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