By Jehan Perera –
Within Sri Lanka, the government has reason to be satisfied with the outcome of CHOGM. President Mahinda Rajapaksa obtained the Chairmanship of the Commonwealth which is being used politically within the country to bolster the President’s image. However, internationally, the die has been cast and the controversy surrounding the end phase of Sri Lanka’s war are going to get worse. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that he would push for an international investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war means there will be no going back on the issues of accountability.
Now that CHOGM is over, the payback time has come. With the British Prime Minister putting his credibility on the line, and that of his country, it can be expected that he will do his utmost to obtain the support of other like-minded countries including the most powerful in the world with whom the British have a special relationship.
During his visit to Sri Lanka the British Prime Minister repeatedly declared that its government must investigate the issue of human rights violations in the last phase of the war before the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014. He said that if an investigation was not completed by March, he would use the UK’s “position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry”. Having made his announcement in Sri Lanka and set a deadline, the British Prime Minister will now be under further pressure to ensure that he carries out his promise that he would push for an international probe if the Sri Lankan government did not do so on its own. The government has to consider this as the price it has to pay for its own determination to host CHOGM and to obtain the highest level of participation from the Mother Country of the Commonwealth.
The inclination of the Sri Lankan government would be to defy international pressure in view of the public support it is receiving within the country. Prime Minister Cameron has come under severe criticism within Sri Lanka for issuing this ultimatum to the government. Indeed, the main opposition party, the UNP, which boycotted CHOGM on the grounds of the government’s anti-democratic conduct in the run-up to the summit, and the attempted physical assault on its leader by government allies, has nevertheless publicly declared its own opposition to an international investigation. It said that human rights violations, or any connected issues, should be resolved within the country. It also blamed the government for having created the background for an international investigation “by turning CHOGM into an international human rights conference.” The UNP’s position is reflective of the sentiments of the majority of the Sinhalese people who have rallied to the side of the government on account of Prime Minister Cameron’s threats.
So far the Sri Lankan government’s response has been to counter the international calls for accountability with various counter arguments. They begin with the bland denial that the human rights violations and atrocities that are alleged to have occurred, never occurred at all. The terribly graphic video presentations of Channel 4 are denounced as being fakes and pro-LTTE propaganda. The counter arguments end with the denunciation of double standards, in which the failings of those who accuse Sri Lanka are eloquently pointed out. The drone attacks that routinely kill civilians in the international war against terror and the suppression of the Chilcott Commission report on the antecedents of the Iraq war by the British government erode the moral stature of those who call for punitive justice against the Sri Lankan leaders who won their own war against terror.
This is another reason for the rallying round of people within Sri Lanka on the issue of what happened during the last phase of the war. They see only one side being targeted for punishment. But those who committed serious human rights violations and war crimes, and who gave moral and material support to enable these crimes to take place, cannot be restricted to the last phase of the war only. The Sri Lankan war was characterized as a “no-mercy” war well before its last phase. Prisoners were seldom taken. There was at least one occasion in which the fall of an army base led to the death of nearly a thousand soldiers, many of whom had single bullet shots to the head. In another incident 600 policemen who surrendered to the LTTE were nexecuted.
There was also the mass expulsion of nearly 100,000 of Muslim people from the North by the LTTE. Any serious investigation into human rights violations and war crimes would need to include that earlier period if is to be seen as even-handed. The investigation of war crimes and human rights violations cannot be restricted only with respect to the last phase of the war or the government only. Those who live in Sri Lanka, and who have followed the war and its atrocities, would know that war crimes and human rights violations occurred right throughout the three decade long war. Atrocities took place under previous governments, most notoriously the anti Tamil pogrom of 1983. There were also allegations of foreign connivance in some of the atrocities that took place.
Given the determination of the British Prime Minister, his assertion that the problem would not go away, and the recurring nature of the international challenge, the problem of accountability is not going to go away on its own accord. The absence of balance lies in the insistence on an investigation only into the last phase of the thirty year war. The narrow focus on the last phase of the war is seen by many in Sri Lanka, and not only its government, as a partisan intervention to punish it for defeating the LTTE. At best it seems to be a call for punitive justice for its own sake, rather than for reconciliation. This is a perception that has the potential to generate vast sympathy for the government from across the political spectrum. The South African model of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be an option that the Sri Lankan government might wish to take and propose to the international community as an alternative to the investigation sought by the British Prime Minister.
Taking the bigger picture into account, and looking at what happened over the longer period, an investigation with a mandate that is longer than the last phase of the war would be necessary. Indeed, Prime Minister Cameron may also have left a way out for Sri Lanka. This was by this assertion that an international investigation would only follow if the Sri Lankan government did not conduct its own independent investigation by March 2014. An option for the Sri Lankan government to consider would be the offer from South Africa to assist in the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission but with a mandate to look into the entire phase of violent conflict and with the power to grant amnesty. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa offered his country’s experience in tackling the difficult issues of post-conflict accountability to assist Sri Lanka after receiving a request for such assistance. However, they have maintained the position that their experience cannot be replicated in any country but that it could be looked at as a best practice and on that understanding are ready to share.
The onus is on the Sri Lankan government to move. The different circumstances that obtained in South Africa at the end of the apartheid period and Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE need to be recognized. In South Africa those who fought against the government prevailed, in Sri Lanka they lost. There the victims suggested the establishment of a Commission in the true spirit of reconciliation.
Here the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is seen as an effort to find a way out from accountability issues. Any investigation of the past, either in the form of an international inquiry or a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission would need to win the acceptance of the different ethnic communities who constitute the Sri Lankan people. Finding the proper balance and achieving truth, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka in these circumstances is not going to be easy at all. But it will be the most worthwhile endeavour.