When the American Centre in Colombo held a memorial event honouring the late South African President Nelson Mandela, the first few questions at the question and answer session had nothing to do with the great freedom fighter.
The questions raised at the meeting Dec. 20 were about how South Africa could assist Sri Lanka set up its own national healing process. During the Commonwealth Heads of State summit (CHOGM) in Colombo in November, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government had approached the African state to explore the possibility of assistance in setting up something akin to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
According to the South African envoy in Colombo, Geoff Doidge, the request was made to South African President Jacob Zuma at the summit. “The past will haunt you as a country, even if you go forward, without a TRC-like process in Sri Lanka,” Zuma had told the meeting.
The questions on the TRC were symbolic of the kind of focus Sri Lanka’s rights record, and government efforts to correct it, have received since a bloody civil war ended almost five years back.
The Commonwealth meeting turned the spotlight on that rights record yet again. While attending the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the former war zone in the north with a retinue of reporters and journalists. During his whistle-stop tour, Cameron was quick to stress that Sri Lanka lagged behind in its efforts to address international concerns over rights violations.
Cameron said that the UK would back stricter international strictures against the Rajapaksa government if it does not redress the situation.
“The spotlight will be on Sri Lanka to demonstrate it is committed to Commonwealth (values),” British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka John Rankin said before the Commonwealth meet.
Cameron’s comments resulted in a barrage of criticism against him locally, but international advocates pushing for a credible investigation into rights violations welcomed it.
“It has reinforced the need for an international inquiry,” Steve Crashaw, director for the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International who was in Sri Lanka during the Commonwealth meeting told IPS.
Crashaw said Cameron’s actions should be followed by other international players. “It should not be limited to a one-off media event.”
It is unlikely to be. The U.S. has expressed similar sentiments that Colombo needs to do more to investigate wartime allegations, especially about the thousands of civilians who have gone missing. The New Year is now likely to see more pressure on the Sri Lankan government.
The U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal is expected in Sri Lanka in mid-January. During her first visit to the island Biswal is expected to discuss issue pertaining to investigations into disappearances and deaths.
Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa set up a new commission in late November to tabulate wartime deaths. The new census is being conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics.
A similar effort by the same department in 2011 found after looking at vital events in the North and East that 4,156 persons were untraceable in the two provinces since 2005. International organisations including an advisory panel to the UN Secretary General have put figures of civilian disappearances close to ten times that.
The newly formed Northern Provincial Council, controlled by the opposition Tamil National Alliance, has already said it would launch its own census of the disappeared since it did not trust the numbers produced by government surveys.
National rights activists told IPS that pressure by the likes of the UK, the U.S. and next-door neighbour India, whose prime minister stayed away from the Commonwealth confab, is leading the government at least to take note of uncomfortable issues.
“At the very least, it strengthens the determination and courage of victims, their families, a few journalists, lawyers, the clergy and activists who continue to struggle for truth and justice,” Rukshan Fernando, board member of the national advocacy group Rights Now told IPS.
Fernando observed that if the government continues to drag its heels, it could face a tough reception at the upcoming March sessions of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. Over the past two years the council has adopted resolutions calling on the Sri Lankan government to address lingering allegations of rights violations.
However, neither resolution has included any mention of the possibility of an international rights inquiry.
“The members of the Council have toughened the position on Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2012 and 2013, and the Indian PM’s boycott of CHOGM indicates that India is ready to be tougher on Sri Lanka,” Fernando said.
India’s role has changed considerably in the last five years. In mid-2009 when the war was in its final stages, India was instrumental in stalling a resolution brought on by European nations condemning Sri Lankan government actions.
In 2014, domestic political exigencies may push New Delhi to come full circle, according to Ramani Hariharan, a political commentator from India who served as intelligence officer with the Indian Peace Keeping Force that was stationed in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.
“The UNHCR meet will be held in March 2014 when the Indian parliamentary poll campaign will be in full steam. The Congress (government’s) fortunes are at stake and it is likely to oblige the Dravida Munnetra K’azhagam [DMK] party’s demand to keep it in the coalition.” The DMK is a dominant party in India’s Tamil Nadu.
It was due to pressure from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu with its Tamil majority population, that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stayed away from Colombo in November.
“The UN Human Rights Council sessions can create significant pressure on Sri Lanka,” Amnesty International’s Crashaw said. (IPS)