By Jude Fernando –
“Conquer the angry man with love. Conquer the ill-natured man with goodness. Conquer the miser with generosity. Conquer the liar with truth.” — Dhammapada
“The truth will set you free.” — John 8:32
Let’s not mistake the fact that the UNHRC report’s incriminating charges of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” are against both the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Its demand for truth, accountability, and transitional justice is about the entitlements of both the victims and perpetrators of the alleged crimes. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s speech at the UNHRC has indeed set the tone for a positive approach to demands for transitional justice. Minister Samaraweera exhorted the international community to not judge the GOSL by its past failures to fulfill its promises but to trust its current political will and sincerity to fulfill the demands for transitional justice. Yet our optimism is tempered by cynicism and uncertainty as to how the GOSL will address a plethora of complex questions, when it comes to making headway on the subject of reconciliation and accountability.
Will the GOSL demonstrate the humility and courage to accept the truth and not try to outsmart the process by taking a professional approach to refute false charges in the UNHRC report? Or will its responses be uncompromisingly narcissistic, concerned only with its political ambitions, fears, and insecurities rather than exhibiting an objective and altruistic commitment to justice? Will the GOSL use current domestic and international goodwill as an opportunity to demonstrate its sincere commitment to accountability and reconciliation founded in consensus-based politics and just governance? Or will this be yet another “red herring” by the GOSL to cover up (or distract public attention from) its failures to transform the political culture of the previous regime? More importantly, will the GOSL’s responses marginalize the moderates willing to collaborate with the government or strengthen the extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide?
On the policy front, what criteria will the GOSL use to weigh the relative merits and drawbacks of ‘domestic,’ ‘international’ and “hybrid” inquiry to uncover the truth about the UNHRC’s allegations? Which form of these inquiries is more likely to uphold the interest of transitional justice that would enable the government to “create a credible domestic process for accountability and for reconciliation” and a foreign policy environment that would be closely governed by the cherished principles of ‘non-alignment’? And finally, what precedent would GOSL’s plan of action set for future pursuits of transitional justice internationally? Positive answers to these complex questions depend on the GOSL’s having the political will and uncompromising commitment to unravel the truth and sincerely enforce accountability.
The GOSL should anticipate that its opponents will oppose whatever approach it takes to respond to the current UNHRC report, for the same reasons that it opposed UNHRC recommendations in the past. The GOSL is particularly vulnerable given that it is really a cohabitation government comprising those adamantly opposed to meaningful mechanisms for truth and transitional justice. The prevailing mindset about UNHRC-guided accountability does not permit the public to understand the benefits of uncovering the truth for meaningful reconciliation for the greater good of the country. The government’s opponents will prey on this mindset to obstruct its reforms and eventually topple it.
If the government is sincere about its commitment to reconciliation and its own survival founded in truth and justice-based good governance, it needs to take a critical look at its responses to the UNHRC in the past and carry out a public awareness program to dispel the misunderstandings and fears about accountability. Then, the public will not be fearful of the truth but instead come to terms with it and its overall benefits—benefits that extend beyond transitional justice to other realms of governance. Until then, unfounded fear and the taken-for-granted negative implications of international intervention in transitional justice will dominate the public reaction to government responses.
The UPFA government used theoretically and morally flawed deceptive strategies to avoid pursuing a sincere program of truth, accountability, and transitional justice. The political culture built on these strategies kept the demand for transitional justice alive and legitimate. Politicization of the demand increased the extremists’ influence on governance and polarized the country along ethnic lines. Finally, these narcissistic strategies failed to save the regime from its ignominious defeat in the elections in January and August 2015. They bequeathed to the country a political culture resilient to change.
What are these deceptive strategies?
Deception #1 Gratitude for War Heroes
Lack of gratitude for those who defeated terrorism was one of the charges that the UPFA government used to ‘criminalize’ the pursuit of truth, accountability, and transitional justice. This charge implied that the country should suppress calls for transitional justice for the sake of gratitude, regardless of the interests of those demanding it.
UNHRC report does not say that defeating the LTTE was not a criminal act. A commitment to transitional justice is not an act of betrayal. It does not show the country’s lack of gratitude for the military personnel and civil servants who sacrificed their lives to end the war. Accountability will clear the names of those brave men and women who fought in the war within the rules of law and bring those who violated laws to justice. That will enhance the credibility of the armed forces as an institution and prevent unnecessary harassment that military personnel face internationally. Denying accountability was primarily a political decision; an impartial inquiry will separate the civilian authorities implicated in allegations of rights abuses from the security forces. An impartial inquiry is about enhancing the credibility of security forces to safeguard the national security in a multiethnic society like ours to prevent the national security apparatus from being exploited for selfish political agendas.
