960s and 70s.

So is there a way forward? Most Syrians fleeing their country don’t particularly want to head to eastern and central Europe. But those countries must be brought on board for resettlement plans if a common EU policy on asylum is to be forged. Germany’s role will be key to addressing the east-west gap. It’s not just that these countries’ economies have strong links with German industry.

Nor is it that central Europe has benefited so much from EU structural funds, and that now might be a good time to demonstrate a degree of reciprocity. It’s that Merkel’s political weight and strong moral stance are hard to ignore. Merkel’s message is that being part of the European club isn’t solely about economic reform, it is crucially also about transforming societies, adhering to humanist norms and acting together.

Europe is under severe geopolitical strain: in the east with the war in Ukraine and in the south with the fallout of Syrian conflict and strife in Africa. These issues are intertwined: European action will only be credible and sustainable if solidarity is built on both fronts simultaneously. Getting public opinion in the east to show more sensitivity to refugees from the south is an essential part of the equation – just as westerners should pay more attention to how the Ukrainian crisis has reignited eastern fears.

Crucially, this also boils down to information. What people are told and how events are communicated will define perceptions and, more often than not, policymaking. The media scene in central and Eastern Europe has evolved in worrying ways: many post-1989 serious, democratically oriented media have been overtaken by sometimes obscure populist or Europhobic websites.

Take the demonstration in Bratislava: it was called for by a local online radio station relaying the views of ultranationalist Slovak groups with a strong grudge against anything to do with the EU and the west at large. One of its regular listeners told me about how he had come to mistrust western media and had switched to Russia Today. “At least”, he explained confusingly, “I can read between the lines of their lies”. Confronting the risk of European disintegration over the refugee crisis, as on other issues, is as much a battle for minds as it is a negotiation between governments.

Europe’s refugee crisis: 10 powerful photos

This was published today in the BBC’s Magazine. I don’t think it requires further comment from me: the pictures and accompanying text tell their own story.

The photographs of a three-year-old Syrian boy found dead on a beach in Turkey are among the most powerful to have emerged from Europe’s migrant crisis.

But many other moving pictures have been taken over the years, illustrating the dangers of the migrants’ journey or the treatment they have received on arrival in Europe.

_85363859_medina_reu976Juan Medina / Reuters

1. Juan Medina was working as a photographer for a local paper in the Canary Islands in 2004 when yet another small boat arrived, packed with men from sub-Saharan Africa. As a Spanish Civil Guard patrol approached, it capsized and nine men drowned. Medina photographed two of the 29 survivors, Isa and Ibrahim, both from Mali, as they were pulled from the water. The shot won him a World Press Photo award the following year.

_85363864_tejita_976Arturo Rodriguez / AP

2. The Canary Islands was still one of the main destinations for African migrants two years later. By this stage the boats were often leaving from Mauritania or even Senegal, instead of Morocco – a perilous journey across 1,000km of the Atlantic. Many people arrived starving and dehydrated. This photograph taken on Tenerife’s La Tejita beach shows tourists trying to help a young boy, and earned Arturo Rodriguez a World Press Photo award in 2007.

_85363863_golf_reu976Jose Palazon / Reuters

3. Two tiny Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, Ceuta and Melilla, exercise a magnetic attraction for people trying to reach Europe. Here the continent is just a razorwire fence away. Jose Palazon, who works for migrant rights group Pro.De.In Melilla, took this picture of one golfer in mid-swing, while another gazes at a group of men (and one policeman) perched on the fence. “It seemed like a good moment to take a photo that was a bit more symbolic,” he told the El Pais newspaper.

_85356721_djibouti_natgeo976John Stanmeyer / National Geographic

4. Migrants passing through Djibouti, on the Gulf of Aden, sometimes save money by buying a SIM card from neighbouring Somalia on the black market. Photographer John Stanmeyer met a group of them standing on the coast waiting to catch a faint signal. “It communicated the universality of all of us,” he says. “We really are standing at a crossroads of our collective humanity. Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?” The photograph won a World Press Photo award in 2014.

_85363865_cradle_reu976Murad Sezer / Reuters

5. By the time migrants reach the Mediterranean, most have already completed a gruelling journey over land. In the heat and dust of this desolate spot on the Syrian-Turkish border, Murad Sezer of Reuters would normally have encountered crowds of families with wailing children. But on one of his visits it was quiet – empty except for an abandoned child’s cradle. “For me, it signified a kind of hopelessness,” he says. “If its owners had felt hope, perhaps they would not have left it.”

