By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka will be one of only three countries on which a substantive resolution, which calls for new forms of follow up actions, will be discussed at the session of the UN Human Rights Council next month. The other two countries are North Korea and Myanmar. However, in Myanmar’s case it will be a consensual resolution that is going to be passed, with the approval of the Myanmar government. Therefore, unless a similar consensus is reached on Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan government will alone with its North Korean counterpart to have a resolution that is to be passed against its wishes. This is undoubtedly an regrettable situation for the government to have put itself and the country into because in objective terms Sri Lanka is nowhere near North Korea in being either an authoritarian regime or a threat to world peace.
Almost all foreigners who come to Sri Lanka for the first time are pleasantly surprised by the state of the country, not only its natural beauty, but also the vibrancy of its society and the appearance of reasonable democracy and freedom by third world standards. It will be natural for most Sri Lankans to feel utterly indignant against the international alliance that seeks to portray their country as one that can be bracketed with North Korea in international forums like the UNHRC. But sadly this infamy appears to be increasingly likely. The European Parliament in Brussels which represents 28 European countries last week passed a resolution calling for “an international inquiry to be fully independent, credible and transparent” into alleged war crimes. Likewise a committee of the US Senate also called for an “international investigation into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations.”
Media reports and comments from top government leaders suggest that the Sri Lankan government is now bracing itself for defeat in the vote and to be at the receiving end of an adverse resolution. The stakes are getting very high, especially after the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay’s recommendation that there be no amnesty for war crimes, which indicates a willingness to take on the Sri Lankan government leadership in a battle to the finish with no hope of reconciliation. It was ill-advised of the government to have believed it could defeat a resolution promoted by the two leading superpowers of the world, the US and EU and to fight it rather than to negotiate. It would be advisable for the government to seek to moderate its position that totally rejects an international role in investigating the past. Fighting to win became more impossible after it became clear that the country was internally divided on the issue.
Not all Sri Lankans are opposed to an international investigation and sections are actively promoting it. The Northern Provincial Council’s call for an international investigation has come about in a context in which the credibility of national processes of investigation has collapsed in full. The past decades have been littered by the many commissions of inquiry appointed by the present government and its predecessors, which came to naught in terms of providing solutions to the problems they were set up to address. In some instances the reports were not made public and were suppressed instead. In other instances the investigations done by the commissions were not seen as either impartial or comprehensive. Therefore there is no confidence at all that a national investigation can ever be a genuine effort that will lead to a genuine outcome.
It is this line of reasoning, due to past experience, that provides the background to the demand for an international investigation by the Northern Provincial Council. Although the country is reunited in terms of territory after the war, it continues to be divided in terms of hearts and minds. The resolution passed by the Northern Provincial Council that calls for an international investigation into the last phase is being described by the more nationalist section of Sinhalese opinion formers as an act of treachery and a warning signal about the dangers presented by the devolution of power to the Tamil-majority Northern Provincial Council. Now there are calls for the government to dissolve the Northern Provincial Council, whose establishment a mere five months ago was hailed as a great success and sign of hope by those who advocate a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the country.
An international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka is totally rejected by the Sri Lankan government. The Sinhalese ethnic majority too is virtually unanimous in their opposition to this investigation, particularly as it focuses on the last phase alone in which the government won the war, and not on earlier phases which would reflect badly on the LTTE and its supporters, and when the government was at the receiving end of defeats and massacres of its soldiers and civilians. They also have been instilled with the belief that such an international intrusion into the country’s affairs will compromise its sovereignty. The fearful conditions in many other countries that have been subjected to humanitarian interventions by foreign countries are constantly brought up. Therefore the government has the assurance that it will be supported by the majority of the country’s population in any showdown with the international community on the issue of the last phase of the war.
However, is also necessary for the government to realize that obtaining domestic support is not a solution to the problems it faces in the international arena. The emergence of new reports on what allegedly transpired during the last phase of the war make it more important than ever to ascertain the truth of what happened. The report by an Australian NGO, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, that documents atrocities that are alleged to have taken place shows that the passage of time after the end of the war has not made the allegations of war-time atrocities less, but has made them even stronger. This indicates the need for a truth-seeking mechanism that could put an end to the speculation as to what really happened, and how many died in that last phase.
If there is to be reconciliation that is based on trust and understanding, the Sinhalese people need to know the truth along with the Tamil people, so that they will empathise with each other. What is happening today is the opposite. The Sinhalese believe that the Tamils and international community are exaggerating the casualty toll for reasons of their own that are detrimental to the country. Therefore they do not accept that an international investigation would be fair by the country, and fear it will turn out to be a mechanism to interfere into the internal affairs of the country with the ultimate motive of regime change, weakening the Sri Lankan polity and dividing it. On the other hand, the Tamil people and international community do not believe that the government will ever conduct an impartial investigation that would lay bare the truth.
The US and its allies continue to insist on an international commission to investigate allegations of grave human rights violations and war crimes in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war. However, the positive outcome that the passage of such a resolution would bring to the war-affected people and to the Sri Lankan people in general is not clear at all. The passage of the resolution on investigating war crimes, especially with no provision for amnesty, is unlikely to lead to the Sri Lankan government agreeing to such an investigation taking place within the country. On the contrary it is a recipe for further confrontation and makes the prospects of reconciliation more distant than ever. In the context of potential deadlock regarding what happened in the last phase of the war, a possible way out would be for a joint investigation into the past with provision for amnesty that meets international standards and accompanied by a regular report back mechanism to the UNHRC.