By Jehan Perera –
There was speculation that the ongoing 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council would see the immediate establishment of a high powered international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka and economic sanctions against the country. The unexpected feature of the draft resolution sponsored by the US is the provision to give the Sri Lankan government another year in which to show progress on the matters included in the resolution. Despite this seeming concession, the initial response of the Sri Lankan government to the draft resolution has been negative. The government has rejected the substance of the draft resolution which builds on last year’s resolution as being “fundamentally flawed.” The present draft includes issues of human rights violations and accountability in the entire country, rather than in the North and East alone and does not limit those issues to the last phase of the war.
The government’s rejection of the draft resolution stems from its consistent position that the international community is engaging in unwarranted interference in the country’s internal affairs. It takes no comfort in the extension of its period of probation by one year. The government’s position is that it should not be subjected to yearly and half yearly examinations as a sovereign and independent country. Apart from this, the other key reason for the Sri Lankan government’s unhappiness with the draft resolution is not difficult to fathom. It includes the two main points of the previous two resolutions of 2012 and 2013. It calls on the government once again to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and to set up an independent investigation into alleged war crimes. In addition, the scope of the draft resolution has been widened in scope in comparison to the previous two resolutions.
The issues that the proponents of the draft resolution are considering have been considerably widened in the draft resolution. The draft resolution refers to attacks against religious minorities, journalists, human rights defenders and civic activists, and to crimes that target women wherever they live. In addition the draft resolution proposes an international monitoring of Sri Lanka’s domestic accountability process and calls on the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s Office to do investigations on its own. The draft resolution calls for the establishment of a truth seeking mechanism and national policy to hold individuals accountable for violations of international law. It also calls on the government to devolve powers meaningfully in terms of the 13th Amendment and to empower the Northern Provincial Council with the necessary resources and authority.
There are clear indications of a strengthening of the resolution in relation to demands being placed upon the Sri Lankan government. Nevertheless, there is a sense of disappointment in the Tamil polity. This can be seen in the statements issued by Tamil Diaspora groups. There was an expectation that the resolution on Sri Lanka at the ongoing UNHRC session would ensure immediate international action against the Sri Lankan government. The pledge by British Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Summit was to set up an international investigation mechanism. It is in this context that TNA leaders and religious and civil leaders signed joint statements that called for the setting up of an international inquiry mechanism. They placed confidence in the statements made by various world leaders that they would not let the Sri Lankan government off the hook this time.
However, the one year grace period given to the Sri Lankan government means that this mechanism will not be set up immediately. Given the heightened expectations, the draft resolution has come as a disappointment to those who were hoping for a resolution with an immediate impact and that would give quick results that would solve their problems. A strong resolution that was accompanied by economic and political sanctions, such as being considered by the Western countries over the Ukraine issue, could have forced the pace of change in Sri Lanka. It would have meant that either the government gave in to the pressure and complied with the international demands, or else it could have meant a head on confrontation between the government and the international community. Both of these choices would have eventually worked against the government and rendered it politically weaker.
It seems that these calculations would have been at the fore when leaders of the Tamil polity decided to go all out to support the establishment of an international inquiry into war crimes. They did so because they have lost confidence in the willingness of the government to address their political and economic grievances, and not only due to the issue of accountability. What the government says it is doing on the ground and what the Tamil people are experiencing are far apart. There is a strong sense of inner suffering and grievance on the part of the Tamil people which is not immediately visible to those from outside who go on rapid appraisal visits. Now their apprehension is that the matter will need to be canvassed yet again at the 28th session of the UNHRC in March 2015. The fear of those who want to see action being taken with regard to the resolution is that the passage of another year will lead to a diminution of the level of interest on the part of the international community in Sri Lanka’s affairs. The sudden emergence of the conflict in Ukraine shows how international attention can easily be shifted from one part of the globe to another.
In the international system it is the government that represents the people. If sanctions are taken against the government, they invariably will hurt the people as well. As it stands at present, the draft resolution does not provide for quick solutions to the problems that Sri Lanka in general or the Tamil polity faces. It calls for another update by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a year’s time. This gives the Sri Lankan government the time and space to continue as they have been. However, what the draft resolution does show is that the issue of dealing with the human rights violations of the past, and now also with those in the present, will continue. In fact the issues that the international human rights community is considering have been considerably widened in the draft resolution. The government is not off the hook and those who are more farsighted amongst the government leadership are seeing this reality, which is why they have rejected the draft resolution.
Even if the government has got breathing space for itself and more time to strengthen itself further, the international process that puts pressure on the government to improve its human rights record is set to mount. In the longer term the Sri Lankan government has to address the issues raised in the draft resolution and, hopefully, it will do so. There is a need for those who are concerned about the plight of the Tamil people, to find ways of working with the government to improve the life of the Tamil people. The spirit that was expressed by Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran when he addressed the academic community at the recently held conference on Post War Development in the North and East is the one that needs to be the guiding spirit of the present time. He said that good laws could be subverted by bad rulers, whereas even bad laws could be used to promote the people’s interests by good rulers and he was prepared to work with less than the ideal.
It is important for the Tamil polity to work with the government with an open mind irrespective any possible assistance for solutions from outside. There is also a need for the opposition to engage with the government to resolve the problem, including those that arise from the UNHRC resolution and its possible fall out. The duty of a responsible opposition is to save the country, not to wait till everyone suffers. Such a forthright and public-spirited attitude will also gain the appreciation of the voting public. As a first step both UNP and TNA could consider joining the Parliamentary Select Committee, if the government were to amend the Standing Orders of Parliament to ensure that decisions in it will be taken only with their agreement. The legitimate concern of the opposition is that the government majority in the PSC will bulldoze them after discussing matters with them. But if the two sides agree to work together and consensually on a political solution that would help contribute to easing tensions both internally and externally. Getting into a structured process with the opposition would do much to restore the government’s credibility, which it has lost with both nationally and with the international community. Credibility is key, for without it, no one can do business or solve problems with one another.