_85356797_sestini976Massimo Sestini / eyevine

6. Massimo Sestini took this photograph from an Italian navy helicopter in 2014, but it was in fact a repeat of a shot he had taken in identical circumstances the year before. The new photograph, taken between Libyan and Italy, showed that nothing had changed – but was also more striking because of the behaviour of the passengers. “I thought if I could get the right angle straightaway, directly above 500 people who have spent five days and nights on a boat, they would probably all look up, ask for help, wave – so this year I thought I’d try again and it worked.” The shot won a World Press Photo award earlier this year.

_85364157_hero976Argiris Mantikos / AP

7. In April this year a wooden sailing boat carrying Syrians and Eritreans smashed on rocks as it attempted to land on the Greek island of Rhodes. Greek army sergeant Antonis Deligiorgis, who was having a coffee with his wife on the seafront, dived into the waves and rescued 20 of the 93 people on board singlehandedly. One was Wegasi Nebiat, a 24-year-old Eritrean, pictured being brought ashore by Deligiorgis, on the left of the picture. Another, a pregnant woman who later gave birth in Rhodes general hospital, told staff she would name her son after the man who had saved her.

_85356864_etter976Daniel Etter / NY Times / Redux / eyevine

8. This photograph shows a Syrian man, Laith Majid, holding his son and daughter in his arms, after a journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos in an inflatable boat that been steadily losing air. “An entire country’s pain captured in one father’s face,” tweeted @MaryFitzger, after it was published in the New York Times. “I am overwhelmed by the reaction to this family’s tears of relief. This is why I do what I do,” wrote German photographer Daniel Etter.

_85364158_macedonia976Darko Vojinovic / AP

9. When Macedonia closed its border to migrants last month, after declaring a state of emergency, thousands spent a night in no-man’s-land. The following morning they tried to push through police lines, leading officers to fire stun grenades into the crowd. AP photographer Darko Vojinovic captured this young father’s despair. In the previous three weeks 39,000 migrants had been registered as they passed through the country en route for Serbia, and then Hungary – a member of the European Union.


10. This photograph went viral on social media a week ago. Who was the desperate man selling pens to support his family in the Lebanese capital Beirut, and how could people help him? He was quickly identified as Abdul Halim Attar, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk in Syria – and a crowdfunding campaign was launched on Indiegogo. It has already raised $181,000. Attar was overcome when he was told about the fund, says Gissur Simonarson, an Icelander who posted the original viral tweet. Attar’s goal is to set up an education fund for Syrian children – and to return home from Beirut as soon as this becomes possible.

More from the Magazine

More than half of the people who have crossed the Mediterranean in the hope of settling in Europe this year have arrived in Greece – and most of those have landed on five Greek islands closest to the Turkish coast. Photographer Fernando Del Berro watched some arrive – shaken, euphoric, overflowing with emotion – on the northern shore of Lesbos.

In pictures: An emotional arrival in Europe

‘No one leaves home unless . . . ‘

A Syrian refugee holding his son and daughter

Photo: Daniet Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine. Syrian refugee Laith Majid cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to Europe.

Here is a searing evocation of refugee life by a young Kenyan Somali poetess living in the UK. One of the poem’s couplets is widely quoted at the moment. Read the whole thing though – brillant, urgent, angry, unforgettable.

Home by Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying –
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here




Death in the Aegean

2464 I thought long and hard – and in fact wavered over – sharing the appalling, shocking images that have also featured on the front pages of international media. The tiny body we see being carried away from the beach in Bodrum by a Turkish policeman is of three year old Aylan Kurdi from Kobane, a Syrian-Turkish border town that earlier this year was the scene of fierce fighting between IS forces and Kurdish peshmerga. (And no less destructively a sustained US Afir Force bombing campaign, it should be added. Thus reportedly a third of all the bombs used over Iraq and Syria between August 2014 and January 2015 were dropped on Kobane by US B-1 bombers, killing an estimated 1,000 people in the process).

Aylan and Rehan

To quote the words of a Somali poet citied recently by Francois Crepeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, ‘Nobody puts their kids on a boat, unless the water is safer than the land’. In this tragic case, however, even the waters of the Aegean were no refuge for Aylan, his five-year old brother Galip and mother Rehan, who all drowned when their boat capsized at sea. It now emerges that their application for asylum in Canada had been rejected, and this was thus their last desperate attempt to escape to the Greek island of Kos from the hell that had enveloped their home.

If nothing else, one can hope that Aylan’s tragic, and now highly mediatized death, helps to push international conscience towards a more compassionate, humane – and rational – response to the refugee crisis enveloping multiple regions of the world.

Sri Lanka after elections – and before the UN Human Rights Council

The excellent openDemocracy are running the op ed piece Erik Solheim and I published jointly last week in the Hindustan Times. The article outlines a suggested priority action agenda for the new Sri Lankan government in the aftermath of the 17 August parliamentary elections that resulted in a resounding second defeat this year for former incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (the first being in the 8 January presidential elections).