A purely domestic inquiry conducted entirely by the military seems to be too late and imprudent, given the way that political events and interethnic relations have unfolded since the war ended. The fact that the ethnic divide is reflected in the armed forces and that they also represent an ethnonationalist state raises doubts about their ability to run a credible inquiry. Understanding human rights abuses during the war is difficult because soldiers’ battlefield behavior is shaped by strategies and rules of war, ethnic identities, and the purely human feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration. One should be ashamed or surprised not of the occurrence of abuses during war but of unwillingness to acknowledge them and hold the perpetrators accountable. That said, a credible inquiry should also include persons from the military establishment to ensure impartiality because civilians may not understand the rules of war and real challenges the military faces during wartime.
Deception #2: The Conspiracy against National Interests
In the eyes of the UPFA anyone who demanded transitional justice was a part of international conspiracies against the country, in particular, in support of terrorism and division of the country. This argument conflated the demand for transitional justice and political project of the LTTE. Demand for justice followed the defeat of the LTTE. UPFA never provided clarity as to how the demand for justice contributed to the division of the country. The notion of conspiracy in fact jettisoned potential of transitional justice to contribute for meaningful devolution of power. Be that as it may.
In reality, the most debilitating conspiracy against the country’s common interests during the UPFA regime was the way it deliberately used misinformation and disingenuous theories of international relations to cultivate public opposition to meaningful accountability and distract public focus away from corruption, abuse, and the dismantling of democratic institutions. The life this conspiracy gave to ethnonationalist forces further institutionalized racist entities in all communities, racialized the discourse of accountability, and diminished people’s ability to come to terms with truth. It sharpened the public’s political affiliations along ethnic lines and destroyed the country’s ability to counter the threat of real conspiracies. Bluntly put, the UPFA regime used claims about external conspiracies to cover up the internal conspiracies that it unleashed against its own people.
Highly misleading and half-baked theories of geopolitical realities in the South Asian region provided the intellectual basis for external conspiracy claims. Take the tensions between Western (e.g., the United States and Europe) and non-Western countries (e.g., China and Russia) that the government used to oppose UNHRC resolutions. The GOSL falsely represented non-Western countries as supportive of the war against terrorism and opposed to Sri Lanka’s secession. People were told that, unlike non-Western countries, Western countries exploited the human rights issues to interfere in the country’s internal affairs and thereby achieve their neocolonial imperialistic objectives. In contrast, non-Western countries were ostensibly friendly countries that helped in Sri Lanka’s development and were respectful of its sovereignty. These seductive claims paralyzed the public’s ability to examine their validity or the political motives underlying them, in part due to the absence of freedom of expression that prevailed during the previous regime.
The division of the international community into Western and non-Western is highly misleading. In reality, most Western and non-Western countries supported the GOSL’s war against the LTTE. Many of these countries made a distinction between the war against the LTTE and human rights abuses during and after the war and supported the UNHRC’s push for accountability. From the view of humanitarian imperatives and laws of war, there is nothing wrong with making such a distinction and demanding accountability for those abuses. Moreover, the public is likely to benefit, even if that distinction is made with purely ulterior motives.
Asserting that the demand for accountability was purely a result of the economic and geopolitical interests of those countries that opposed the UNHRC resolution and that soliciting their assistance in an international inquiry offered no specific benefits is disingenuous. The international community is not a monolithic entity whose member countries can be sharply divided between the oppressed and the oppressors. Especially following the Cold War, the consensus regarding the importance of safeguarding human rights among nations has grown. There exists increasing solidarity among these countries’ citizens to exert pressure on their respective governments regarding human rights abuses around the world. Despite their colossal failures, hypocrisies, and double standards, international institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have become indispensable for safeguarding human rights, especially in response to the rise of abuses caused by racist ethnonationalism and neoliberalism.
Truly, states’ national security concerns are of paramount importance in shaping how they respond to international and national domestic human rights issues, but shared international norms about human rights could overpower these security concerns and military capabilities and bring down regimes. As we saw in the case of Sri Lanka, China, even with its massive financial and military power, was unable to save the UPFA regime from international scrutiny. Needless to say, powerful states exploit human rights as a way of extending their influence in less powerful countries. Still we cannot ignore the fact that moral norms and values are a reason for many governments to support the UNHRC resolution. That said, the possibility of exploiting morality to achieve selfish goals is no excuse for the GSOL to ignore accountability. If international states exploited human rights as a way to achieve their geopolitical ambitions, then the UPFA regime exploited its opposition to meaningful accountability to legitimize its own political goals.
Curtailment of democratic freedoms and loss of faith in the country’s justice system were the reasons Tamils and Sinhalese concerned with human rights abuses sought the assistance of the international community. When domestic institutions are oppressive, despite reservations about them, oppressed groups welcome international institutions. They are the last resort to empower the oppressed and give them a voice and protection. Clearly, without pressure from the international community, little interest would have emerged for the government to address concerns about human rights violations.
