When a country such as Sri Lanka proudly flaunts its human rights abuses against the Tamils and refuses to investigate war crimes, the world has a responsibility to act.
The Australian cricket team is soon to travel to the country and voices are growing that such a trip should be cancelled, to send a strong message to Colombo that it is not welcomed into the civilised world unless it changes its ways.
Leading Australian cricket writer Peter Roebuck has written two recent pieces outlining the issues and bravely stating that sport is never just about entertainment. Politics is central to everything. And Sri Lanka will be made to understand that it’s a pariah.
The recent expose´ of the systematic execution, rape and abuse of Tamils in the closing stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka has provoked deep consternation among cricketers. One prominent player has been having nightmares since Four Corners aired the Channel 4 report this week, and the Players Association has been asked to intervene. Australia is due to visit Sri Lanka in August.
When it comes to making a stand, sport has mostly preferred to bury its head in the sand. Claiming it was none of its business, it ignored the state-sponsored slaughter of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Few condemned the West Indies’ refusal to appoint a black captain, a policy that lasted deep into the 1950s. People preferred to talk about the lbw rule. Patronising images were conveyed of happy-go-lucky West Indians and hospitable Sri Lankans. The truth is always more complex.
It’s not good enough. Sportsmen and women can no longer pretend lack of knowledge. Facebook, YouTube and so forth have denied them that luxury. Sport is not a trivial distraction but part of our daily lives, not an escape but an embrace. Cricket, especially, has an opportunity to advance racial and religious tolerance. Have not these causes united all great men and women? Teams from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian heritages reached the semi-finals of the recent World Cup. Sport has an obligation to help different peoples cross the bridge.
Not that any game ought to involve itself in local matters. Legitimate politics provides a choice between legitimate parties. Sovereign nations are entitled to determine their own fates. Tyranny is another matter.
Cricket is obliged to confront another matter that reaches far beyond its ordinary jurisdiction. Already the former England cricket captain, Michael Atherton, has urged his country to consider its position before undertaking its tour to Sri Lanka next year. Atherton described the Channel 4 footage as the most shocking seen on television since the Ethiopian food crisis. Evidently the ruling regime carried out these atrocities, chased away reporters and now blocks the United Nations’ attempts to establish the facts.
Clearly the Australian players are entitled to have as much information as possible before making any decision to visit any country. In this case, it is not a straightforward matter because the government appears to have popular support. After decades of civil war, the country is ostensibly at peace. And let’s not pretend the Tamil Tigers were saints. On the other hand, the leader of the opposition is behind bars and a small family clique around the presidency seems intent on controlling the economic and political levers.
It’s hard to know where sporting boycotts ought to start and stop. Iraqi civilians have suffered terribly from bombs dropped in an illegal war. Are the perpetrators to be isolated? If not, why not? Perhaps the difference lies between wicked actions and evil systems. That is poor consolation to the victims.
And more Roebuck:
Following a devastating documentary, recently aired in Australia, Michael Atherton wrote that England ought to consider its position before undertaking its tour to Sri Lanka. Footage was shown of soldiers executing Tamils, prisoners of war and civilians alike. Women were raped, children abused, hospitals bombed, and no questions asked.
The former England captain described the sights as the most shocking seen on television since the Ethiopian food crisis.
The regime in Colombo carried out these atrocities, chased away reporters and blocked the UN’s attempts to investigate. Sri Lanka is dangerous for journalists. Not so long ago a friend of mine, the editor of The Sunday Leader, was assassinated.
Atherton compares the Sri Lankan regime to that of Robert Mugabe and challenges his community to reflect upon its differing responses. Inconsistency is widespread. My African contingent includes a Congolese student who saw soldiers burning alive defeated opponents. Yet his country mostly escapes scrutiny.
Now Sri Lanka is in the spotlight. The next step is to insist upon an independent inquiry. It is vital to establish the facts. Clearly the Australian players are entitled to have as much information as possible at their disposal before making any decision to visit any country. They are scheduled to tour Sri Lanka next month. I will be going to Sri Lanka because that is the job of journalists.
Already one leading player has said the documentary made him feel sick and that he had been having nightmares since. Another observer has raised the issue of a boycott.
It’s not a straightforward matter because the government appears to have been legitimately elected. After decades of civil war the country is ostensibly at peace.