While domestic politics took centre stage in Delhi this past March, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) pulling out of the ruling coalition, far away from the mêlée, at the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 22nd session in Geneva, the Indian representative made some very interesting remarks which gave us an insight into what the Government of India thought of the human rights and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.
Not known for radically scrutinizing statements on the international stage, India quietly registered its dismay at the lack of progress made by Sri Lanka since its commitments at the Council in 2009. While urging Sri Lanka to implement recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), India also made a strong call for an ‘independent and credible investigation into allegations of human rights violations and loss of civilian lives.’ The Indian representative added that such measures should be ‘to the satisfaction of the international community.’
With just days to go for Sri Lanka’s next update at the UNHRC, where Sri Lanka is expected to update Council members on the progress from the last session, there is not much hope in terms of encouraging news on the human rights front. If anything, the recent fact finding visit of the UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, has only generated more cause for worry. Pillay expressed fears that Sri Lanka was increasingly heading towards authoritarianism with a dangerous erosion of democracy and rule of law. Coming just days ahead of Sri Lanka’s oral submission at the UNHRC in late September, Pillay’s observation should give the Indian authorities some more cause for ‘dismay’ and ‘disappointment’.
In light of these bleak developments, those of us in Indian civil society, who closely follow the developments in Sri Lanka, would like to know what the Indian Government proposes to do and how it intends to ensure that Sri Lanka commissions or facilitates an ‘independent and credible investigation,’ which as it had stated should be to the satisfaction of the international community. All signs coming from Sri Lanka after the end of the war have shown that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime is not very keen on moving in the direction of justice and accountability.
Promises of impartial investigations
It has been four years since the end of the bloody civil war and during this period, the Sri Lankan Government has made several promises to conduct impartial investigations and then reneged. It set up the LLRC, but the recommendations of this commission made it clear to any rights respecting person that this was merely a façade and not an honest process. International groups closely following human rights situations in Sri Lanka, including the UN Panel of Experts, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, all criticized the LLRC for its limited mandate, lack of independence and its failure to meet minimum international standards. However, what clearly exhibited the regime’s callousness and general disinterest is how it has refused to even accept most of the fairly weak recommendations made by the LLRC.
Pillay had remarked that Sri Lanka had a great opportunity to start an inclusive rebuilding process after the end of the war. This is exactly what the Indian Government and many of Sri Lanka’s friends in the international community have been stressing. But how can there be any peace without justice? Are victims and survivors supposed to just forget what happened and move on? Should those who chose to violate almost every established humanitarian norm during the war be simply given a clean chit as an endorsement of their conduct? A UN panel found credible estimates that, as many as 40,000 civilians had been killed in the final phase of the 2009 war. Can such blatant disregard and disrespect for human rights form the basis for a new and inclusive Sri Lanka?
These are exactly the reasons why India should continue working with the international community to press Sri Lanka for a credible and independent investigation, which is to the satisfaction of the international community. Being an important regional voice that still retains some influence with its southern neighbour, India needs to find ways of engaging with Sri Lanka to ensure that a process of transitional justice is at the centre of any reconciliation efforts.
Sri Lanka and its supporters at the international stage have time and again rejected the call for an international investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the war. Blanket detractors should consider the fact that this call from the international civil society only gained prominence after the Sri Lankan authorities failed to undertake any credible investigation in the last four years.
India has been hesitant about asking for an international investigation, but its statement at the UNHRC suggesting any domestic process to be to the satisfaction of the international community, reflects the growing realization within the Indian establishment. India should also consider other ways to ensure a credible investigative process is undertaken in Sri Lanka, which would not be seen as impinging Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The lead up to the CHOGM summit could be an opportune time to promote such an alternative mechanism that could help Sri Lanka meet its international commitments. Being an important member of the Commonwealth, New Delhi needs to get Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, to act on behalf of an increasingly large group of member-states who have publicly and privately expressed disappointment at the lack of accountability for excesses committed during the war and the continuing human rights violations since the end of the war, including a widespread assault on dissent.
It is clear from the various reports that have emerged from Sri Lanka and Pillay’s own findings, that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is fast deteriorating. Human rights, democracy, freedom and rule of law are all under severe attack. In a recent report, Amnesty International documented cases in which journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and opposition politicians were being targeted in government-sanctioned abuse. In a clear attack on rule of law in January 2013, Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, was impeached on charges of misconduct, despite a Supreme Court ruling that the impeachment procedure was unconstitutional.
If India seeks a seat on the global high-table, it cannot wish away its responsibility in responding to international crises such as Sri Lanka’s predicament. In fact, India as an important voice from the ‘Global South’ will lend great legitimacy to any international process seeking justice and accountability in Sri Lanka.(Ground Views)