By Jehan Perera –
Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga is to visit the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) next month to explain the steps taken to address accountability issues stemming from the last stages of the war with the LTTE, which the international community is pressing for. There is much faith being pinned on him as a capable and efficient public servant. However, what those in the international community who are keenly watching developments in Sri Lanka will not wish to only hear another impressive governmental presentation of facts and figures that they cannot verify. They need to believe what they are being told, and this can only come from a credible monitoring mechanism. In its absence what they will listen to is the opposition and civil society in Sri Lanka.
The message from those who are not part of the government so far is negative and not getting positive. Speaking at the opening of a rice mill funded by Australia last week at Vishvamadhu in the Northern Province, its Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran provided a summary of the issues faced by his administration. He said, “Firstly it is the fact that our Northern Province is under Army occupation even nearly five years since the end of the war. It is assessed that nearly 150,000 members of the Military are resident in the Northern Province. They occupy illegally lands belonging to our people. This denies our people access to their own lands for which many of them have documents though sometimes destroyed during the war.
“Secondly Sinhalese people from the South are being brought in secretly and made to colonise the lands belonging to our people. Even if the lands be state lands that does not give rights to any one and every one to colonize them. But the Army actively supports such moves. Thirdly our people lack security. Our women are subjected to gender harassment. Many face the worst that could happen to them and they cannot talk about it in the open. The Police are aware as to the culprits but they are powerless. Fourthly, lack of Employment. We have put up impressive roads mainly to enable the Army to travel quickly keeping the Northern Province under repression. But we have not generated Employment opportunities for those affected by the war.
“When our arable lands are taken over by the Army and they cultivate them and profit by them, when our fishing is taken over by the Military and they indulge in fishing activities, when they indulge in commercial activities right down the A9 Road displacing our people how could our people expect job opportunities? Thus our people having lost everything during the war without security, without job opportunities, without recourse to their traditional lands and houses they decide to sell or pawn their jewelries, if possible sell their houses and lands and take boat to Australia.” The government will wish to contest these charges of the Chief Minister. The question is how best canit do so. Denials and verbal presentations alone, on paper and on projector screens alone, will not suffice.
At the conclusion of his five day official visit, Japan’s Special Envoy for Peace-Building, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka, is reported to have said that the Presidential Secretary’s presence in Geneva ahead of the annual sessions scheduled for March 2014, could ease international pressure on the Sri Lankan government. This was on account of assurances given by the President. When journalists at the media conference had pointed out that since the war ended in May 2009, the President given assurances to all visiting leaders but they had not been implemented, he noted that even Sri Lankans, not just the international community were impatient and concerned about the delay on the part of the government to implement the recommendations of its own LLRC.
During Mr Akashi’s visit to Sri Lanka there were signs that Japan is edging towards taking a common position with Western countries on the issue of accountability for human rights violations during the war. He said that it was not only the International Community but also Sri Lankans who are anxiously “waiting for action and not just sound and fury”. This was in contrast to his statements on previous visits where he praised the government for its reconstruction and resettlement efforts and urged patience in regard to issues of governance and accountability. Mr Aksahi also called on the government to listen to what the international community is saying. There is a sense that the government is only seeking to make its own case without listening to anyone.
Mr Akashi’s approach to addressing Sri Lanka’s problems in the past has corresponded to the general tenor of Japan’s overall policy towards the country. So far Japan has not gone along with the Western countries in the UN Human Rights Council and has abstained from voting against Sri Lanka. The Japanese government and Mr Akashi in particular have in the post-war period demonstrated strength of conviction in favour of finding a national solution to the problem of national reconciliation. At different forums Mr Akashi has expressed his view that while any solution should be based on universal values and international standards, the mechanism should be national.
Japan has been better placed to empathise with Sri Lanka on account of its own post-World War 2 history. Unlike its ally Germany which was able to make a clean break with the past after the war, Japan was not able to do so. Germany was able to lay the blame for the war and war crimes on the Nazis, but Japan was not able to make such a clean break with the past. Japan continued to have continuity with the past in the form of Emperor Hirohito who was much revered prior to and during the war, and continued to be revered after the war. During the war, the Imperial Japanese Army fought under the banner of the Emperor. They were defeated and accused of war crimes by the victors in the war. But post-war Japan, while it took on universal values and international standards as its guiding principles, did not renounce the Emperor and saw him instead as a unifying force even after the war.
It appears that due to its own history, Japan is better able to identify with Sri Lanka’s dilemma than other countries. This may explain Japan’s great patience with Sri Lanka and its repeated attempts to persuade Sri Lanka’s leaders to take positive actions that can reduce the international pressure on Sri Lanka. Unfortunately the Sri Lankan government has taken refuge in only one part of Mr Akashi’s message, which is that national solutions should be domestically designed and implemented. However, Sri Lankan leaders have been less forthcoming on abiding by international standards. The government’s approach to dealing with the international community is to seek to improve the messenger, and to replace the messenger who fails to change the international community.
The government claims to be implementing reforms, but there is little sign of it on the ground, especially in terms of demilitarization and upholding of democratic rights. The past two UN Human Rights Council resolutions were not only on the issue of war-time accountability, but also on implementing the LLRC recommendations aimed at good governance and reconciliation. The Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and the TNA are highlighting the lack of devolution of power to improve the lives of the people and the continuing militarization of that part of the country. The government is denying that the problems are so bad and that change for the better is taking place. In fact that is the message that the government seeks to give to the international community. One way for the government to enhance its international credibility is to listen to the questions the international community is asking and to give it credible answers. They are not only looking for answers to war-time accountability issues. The government may wish to consider setting up a credible independent national mechanism to monitor and report on what is taking place in terms of devolution, demilitarization and upholding of basic rights at the ground level.