By Jehan Perera –
After the terror attacks on the United States that shook the world in 2001 and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the US government has been frequently at the receiving end of criticism for violating the human rights of those suspected to be terrorists or supporters of organizations deemed to be a threat to US interests. There have been charges of human rights violations in relation to the capture, questioning and incarceration of suspected terrorists. The war against terrorism led by the US and its allies has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the unmanned drone attacks that frequently lead to civilian casualties have become symbolic of the unacceptable collateral costs of this war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was among the first of world leaders to condemn the bombing of the Boston Marathon and condole with the victims. The government has utilized the occasion of the bombing to express its solidarity with the United States in the global war against terrorism. The terrorist bombing and the carnage it caused to innocent civilians serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of free societies to such outrages. The fact that the bombers were originally from Chechnya is certain to strengthen public opinion in the United States against those who promote or engage in violence for ethnic separatism.
The government’s Information Department stated that the Sri Lankan President was “the only leader in the world to eradicate the scourge of terrorism from Sri Lanka completely, has also called on all the countries to get together to eliminate the scourge of terrorism.” The attempt of the government to draw parallels with Sri Lanka’s own three decade long struggle to end terrorism, and the sufferings it underwent in the process, has to be seen in the context of US-led efforts to pass strictures on the government in recent times.
The problem for the government, however, is that while countries are sympathetic to the subjective logic of government actions during times of war, they are not equally sympathetic to non-action in the context of post-war which they see as a time for healing and reconciliation. The government has not been able to explain satisfactorily why it is unable or unwilling to implement those promises it made to the international community during the time of war, or even the recommendations in its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that deal with governance and reconciliation. This is why the government is unable to capture the imagination of the international community, or in this case the United States.
The US-led resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva in March of this year was stronger than last year’s resolution in the same forum. This year’s resolution was not only passed by a bigger majority of countries, it was also more forceful in demanding an independent probe into allegations of war crimes. The previous resolution in March 2012 was more focused on the implementation of recommendations by the government’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. If the government had taken more visible measures to implement these recommendations, the demand for a probe into war crimes would likely have softened.
Instead of giving priority to implementing the LLRC recommendations that would lead to reforms in the structure of government, and also address the psycho-social needs of the war-affected people, the government has sought to defend its conduct during the war, and even afterwards, on the basis of protecting the civilian population from terrorism. The continued high level of militarization, especially in the former war zones of the North and East, has been justified as keeping the country safe from a revival of the LTTE. The government continues to insist that the last phase of the war was a humanitarian operation to rescue the 300,000 civilian population who were held hostage by the LTTE as human shields to protect themselves from the advancing Sri Lankan army.
By and large most Sri Lankans have accepted the government position that the Geneva resolutions are motivated by a desire to punish the government for having crushed the LTTE in war. The hand of the pro-LTTE Diaspora is seen to loom large in these resolutions. The perception of most Sri Lankan people is that there is an unnecessary international emphasis on war crimes in Sri Lanka in a world that is full of them. To them the real issue is that the LTTE, which was a terrorist organisation that wreaked havoc in the country, is no more. Getting rid of the LTTE was due to the government’s military action.
What is troubling to the government is the hardening of the US-led efforts to move resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of alleged war crimes. But the real issue is that after the war, the government has failed to institute systems of democratic governance and ensure reconciliation. The most recent US criticism of the government has come in the form of the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report on Sri Lanka, and it brings the real issues out clearly. This report documents the multiple failures of the government to uphold human rights, ranging from the use of torture by the security forces to the self-censorship being practices by the media in the interests of their self-preservation.
The international community’s emphasis on war crimes is a recent development. In the last phase of the war, and its immediate aftermath, those who spoke of war crimes were mostly human rights organizations. The majority of the countries represented in the UN Human Rights Council did not support such an emphasis at the end of the war. The first resolution on the Sri Lankan war that was passed in the UN Human Rights Council a few weeks after the war ended in May 2009 was actually one that was proposed by Sri Lanka itself. It commended the government for having ended the war and looked forward to the post-war reconciliation process that the government was promising to take forward.
In fact the UN Human Rights Council dropped a draft resolution calling for an investigation into possible war crimes during Sri Lanka’s recently-concluded war on terrorism and adopted Sri Lanka’s counter resolution. Of the 47-member Council, 29 voted for Sri Lanka’s resolution, 12 against and 6 abstained. The resolution that was passed condemned the LTTE and welcomed “the liberation by the government of Sri Lanka of tens of thousands of its citizens that were kept by the LTTE against their will as hostages.” Unfortunately, the government took this as a final victory. The promises the government made to the international community with regard to good governance, a political solution and reconciliation were not implemented.
The problem that arose thereafter is the one that Sri Lanka now faces. Without dealing with the issues of emotional trauma and political rights that has arisen due to the war, the government focused on material development. Government leaders placed confidence in the changes they were making to the country’s infrastructure. They saw the road network and reconstructed towns that arose like the phoenix from the ashes of war and began issuing invitations to the international community to come and see for themselves. Those who did and do come are impressed. They see a geographically united country that is being visibly transformed. But the outer change alone is not enough.
Reuniting a divided country is not only a matter of what is visible. It is also a matter of reuniting hearts and minds. Despite the large proportion of displaced persons who have been resettled, the quality of their resettlement, and human rights problems, do not yet qualify the Sri Lankan experience to be cited as a model for international emulation. An unknown number of thousands, or is it tens of thousands, of families of those who went missing in the war, continue to be left in the dark about what happened to them. Many of them continue to hope that their loved ones are still alive, captive in some army camp or prison, and await their reappearance.
Post war reconciliation also continues to be at a low ebb with no political solution in sight, and with the military still playing a dominant role in the civil administration of the North. All the people who lost their loved ones in the war need to know what happened to them. A political solution that deals with the roots of the conflict, which gave rise to terrorism and war, also needs to be in place. Pressure for this must be put on the government by the political opposition. But this is not happening effectively. This adds to the problem in which the country is getting ever deeper enmeshed. It means there is no internal pressure coming from the electorate that prompts the government to change and adapt to the real needs of the post-war situation.
The Boston bombing, and the government’s immediate condemnation of it, is likely to make public opinion in the United States more sympathetic to governments, such as Sri Lanka’s, that fight or have fought terrorism. But to take this opportunity, and build on it, the government has to take on the challenge of achieving reconciliation based on international standards by instituting systems of good governance that ensure justice and equity for the war victims and ethnic minorities today. Unfortunately in the absence of domestic pressures it is left to the international community to contribute to long term reconciliation in Sri Lanka, by putting pressure on the government to do what needs to be done for good governance and reconciliation.