During the past five years the United States has been leading efforts to ensure accountability over the war in Sri Lanka and those efforts have mostly been centered at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. As the U.S. Ambassador to the UN in Geneva till before the 2014 March session, Eileen Donahoe led the efforts to gather support for resolutions submitted in Geneva following the end of the war in 2009. Now the Director of Global Affairs at Human Rights Watch, Donahoe says the US did not gain anything through its efforts in Geneva other than knowing it was helping provide a means to establish the facts and to potentially prevent impunity for past mass crimes.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Five years on since the end of the war in Sri Lanka what would you say are the key positives and negatives you see in Sri Lanka?
A: The most significant positive development 5 years after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka is that the Human Rights Council – the lead UN entity through which member states collectively promote and protect human rights – successfully moved for a credible international inquiry into alleged war crimes inflicted by a member government, rather than accept impunity.
The Human Rights Council resolution was sponsored only after Sri Lanka showed marked unwillingness to establish a credible domestic investigation into alleged human rights violations occurred during the final months of the civil war that ended in May 2009.
The fact that these civilian casualties have not been forgotten, and that there continues to be an international push for a thorough and credible investigation 5 years after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka is a testament to the value placed on truth and accountability for purposes of reconciliation.
The fact that the victims of the violence have had to wait for 5 years for any form of justice is a negative dimension, but it is important that this case has not been forgotten or ignored by the international community.
Q: As you know the Government keeps saying pressure will hamper efforts on the ground towards reconciliation. How would you respond to those concerns?
A: This questions gets to the heart of the matter: Can there be real reconciliation in Sri Lanka ?
Those who have been on the losing side of civil conflicts – – victims who have survived, but who see themselves and their communities as the losers of civil conflict, have taught us the essential value of truth telling to reconciliation. If there is no credible inquiry, if the stories of the victims are not told, there can be no deep and lasting reconciliation or peace for anyone in the society.
Investigation of past war crimes and atrocities, even if it only happens because of international pressure, is essential for future peace. Providing a means to investigate the facts and tell the truth about the past, is an important way to help bring about and support lasting peace and reconciliation.
Q: As a former US envoy how do you see the US efforts on Sri Lanka? Is it enough, too much or more needs to be done?
A: The US effort to help bring truth and reconciliation to the people of Sri Lanka via the Human Rights Council initiative serves as a good example of leadership within the UN. The responsibility of UN member states is to help prevent impunity from becoming the de facto rule in the international system. This is a case where the US motive was simply to ensure that there would be some accounting of possible war crimes by a UN member government, so that victims would get some form of truth and justice.
In the context of Human Rights Council political dynamics, pushing forward to provide any form of international truth telling about the situation in Sri Lanka was not easy, but the motivation was relatively pure. The US did not gain anything other than knowing it was helping provide a means to establish the facts and to potentially prevent impunity for alleged past crimes.
Q: Countries like China, Russia and Pakistan keep backing Sri Lanka. Do you think it’s more as an anti US policy as opposed to the belief that Sri Lanka has really done enough?
A: At base, I think the resistance of China, Russia and Pakistan to any Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka was motivated primarily by a desire to protect what they believe to be state sovereignty over ‘domestic’ matters. The goal of reinforcing and protecting their view of state sovereignty was more central to their resistance to the resolution than belief that Sri Lanka had actually done enough to ensure justice, or even their desire to reinforce an anti-American outcome.
Yet, the successful outcome at the Human Rights Council reinforces the opposite view – that the situation people is rightfully a concern of the international community – not just a matter of domestic concern, and that all UN member states have the responsibility to ensure that there is some form of accountability.
Q: Where do you see Sri Lanka heading over the next year if things go as they are?
A: The international investigation into possible war crimes will proceed and it no doubt will provide a means of support and a form of truth to the victims in Sri Lanka who are waiting for justice.
However, the news coming from Sri Lanka about the government’s reaction to the establishment of the inquiry is not positive. Days after the adoption of the Human Rights Council resolution establishing the international inquiry into war crimes, the Sri Lankan government began moving to cut links between the country’s Tamil minority and members of the Tamil diaspora who could present evidence as part of the inquiry.
Specifically, the government introduced regulations that named 16 organizations and 424 individuals in the diaspora as ‘financiers of terrorism.’ Under these regulations, Sri Lankans with ties to these organization allegedly linked to terrorism can be charged for aiding and abetting terrorism and, if convicted, imprisoned for 20 years.The broad effect of the regulations is to restrict the peaceful activism of Tamils living within Sri Lanka and to isolate them from those living abroad.
The regulation also is intended to prevent the Tamil diaspora from providing evidence in the inquiry about alleged human rights violations and war crimes in Sri Lanka.Although the Sri Lanka government may have passed these regulations for the purpose of subverting the international inquiry, there is every reason to be confidence that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will proceed with due diligence to gather the facts and present findings to the international community as mandated by the HRC resolution. (Sunday Leader)