By Dharisha Bastians –
“Because they didn’t know better, they called it ‘civilization,’ when it was part of their slavery”
Roman Senator, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus
The beautiful Palais des Nations building in Geneva, once the home of the Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations will host a screening of the latest installment in a British documentary series tomorrow that relentlessly seeks to expose alleged crimes of war during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s battle against the LTTE.
For the next month, the classical building in the Swiss city will also be the foreground of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic battle to salvage a modicum of international respectability one year after a resolution was adopted against the country at the UN Human Rights Council urging Colombo to move on reconciliation and investigating alleged breaches of international law during the last stages of a brutal civil conflict in 2009.
Days before the 22nd Session of the UNHRC opened in Geneva, a disturbing set of images surfaced. The pictures showed a nervous looking 12 year old, snacking on a biscuit inside what looks like a bunker. The second picture that the filmmakers say is sequential shows the same boy shot dead, allegedly at close range. Both pictures are extracts from the new documentary directed by Channel 4 Journalist Callum Macrae titled No Fire Zone: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields that will be unveiled on the sidelines of HRC 22 on Friday, 1 March. The screening is being organized by rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both organizations that will be making submissions against Sri Lanka during the this year’s month long sessions. ‘No Fire Zone’ is a phrase of the Sri Lankan military’s own making and referred to small swathes of land the Military high command pledged were safe for civilians trapped in shrinking LTTE controlled territory of the Wanni in 2009. As international concern mounted for Tamil civilians caught in conflict, with the LTTE intent on using them as a human shield, the Sri Lankan military set aside safe zones where they requested civilians and aid workers to congregate and promised they had the coordinates to ensure the spaces were not subject to long range gun attacks. For two years, Britain’s Channel 4 and rights watchdogs have been trying to break down that myth with controversial images and video footage. Last year the documentary presented evidence of war-time excesses by the Sri Lankan military, including alleged extra-judicial killing, sexual assault and indiscriminate firing into areas known to be occupied by civilians. This year’s title of the Channel 4 film is a tongue in cheek interpretation of alleged conduct by Government troops in the final phase of the war. Every time these revelations are made by Channel 4 and other interested groups, Sri Lanka’s case becomes tougher and tougher to make at international fora and they spur on the massive lobby (including Tamil Diaspora and pro-LTTE groups) for an international war crimes investigation against the country.
Key on the agenda
The film screening and the attendance it is likely to garner given the high profile visitors in Geneva at present, is Sri Lanka’s first major challenge before the UNHRC this session. Three days since the opening of the session on Monday (25) it has been made abundantly clear that Sri Lanka will be a key agenda item at HRC 22, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, a US Assistant State Secretary and the Irish Deputy Prime Minister on behalf of the EU all raising Sri Lanka’s post-war situation in their addresses at the High Level segment of the sessions that began this week. Each of the statements were vehement in their criticism of the Sri Lankan situation, no doubt buoyed by what the international community sees as very little progress on several key areas that the Council said progress was critical, when it adopted a resolution to promote accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka in March last year. High Commissioner Pillay, who submitted a scathing report on Sri Lanka’s progress since 2012 to the Council as mandated by last year’s US led resolution this year, cited ‘massive violations’ in Sri Lanka as proof that the world needed to do more to combat impunity for international crimes. US Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer addressing the Session on Tuesday charged that the work of the Council would remain unfinished as long as Sri Lanka continued to fall short of implementing even the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt Commission (LLRC) and announced that a fresh resolution would be moved to ‘offer assistance again’ and ensure that the international community monitors progress on outstanding reconciliation and accountability issues in Sri Lanka. Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore addressing the Council on behalf of the EU urged that Sri Lanka remain on the UNHRC agenda.
Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Special Envoy on Human Rights, left for Geneva on Monday after spending a hectic three days catching up on the HRC 22 Government brief. Samarasinghe was called to duty in Geneva at the eleventh hour, late on Thursday and was reportedly in no way prepared to attend this year’s session. Initial reports indicated that Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha would lead the Sri Lankan delegation. Aryasinha was in Colombo late last week, when the Government decided that it was necessary to have a ministerial presence in Geneva in case policy decisions needed to be made during the progress of the Session. Until Samarasinghe arrived in Geneva, Aryasinha and his team have been handling operations at the Council, making firm but polite interventions pertaining to the resolution to be tabled against Sri Lanka next month. The most significant development this week was an appeal by Ambassador Aryasinha to the Council’s President,Ambassador Remigiusz Achilles Henczel, urging him to disallow the screening of the Channel 4 documentary inside the building that housed the UN in Geneva. In his strongly worded letter, Ambassador Aryasinha contends that the screening of the disputed Channel 4 film clearly undermined the states of member states, leaves the Council vulnerable to politicization.
Return to quiet diplomacy
The letter, that Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to Geneva has asked the President of the Council to circulate to all UNHRC member states, is a strongly worded document that nonetheless sticks to presenting the facts as Sri Lanka sees it, without making the issue a scathing attack on UN officials or the system. Sri Lanka’s return to quiet diplomacy in the replay of Geneva in 2013, is perhaps the most striking thing about the UNHRC session so far. Unlike the circus like atmosphere that pervaded in February-March 2012, with a massive Government delegation taking wing to Switzerland last year to counter lobby groups at the Council, the Sri Lanka delegation led by Samarasinghe and managed by Aryasinha is likely to do less damage to the country’s engagement with states perceived as being ‘hostile’ to Sri Lanka even if they have admittedly, very little to work with in terms of showcasing progress in the aftermath of last year’s resolution. Neither the Minister nor the Ambassador have illusions about the Sri Lankan predicament and have refrained from painting a rosy picture for the Government in Colombo in this regard. Sri Lanka enters this first week of the UNHRC session in Geneva, certain of defeat, attempting only to salvage something from the situation – if only a little more time.
