By Sudha Ramachandran –
BANGALORE – A new wave of nationalism among the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka following a United Nations vote last week could embolden the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to avoid ensuring accountability for atrocities committed against Tamil civilians in the final stages of the civil war and continue ignoring the need for a political solution to the country’s decades-long ethnic conflict.
The US-sponsored resolution, which was passed on Thursday at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by a vote of 24 to 15 with eight abstentions, aims at jumpstarting the process of bringing to justice those responsible for the systematic killing of civilians in the final stages of the war that ended in May, 2009, but could end up having the opposite effect.
Nationalist passions have surged in the wake of the resolution. The run-up to the vote in Geneva saw Buddhist monks and Sinhala nationalist groups protesting the selective ”victimization” of Sri Lanka, with some seeing it as a diabolical conspiracy. A statement issued by monks at the end of a demonstration drew attention to ”evil forces both local and international [that] have joined hands to deprive Sri Lanka of the present environment of peace.” These forces, the statement warned would take ”this blessed island back to an era of darkness”.
In a significant shift in position, India, which strongly supported the Rajapaksa government’s conduct of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) voted for the resolution. The resolution calls on Colombo to provide a comprehensive action plan detailing steps the government proposes to implement the recommendations made in the report of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), and to address ”alleged violations of international law”.
New Delhi’s vote in favor of the UNHRC resolution has angered Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority. ”They feel India has acted antagonistically to Sri Lanka,” Sumanasiri Liyanage, professor of economics at Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya University, told Asia Times Online.
This could result in a fraying of Colombo’s ties with its northern neighbor, prompting the Rajapaksa government to move closer to China, reducing among other things India’s leverage.
The Sri Lankan civil war was a brutal one. A UN panel of experts concluded last year that “a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
There is considerable evidence, including video footage of the final days of the war, that provides chilling insight into how the Sri Lankan armed forces bombarded Tamil civilians in so-called no-fire zones, prevented humanitarian assistance from reaching civilians there and systematically executed surrendering and captured LTTE fighters and their relatives, even if they were mere children.
In the circumstances, the UNHRC resolution is a mere rap on the Lankan government’s knuckles. Its text falls far short of demands by human-rights groups and Tamil diaspora organizations for an international probe and trial of the Rajapaksa regime on war crimes charges. The resolution calls on Colombo to implement recommendations made by the LLRC. It ”encourages the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures mandate holders to provide … advice and technical assistance on implementing” the steps it has outlined.
Even this advice is only ”in consultation with the concurrence of the government of Sri Lanka”. The intrusive content of the resolution’s text was diluted considerably.
In spite of this, many have opposed the resolution on the grounds that it undermines Sri Lankan sovereignty.
The thrust of the government’s argument at Geneva was that it needed ”time and space” to implement the LLRC recommendations, ignoring that three years has passed since the end of the war in which it had not taken even baby steps toward meaningfully reconciling with the Tamils.
Other opponents of the resolution have questioned the moral right of the United States to sponsor it given its own abysmal record in Afghanistan, Iraq and dozens of other countries. Liyanage, for instance, questioned the Americans’ intentions, arguing that it was not concern for Tamils that drove Washington’s move.
Supporters of the resolution are under fire from Sinhala nationalists and the government. Sri Lankan rights activists and journalists who supported the resolution have been dubbed by the government-controlled media as “traitors” who have “betrayed the motherland”. Intimidation of critics of the government – always high in Sri Lanka – peaked last week when Minister for Public Relations Mervyn Silva warned several activists whom he named at a public rally that he would break their limbs in public.
Countries who voted for the resolution are being castigated. Protest demonstrations were staged outside the US embassy in Colombo. Wimal Weerawansa, the minister for housing and common amenities who is leader of the National Freedom Front, has called for a boycott of American brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Google’s e-mail service Gmail.
Another target of Sri Lankan ire is neighboring India. The pro-government English daily, The Island, mocked India as a “loser” that had “failed to carry Asia, or at least South Asia with it”. (Other Asian countries either voted against or abstained on the resolution). “Sri Lanka has won against India in Asia,” it gloated.
Delhi’s “yes vote” in the UNHRC is perceived by many in Colombo as the outcome of pressure from the US and of coalition compulsions, ie India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance was forced to heed the demand of its Tamil allies to support the resolution.
While there is some truth in this perception, it ignores the key concern that drove Delhi to vote the way it did – mounting frustration in India with the Rajapaksa government’s reluctance to take steps to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict.
“Delhi finally woke up to the fact that its gentle prodding of Colombo for the past several years to deliver on its promises for devolution of power was not working. Hence, its decision to vote in favor of the UNHRC resolution,” a retired Indian diplomat said.
Illustrative of the change in Indian mood is the shift in the editorial position of The Hindu, an influential Indian daily that has readership in Sri Lanka too. Till recently an apologist of the Rajapaksa government, it observed in an editorial that Rajapaksa brought the Geneva resolution on himself.
The question now is how the Rajapaksa government will respond to the message coming out of Geneva, one that the Hindu describes as a “wake up call for Colombo”.
The UNHRC resolution is not binding. Rajapaksa could therefore be tempted to respond with “bravado and defiance, a response that would strike a chord, no doubt, with his Sinhala nationalist supporters,” the Indian diplomat said.
This response is not without risks.
“Open violation of the UNHRC resolution (as non-binding as it is) will certainly bring the country closer to an international mechanism on war crimes and drag Sri Lanka into even muddier international waters,” the noted human rights lawyer Kishali Pinto Jayawardene warned in an opinion piece in The Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan English-language newspaper.
More importantly, a continued reluctance to address Tamil grievances and justice issues will only fuel further the simmering ethnic conflict.
There is a possibility of the Sri Lankan government introducing “some measures that would formally satisfy the international community,” Liyanage argues. “But its effects on national integration in Sri Lanka may not be significant.”
This would mean that the government will make some cosmetic gestures towards “reconciliation” with the Tamils.
That might satisfy what Liyanage describes as “a disinterested international community” but it is unlikely to assuage the Tamils.
The defeat at Geneva is being described in Colombo as a victory. “The cornered badger [Sri Lanka] bravely fought the mastiffs of neo-imperialism … and went down fighting,” the Island editorial said, going on to claim that “it certainly was a defeat as good as a victory!”
It is time Colombo read the message from Geneva correctly. As the Hindu points out, the resolution “means that gentle prodding and quiet diplomacy will not be the main means the world will adopt towards the island nation.”
Sri Lanka’s Sinhala nationalists might need to drop that self-satisfied swagger in their gait.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org