By The Economist –
SRI LANKA suffered an embarrassing defeat in the UN’s Human Rights Council on March 22nd. A clear majority of the council’s members backed an American-led initiative which called on Sri Lanka’s government to account for the massive toll of civilian fatalities from the end of its long and brutal civil war in 2009.
Despite an exhaustive, sometimes aggressive, Sri Lankan campaign lobbying against the initiative, the Geneva-based council’s 47 members voted by, 24 to 15, for a resolution urging the government to implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to start a credible investigation into allegations of widespread human-rights abuses. Eight of the member-countries abstained.
In addition to Russia, China and Cuba, most of the support for Sri Lanka came from other Asian countries. A worrying exception, from Sri Lanka’s point of view, was its once-close ally and nearest neighbour, just across the Palk strait. India departed from its record of abstaining in the council’s votes to support the American resolution.
Sri Lankan delegates played down the outcome. “It won’t change anything, we will just forge ahead as planned,” Mohan Peiris, chief legal adviser to the cabinet, said breezily as he left the Council. But in a statement from Washington hours after the vote, America’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said “the next steps are clear. We look to the government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and take the necessary measures to address accountability.”
The Americans had carefully framed the resolution as a non-confrontational effort to work with the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, in its efforts to promote peace and reconciliation. But the soft words could not disguise the fact that one of the driving motivations for the resolution was Mr Rajapaksa’s dismal track record of failing to live up to the recommendations of other official commissions—and the strong grounds for suspecting the LLRC’s report will be ignored in the same fashion.
Not the least of these awkward findings were those of a UN panel which last year trashed the government’s official line: that it finished the civil war with a “humanitarian rescue operation”, taking great care to avoid civilian casualties. As many as 40,000 people died in the closing stages of the conflict, the panel said, mainly as a result of the army’s intensive and deliberate shelling of areas that were packed with civilians, including hospitals and sites designated for food distribution. There was credible evidence that both the government and the Tamil Tigers had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, the panel concluded.
The government has amended its narrative discreetly in the past month, publishing data which suggest that some 8,000 people died in northern areas of the conflict zone, and announcing an inquiry into all allegations of abuses. An investigation that would, as it happens, be conducted by the Sri Lankan army.
With greater volume, the government had undertaken an extraordinary campaign in recent weeks, ranging from presidential phone calls to other heads of state, in an effort to rally opposition to the American initiative, to noisy protests in Colombo and other towns, sometimes of the rent-a-mob style. Scenting an opportunity to distract attention and quell rumbles of dissent over a list of economic and social woes, the government reserved its fiercest reaction for a campaign in the Sri Lankan media. There they blasted civil-society activists, often by name, as Tamil Tiger sympathisers and proxies.
Two Tamil members of parliament were reported to have been stopped from boarding a flight to Geneva. Human-rights activists described a tense scene on their departure: they passed banners on the way to the airport which urged the public to “be vigilant for traitors going to the UN”. The intimidation didn’t stop there. In Geneva, even inside the Human Rights Council, members of Sri Lankan non-government organisations complained that members of Sri Lanka’s delegation were photographing them, and harassing them verbally. The photographers drew a sharp rebuke from the UN’s top human-rights official, Navi Pillay.
“There has been an unprecedented and totally unacceptable level of threats, harassment and intimidation directed at Sri Lanka activists who travelled to Geneva to engage in the debate, including by members of the 71-member official Sri Lankan delegation,” Ms Pillay declared, the day after the vote. She went on to condemn as inflammatory the rhetoric that was directed at the same activists by the Sri Lankan media, both public and private.
Relentless lobbying around the diplomatic missions in Geneva had worked to the government’s advantage in 2009. Then Sri Lanka had managed to persuade a special session of the council to pass a resolution which commended its approach to reconciliation. Three years on however, observers say the dynamic has changed. The government’s failure to live up to its own commitments has become more apparent. Shocking visual evidence of the war’s carnage emerged in documentaries produced by Britain’s Channel 4 Television and it found a wide audience internationally. Moreover, since the first year of the Arab spring, the council’s members have become accustomed to condemning massive human-rights abuses. It’s become their habit to denounce states that treat their citizens with impunity—at the moment, this means Syria. Which all makes it harder, the council-watchers suggest, for Sri Lanka to brush aside its own civilian fatalities.
The council’s vote appears to show the effects of such trends. “It’s a clear message that the LLRC has not addressed accountability and that is what the international community wants from Sri Lanka,” says a director of Human Rights Watch, Julie de Rivero. “For a government that’s been in denial on civilian casualties for three years, that’s an important message.”