By Jehan Perera –
The resolution passed by the Northern Provincial Council accusing successive Sri Lankan governments of committing acts of genocide against the Tamil people came a few weeks before the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March this year. It also asked the UN to set up an investigation into Genocide in various forms alleged to have been perpetrated on the Tamil people from the time of Independence. The resolution also called upon the UN to release the report of its investigation panel into alleged war crimes committed in the final phase of the country’s internal war, and to also set up an international process to ensure accountability for those crimes. However, the UN did not release the report of its investigation panel. It heeded the Sri Lankan government’s appeal that the release of the report should be postponed to give the new government time to make its own domestic accountability procedure more concrete. The UN report is now expected to be released later this year in September when the UN Human Rights Council gathers once again in Geneva.
The visit to Sri Lanka of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Truth, Accountability, Reparations and Guarantees of Non- Recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, gave the Northern Provincial Council another opportunity to present its case on genocide before the UN. It is reported that the Genocide Resolution was given to the UN Special Rapporteur. However, once again, it does not appear that the Genocide Resolution has had the desired impact. The Tamil media reported that “the UN Special Rapporteur was advocating for an internal mechanism during his visit. He was urging more time and space to be given to the new regime in Colombo. However, the Tamil representatives have explained in detail on the failure of all successive regimes in Colombo in delivering internal mechanisms capable of addressing the crimes committed by the SL State itself and its armed forces in the past.”
The doubts about the viability and success of a domestic mechanism to ascertain the truth and to ensure accountability for war crimes would be shared by many of the human rights and civil society representatives who had the opportunity to meet with the UN Special Rapporteur. Those who play a watchdog role in civil society are dedicated to ensuring the highest standards on matters of human rights and governance. They represent ideals and causes, and are well positioned to push and agitate for them. However, those in government are inclined to take a more pragmatic approach about what is possible and what is not. It was likely to have been the sense of pragmatism amongst international governments that constitute the decision makers in the UN Human Rights that led to the postponement of the release of the report of the UN investigation panel.
The new government is taking a different approach from that of the previous government in agreeing to cooperate with the international community and with the UN system to deal with outstanding human rights issues. On the one hand it has adopted the core position of the former government in stating that the investigation into the past and the processes of accountability will need to be done domestically. On the other hand, its Foreign Minister is making pledges to the international community that it “will remedy the root causes of injustice, discrimination and prejudice that have spawned hate and violence for many decades. This government will break from this past and is deeply committed to make our vision of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Sri Lanka based on the principles of equality, justice and meritocracy a reality for all Sri Lankans.” These commitments are being backed by actions and are getting the new government a great deal of international support.
One of the foreign government representatives to visit Sri Lanka, Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary for the office of democracy, human rights and Labour went out of his way to show support for the course of action being followed by the new government. He wrote an article to the Sri Lankan press stating that “The United States welcomes actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to rebuild trust with the Sri Lankan people; and we stand ready to support efforts in establishing a just and lasting peace. All around the world, there are countries that are going through, in their own ways, what Sri Lankans went through here. Read the headlines from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Burma, and you will see why the international community wants Sri Lanka to succeed. Not just for the country’s sake, but for all our sakes: The world needs Sri Lanka to keep showing that a society divided by ethnicity and faith can find peace through democracy and dialogue.”
The peaceful transition from an increasingly authoritarian government that appeared to be entrenched in power to a multi-party government in which there is cohabitation between a president and prime minister who come from rival parties has few if any precedents. The new government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the international community is coupled with Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and its large and active Diaspora in many countries. These would be two of the issues that cater to the self-interest of the international community to work in constructive partnership with the Sri Lankan government. In this context the efforts of the Northern Provincial Council to act like an opposition party to the new government is unlikely to obtain international support to it.
The sense of frustration that is driving the Northern Provincial Council to repeatedly try to promote its Genocide Resolution is understandable. But it is unlikely to impress the international community as being a constructive tool of problem solving, especially as it is a partisan document. The Genocide Resolution is not one that is self critical and it makes no mention of internal killings and of the ethnic cleansing of other communities. It is a document that is better suited to partisan actors such as the various Tamil Diaspora groups who are not responsible for securing the day to day well being of the masses living in the North and East of Sri Lanka, and wish to antagonize the Sri Lankan government. But it is not a document for the Northern Provincial Council to champion. They need to be championing issues of practical power sharing and the ground level concerns of the people, who wish to have livelihoods, find out what happened to their missing ones and want demilitarization.
After coming to power, and in a relatively short period, the new government has implemented several positive changes, including replacing the former military governors of the Northern and Eastern provinces with civilians with a liberal disposition, released some portion of land occupied by the military back to the people from whom it was taken, and where both the President and Prime Minister have spent several days in the North meeting with the people and getting to know their sufferings and aspirations first hand. They have done this although a general election is likely to be held in a few months, in which the opposition will utilize all the forces of Sinhalese ethnic majority nationalism to defeat the government. At a time when the new government is taking a path that is different from the previous one, it is not constructive of the Northern Provincial Council to be taking a confrontational posture.
The Northern Provincial Council is part of a countrywide system of devolved government that can contribute to the improvement of the people’s lives. When it was first established in 2013, there was positive anticipation from politicians in the other provinces that it would take the lead in fighting for more devolution of power and thereby help to empower the other provinces which were all under the control of the then ruling party. Unfortunately, the previous government denied it both political power and economic resources. As a result it could not help the victims of the war and the poor people of the province. But now there is a new government with a new approach for which the Tamil and Muslim people voted in overwhelming numbers. There were some hardliners in the Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lanka itself who urged a voter boycott, but this was not the position taken by the Tamil people. It is in the interests of the entire provincial council system, and the people of the North, and indeed in all parts of the country that could benefit from its wise leadership, that the Northern Provincial Council should work in cooperation with the central government and not in opposition to it.