UPFA was opposed only to international interventions who were invited by the minorities to address their concerns for transitional justice. It was extremely tolerant of undesirable international interventions in the country’s economy and politics. The UPFA regime welcomed international interventions by countries that are known for their complicity in human rights abuses in their own and foreign countries while opposed to the interventions of countries that provide some space for dialogue on safeguarding human rights. By not being accountable, the GOSL lost the benefit of that space to safeguard the country’s genuine national interests and undermined the solidarity among global citizens concerned about human rights.
Deception #3 External Interventions and Imperialism
The highly misleading fear of external threats, couched in the language of anti-imperialism, anti-Westernism, and anti-neocolonialism that the GOSL institutionalized at every level of society, handicapped the GOSL’s ability to positively respond to the demands for accountability and reinforced the very threats that it claimed to protect the country from.
In the aftermath of the war, many countries that appeared to be geopolitical rivals and supporters and opponents of UNHRC resolutions increased their investments in Sri Lanka. The Chinese presence in major infrastructure development stands out, driven by its geopolitical ambitions. This is also true of India. There is no evidence of serious tensions between these geopolitical rivals over their respective investments Sri Lanka.
Since the end of the Cold War, the interdependency between rival economies has continued to increase. Chinese investments in India have grown to billions of dollars, and its presence in Sri Lanka does not impact its economic relations with Western countries. Sri Lanka is not a subject of the economic and political negotiations occurring between these rivals. The truth is, neoliberal states are more concerned about the benefits to international trade from China’s “silk route” and “proposed railway line between India and Sri Lanka” than their respective geopolitical interests. The geopolitical anxieties of India, China, and the West feed the growth of the military-industrial complex, which is an integral part of the neoliberal economy.
China does not demand human rights conditions as a prerequisite for aid and investments in developing countries, while Western countries are more likely to do so. Nor is there credible evidence that the GOSL compelled Chinese investments to be socially and environmentally accountable or to follow established protocols in doing businesses in Sri Lanka. China was completely silent about the corrupt political culture of the UPFA regime. The Chinese presence gave the UPFA regime the confidence to consolidate its power through whatever means at its disposal without any accountability. The UPFA regime had enormous amounts of discretionary funds at its disposal to pay for political expenses. The lesson for the present government is that it cannot expect to rely on even the most powerful countries for its hold over state power if it fails to safeguard human rights and ensure the accountability for those abuses.
Investors from Western countries are under increasing pressure to safeguard human rights in foreign countries, partly because of the pressures from their own citizens and the governments. This is not to say that these investors are inherently more respectful of human rights than those from non-Western countries. In fact, human rights violations in poor countries by Western investors subsidize consumers in developed countries and grow their economies. That said, Western countries were not complicit with the political culture of the UPFA regime as much as those countries that the UPFA government relied on to defeat the UNHRC resolutions. They were, in fact, active critics of human rights abuses by the UPFA regime and evidently supported domestic human rights groups that opposed the regime.
Doubtless, the anxieties about the growing presence of China in the South Asian region were a reason for the West and India to prefer a government in Sri Lanka be friendly to their interests. Therefore, they relentlessly exerted pressure on Sri Lanka to abide by the UNHRC resolutions. However, this pressure did not create an excuse for the racist and corrupt political culture that led to the regime’s defeat. The defeat of the UPFA was partly a result of the very ideologies and practices that the regime harnessed to avoid implementing the UNHRC recommendations. The complicity of those countries that opposed the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka contributed to the UPFA’s defeat. Had the Rajapaksa regime agreed to a credible inquiry and followed through on the UNHRC recommendations, perhaps it would have avoided its current predicament. The current regime would not have inherited a political culture that is adamant for change.
UPFA’s opposition to past UNHRC resolutions on the grounds that they facilitated neocolonial imperialism failed to realize that imperialism is an economic phenomenon and a collaborative project of all-the most powerful countries. The attribution of imperialism exclusively to the West provided ideological legitimacy to the GOSL to exploit ethnonationalism to cover up and dismiss international concerns about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. GOSL’s propaganda on the tensions between powerful Western and non-Western countries deflected public attention from the exploitative nature of global imperialism and ways Sri Lanka was becoming a battleground for imperialist rivalry. The GOSL’s ethnonationalist project thrives on these tensions to conceal its complicity with imperialism, essentially the global and class character of imperialism. In this sense, anti-imperialist crusaders who opposed the UNHRC resolutions are really agents of imperialism because their opposition helped the Sri Lankans to closely integrate with imperialism.
*To be continued..