Although an official announcement is yet to come, all signs point to New Delhi backing the second US resolution against Sri Lanka next month. While the pressure from the country’s southern Tamil states is already on, it appears this year that India pursues its course almost resolvedly as part of an un-coerced policy towards Sri Lanka. New Delhi has had plenty to be concerned about in the past year, with the Government’s complete lack of progress on a discussion about power devolution with the Tamil National Alliance, the continued suppression of civilian life in the North and the most recent Government threat to repeal the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. India will therefore use the UNHRC forum to express its displeasure with Colombo, even though it continues to engage diplomatically on every other front, constantly assuring Sri Lanka of support. The approach is typically that of a ‘big-brother’, New Delhi will vote for a resolution but stop short of supporting a call for an international investigation into the final phase of Sri Lanka’s war.
A UNHRC session that begins with Sri Lanka being key on the Council’s agenda is therefore likely to reach a predictable, if slightly damaging end. A resolution will be adopted – whether its language will stay the same will depend wholly on how well the Sri Lankan delegation engages the US and its partner delegations that are currently debating the phrasing of the resolution. But with each year that passes with Sri Lanka staying on the UNHRC agenda, the clock is ticking on the threat of more serious international action against Sri Lanka. The walk from Geneva to New York for instance, where far more dangerous consequences face the country before the all powerful UN Security Council, will depend entirely on how much will Sri Lanka shows in the next few years, towards reconciliation, credibly investigating alleged war-time abuses and what steps it takes to restore democracy and civil liberties in a country that has recently seen a steep decline of those values.
Sri Lanka became a member state of the United Nations on 14 December 1955. For 30 years the country fought a vicious separatist war, a war that was never entirely free of allegations of abuse and excess. Yet it was only in 2012, three years after country defeated what the world had come to recognize as one of the most brutal terrorist organizations and 57 afters Sri Lanka became a UN member, that it was made to face the ignominy of a UN resolution being adopted against it. The Government is quick to blame the situation on agendas driven by the LTTE rump overseas. The Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa constantly blames the country’s growing international challenges on the villainous Channel 4, the treacherous Human Rights activists and defenders in the country, the separatist Tiger lobby overseas. Not once in four years since international calls for action on Sri Lanka’s post war processes and disturbing human rights record began, has the regime looked inwards to locate answers to those ‘why is the world out to get us’ questions they have grown so fond of asking.
Channel 4 and Human Rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been candid about the fact that they have an agenda. No Fire Zone screens at the Palais des Nations tomorrow, because Callum Macrae openly believes that the timing and venue will focus the greatest degree of attention on Sri Lanka’s impunity and inaction in the face of grave allegations of violations of international law. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and recently, even High Commissioner Pillay have made it clear that they seek an international investigation against Sri Lanka to probe these allegations. They believe their seriousness merits independent inquiry. The task of the international community at forums like the UNHRC is to recognize these agendas of rights groups and lobbies and balance those genuine concerns with the interests and agendas of the state in question.
If the Sri Lankan Government believes the international community is driven by the agenda of the Tamil Lobby or rights watchdogs, or indeed Navi Pillay, the question must arise regarding what part of Sri Lanka’s own agenda and resolve is tipping the scale in their favour.
Over time, the Sri Lankan populace has become accustomed to questioning the bona fides of Governments and organizations calling for greater accountability from the Sri Lankan state.
But as far as these foreign Governments are concerned, there are other agendas also worth questioning. For instance, why is the Government so loathe to devolve power to the Tamils of the North? Why does it continue to garrison the territory it says it liberated for the Northern Tamils that were held captive by the LTTE? Why does it permit the continued harassment of the Muslim Community that threatens fresh communal tension? Why did the Government deliberately and with brutal force break the back of Sri Lankan judiciary through a flawed impeachment process to remove the 43rd Chief Justice of the country? And if the allegations of gross human rights violations, extra judicial killings and disappearances are so very far-fetched and unthinkable from a disciplined fighting force like the Sri Lankan military, why the reticence towards an impartial inquiry into the alleged incidents?
Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, addressing the High Level Segment of the UNHRC Session yesterday, avowed that Sri Lanka did not need lessons in democracy and good governance. “Mr President,” Samarasinghe said, “from the Ashokan Rock Edicts of the 3rd Century before the Christian era, societies in our region have been guided by values underscoring good governance and human rights. We do not need to be told. We do not need to be taught. These are……values deeply embedded in our social and cultural makeup.”
Samarasinghe is not wrong. Sri Lanka is heir to a rich tradition of valuing human life, grounded in the Buddhist philosophy of non-violence and tolerance towards the other. But wearied by war propaganda and a militant mindset, Sri Lankans no longer espouse or comprehend these concepts. When No Fire Zoneairs in Geneva tomorrow, the Government’s condemnation of the film will be echoed far and wide by most Sri Lankans. Already the film excerpts and the footage released of Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s son are being denounced as being doctored and manipulated in a multitude of ways. The international wheels of justice will turn, for years to come and the footage obtained by Macrae and others will continue to build the case against Sri Lanka.
The regime will continue to proclaim through all this that Sri Lanka is entering a new phase of post-war recovery; roads are connecting north and south, the capital city is being given a face lift hitherto unparalleled and international visitors are flocking to our golden beaches and mountain escapes. Sri Lankans appear to be more than content living in this development cocoon. And outraged though the world might be at the devastating images of a 12 year old slain in cold blood, allegedly hours after he was plied with a snack, in the new civilizational paradigm that is post-war Sri Lanka, the incident will remain no more and no less than the well-deserved death of a terrorist’s son.