HEALING: Reconciliation process must be credible, internationally and locally
By Arjuna Ranawana –
THE spotlight is on post-war Sri Lanka’s process of reconciliation and rehabilitation because of a United States-sponsored resolution passed by the 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.
It calls for the implementation of the recommendations of the Sri Lanka government’s own Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), for a time-bound road map to bring these into force and “address allegations” of war crimes committed during the conflict. It also asks the UN to provide technical support to the government to implement the recommendations.
Sri Lanka’s 30-year long civil war that pitted the state against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended in 2009.
The Tigers decimated any groups or leaders within the Tamil community that could challenge their leader, Velupillai Pirubhakaran. The Sri Lankan security forces countered the Tigers with an equal measure of brutality and there were many allegations made against them as well.
What is in sharp focus now is the final phase of the war. Between September 2008 and May 19, 2009, a UN report estimates that around 40,000 non-combatants were killed because of shelling by the Sri Lanka army and by the Tigers using civilians as a human shield.
A panel of experts appointed by the UN found that atrocities committed by both sides could be prosecuted as war crimes and recommended that the UN should set up an international independent mechanism to probe these allegations.
Human rights groups and Sri Lankan Tamil exiles accuse government leaders of ordering the armed forces to kill LTTE leaders who surrendered and also of executing prisoners.
The resolution is certainly only a baby step towards a full-scale war crimes probe. It does not propose any punitive measures on Sri Lanka and will not be legally binding on the administration of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse.
There is also no reference to an independent international mechanism to probe violations of international law as recommended by the UN panel. But the US says it hopes this will prompt the government of Sri Lanka to “credibly investigate” alleged violations of international humanitarian law.
Human rights groups inside and outside Sri Lanka will hail this as a victory to protect the human rights of Sri Lankans and aid in the process of reconciliation but may be disappointed by the watered-down nature of the language.
Within Sri Lanka, many Tamil political groups, including some religious leaders, human rights activists and civil society groups, have welcomed the move.
Their main issue with the government is that they have little faith the administration will conduct a fair investigation into the allegations. Sri Lankan administrations throughout the years are not known for probing their own misdeeds, thus the desire for external monitoring of the process.
The Rajapakse government disagrees that the resolution is harmless. A commentator aligned with the administration, Dayan Jayatilleka, writes that it is a “smokescreen for foreign interventionism”.
In Sri Lanka, the response of Rajapakse’s supporters — led by hardline Sinhalese — is less measured. In fact, it has bordered on the hysterical.
The government sponsored demonstrations held before the embassies of the countries supporting the proposal and also helped stage several protests in Geneva.
Effigies of US President Barack Obama were set alight in one demonstration in Colombo.
There is broad consensus that the recommendations of the LLRC should be implemented. Rajapakse has pledged to do so.
Whether this resolution will lead to any kind of international oversight is yet to be seen. Whatever the process, it has to be credible not only in the eyes of the international community but also with the majority of Sri Lankans — for the ultimate purpose of that process should be reconciliation and the restoration of the rule of law.
For now, the UNHRC session has served the Rajapakse administration as a welcome distraction. It has raised the bogey of foreign intervention to get the minds of the people off their hunger, fear of lawlessness, endemic corruption and the culture of impunity.