In the run up to the March 28 Geneva meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, three things are taking place in South Asia and elsewhere. First, a major political party in Tamil Nadu (India), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has formally made a presentation calling for India to move a separate resolution against Sri Lanka.
Second, the president of Sri Lanka, taking note of the mounting international pressures, has extended the timeline by six months of a three-member commission looking into disappearances during the ethnic conflict. And third, in some small reprieve to Colombo, countries like Russia and China have made it known to Sri Lanka that they will not allow issues of human rights to be used as a smokescreen to interfere in the affairs of a country. Whether Moscow and Beijing along with others like Pakistan and Iran are going to make a difference for Sri Lanka at Geneva this year remains to be seen.
But it is highly unlikely that a motley group of nations using the pretext of “interference” can hold up a determined group of democracies wanting an international probe into alleged war crimes during the last phase of the ethnic conflict in 2009. In fact, Sri Lanka could be embarrassed by totalitarian regimes and tin pot dictatorships coming to its political rescue, given their own dubious track records on the human rights front. If the recent goings on between Sri Lanka and the United States are anything to go by, the two countries are heading on a course that is bound to have its implications bilaterally, in South Asia and globally.
For the third time in as many years, the Obama administration has made it patently clear that it is going to table a resolution against the island nation at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva this March. And this has set off a flurry of visits from Colombo to world capitals, mobilizing support against any resolution sponsored by Washington. It all comes down to one word – accountability. Many in the international community – not just the US – seemed to be convinced that five years after the end of the nearly three-decade ethnic conflict official Colombo has yet to come to terms with the ground realities.
Among other things, what is being demanded is a fuller accounting of the missing persons and an explanation of the role of the armed forces in the closing months of the war in 2009. One estimate is that in a five-month period alone some 40,000 civilians have been killed, leading to allegations of genocide and war crimes, and hence the call for an international war crimes tribunal. The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has also been criticized for not properly going through with the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
The criticism that Colombo is keen on implementing only the “soft” recommendations of the commission aside, there are those in the international community who have slammed the enquiry commission of completely absolving the Sri Lankan armed forces of any wrong doing and placing the blame for the civilian deaths entirely at the doorstep of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The contention that the Sri Lankan armed forces gave the “highest priority” to protecting civilians has just been laughed out of court. Critics have stressed that Colombo is using the LLRC as a mechanism to prevent any international probe into alleged abuses during the closing stages of the war. Sri Lanka has consistently maintained that “time” is needed for any national reconciliation.
But countries like the US have also made the point that aside from dragging its feet on substantive issues, Colombo is contributing to a worsening situation on the human rights front.
“The United States has always supported a Sri Lankan process to resolve the issues emanating from the conflict. But as I have noted earlier, the patience of the international community is wearing thin over the pace of progress, including with the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC,” Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, said at a press conference recently after a two-day trip to Sri Lanka.
“We are concerned about the worsening situation with respect to human rights, including continued attacks against religious minorities as well as the weakening of the rule of law and an increase in level of corruption and impunity. All of these factors lead to undermine the proud tradition of democracy in Sri Lanka…Let me state that we are aware that in the past individuals who have met with foreign officials have been met in turn with intimidating visits and threatening phone calls. I would say that we view this very seriously and find it completely unacceptable,” she added The senior State Department official then went on to make Washington’s next move at Geneva.
“…the United States is motivated here out of a vision for an inclusive, peaceful, prosperous and unified Sri Lanka. It is this vision, this inclusive vision which also motivates the United States to sponsor a third resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation, democratic governance, justice and accountability at the UNHRC in March.” In pressing Sri Lanka for greater transparency and accountability, the Obama administration has not clearly made it known whether it will push for an international investigation into alleged war crimes, but has essentially told the powers that be in Colombo that there is indeed justification for those individuals calling for an international mechanism to be put in place.
“… There has not been sufficient action taken by the government to address issues of justice and accountability. We heard from many people about people who are still unaccounted for, whose whereabouts and fate is unknown to their family members. We heard about individuals and organizations that continue to feel threatened and intimidated. And when such a climate persists five years after the end of conflict, then I think that there is some cause for those individuals to feel that an international process is needed,” Biswal remarked. “… We have been strongly urging for a Sri Lankan process to investigate the final days of the war.
We understand growing concern, frustration and scepticism amongst many in my country and many in the international community that has led to increasing calls for international investigations and international processes. I’ll leave it there,” the senior administration official noted The collision course is not just between Sri Lanka and the United States as it involves many others in the developing and the developed world.
The Sri Lankan government got an earful in the run up to the Commonwealth meeting late last year and was jolted this January when the Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution calling for an international probe into the alleged war crimes as also “ethnic cleansing” in the course of the conflict. Perhaps a small saving grace is that at the insistence of the moderate chief minister the term “genocide” was omitted. A major disadvantage for Sri Lanka this time around at Geneva is going to be India.
In the last two years, New Delhi has backed resolutions against the island nation but the impression has been that it also played a role in watering down the tone, tenor and text of the drafts. But this time with elections round the corner the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will be keen on aggressively pushing Sri Lanka if that could get the Congress party some votes in Tamil Nadu.
On the one hand an argument can be made that if Colombo is genuinely seeking a reconciliation process then the onus is on the country to set in motion something meaningful that comes to terms with the expectations of its own people, especially Tamils, and the comity of nations. Brushing aside the views of the United States or trying to score points by questioning America’s own role in Vietnam and Iraq is not going to solve the issue. The armed forces of Sri Lanka cannot give itself a “clean chit” when its very role in the closing phases of the ethnic conflict is the focal point of attention. Yet on the other hand, countries like the United States cannot be a party to annual circus type rituals at Geneva that in the end turn out to be nothing more than an “appeal” for accountability and good governance.
Reconciliation cannot come about overnight; but in the case of the Tamils in Sri Lanka even after five painful years a serious attempt in bridging the divide is yet to emerge.