President Sirisena and Secretary of State Nisha Biswal, Colombo, 26 August 2015

There have been a few important developments since the piece was originally published 10 days ago – notably with regard to the upcoming 14 September – 2 October UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva. In particular indications of a shift in US policy – or at the very least emphasis – with respect to its oft-voiced earlier demand for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by government forces and Tamil Tiger guerillas during the final stages of the country’s 26-year long civil war.

Simply stated, during a visit to Sri Lanka last week by US Assistant Secretaries of State Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski, the former announced that the US will now support the Sri Lankan government’s position of favouring the establishment of a ‘credible’ domestic accountability mechanism, and will be tabling what Biswal termed a ‘collaborative’ resolution with the Colombo authorities on accountability issues and how to address them during the course of the upcoming UNHRC session. A resolution she said, moreover, that takes into account the ‘changes in the landscape’ that had taken place in the country in the past year, and what she described as the ‘substantial progress’ towards reconciliation made in the past few months.

This apparent US turnaround continues to divide Sri Lankans, human righta organizations and international observers alike. A number of political commentators – notably, but not exclusively Sinhalese ones – are emphasizing the geo-strategic context of the new US realignment. With Rajapaksa out of power, so the argument goes, the US now has an opportunity to help prise Sri Lanka aware from its erstwhile political – and no less importantly, economic – dalliance with China and bring it back into the Western fold: and by extension, its strong traditional linkages to ‘Big Brother’ (aka India) across the Palk Strait.

On the same basic lines, others point to what in the aftermath of this year’s ‘regime change’ in Sri Lanka and the installment of a government seen as genuinely committed to reform, could be described as a US policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with Colombo – on human rights, democracy and accountability issues no less than trade, economic reform and investment. Hence, for example, the ‘collaborative’ resolution proposal for the Geneva UN Human Rights Council session: a resolution framed together will be tougher, and have far greater national ownership and thus prospect of actually being implemented, so the argument might go, than the internationally-sponsored critique of Colombo that has been the standard fare of UNHRC sessions over the past decade.

But it’s far from plain sailing for the US. Biswal’s announcement met with instant, and fierce, criticism from a number of quarters. Prviately, and in some cases publicly,  international human rights organizations have expressed incomprehension over what they view as an apparent US sellout on an issue – pushing for an international accountability investigation – where Washington had previously led very much from the front. And this before even getting into critical practical issues such as how to ensure witness protection in a domestic mechanism (this being more important than many might think: there’s plenty of evidence, for example, to suggest that Sri Lankan military continues to enjoy a near free reign when it comes to arresting, interrogating and torturing Tamils it says it suspects of terrorist i.e. LTTE links).

Domestically speaking, Tamils have not exactly been expressing enthusiasm for the move. After initially voicing its ‘disappointment’ over Biswal’s announcement, for example, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with 16 MPs now the largest Tamil party in parliament, later stated that it could accept a domestic mechanism provided there was some form of international participation. In particular, involvement of international experts was described as a ‘must’. Encouragingly, from this perspective, the main elements of the TNA’s stand  were echoed in comments US Secretary of State Malinowski made at a press conference following a visit to Trincomalee, an ethnically mixed town on the country’s Eastern coast the day after Biswal’s announcement.

Underscoring the fact the US was commited to ensuring that a ‘real process’ of ‘accountability and reconciliation’ was enacted in Sri Lanka, Malinowski emphasized that while the US Administration remains ‘hopeful’ over the government’s ‘promises’, in the end the Wickremesinghe administration would be judged ‘not by its promises but by its actions and achievements’.

And on the thorny issue of a ‘domestic’ vs. an international accountability mechanism, Malinowksi had this to say:

“The important thing is that there be a judicial process that is credible to the people of Sri Lanka and to the international community.  For that process to be credible, I don’t think it has to be a completely international process, but it does have to be independent of political leadership.  It has to be led by people who are trusted by the minority communities and it should have some degree of international involvement, even if it is a domestic process organized under the laws of Sri Lanka.”

All of which – assuming the Secretary of State’s view echo those of the US Administration as a whole – suggests the shift in US position over Sri Lanka may be less dramatic than initially supposed.

All in all, it is perhaps unsurprising that the issue of how to address wartime accountability continues to divide the Sri Lankan polity. As we know from other conflicts around the world, the issue of how best to ‘deal with the past’ in the aftermath of years – or as in Sri Lanka’s case, decades – of sustained violence is usually one of the most challenging – if not the most challenging – dimension of the post-conflict agenda. In Sri Lanka’s newly reconstituted democratic landscape, it is thus to be expected that the transitional justice agenda – its contents, emphasis, timing and so on – is becoming the subject of heightened political contestation.