By Dharisha Bastians –
Strongly opposing views north and south of the island about human rights, the US draft resolution and the prospect of international intervention tells a damning story about how deep ethnic and ideological divisions run in Sri Lanka five years after the war ended
Five years after the end of a brutal war, the north and south of Sri Lanka have vastly different heroes.
On a humid November day last year, throngs of men, women and children flocked to the dusty grounds of the Nallur Temple in Jaffna. At the appointed time, they moved near the Duraiyappah Stadium, a place where VVIP helicopters typically land. Placards, photographs and black armbands come out, as the crowd stands single file on the road opposite the famous sports ground.
The landing of a chopper in the middle of the stadium ground causes a flurry of excitement. Men in suits jump off the whirring helicopter and into waiting vans. The crowd rushes at the moving vehicle, believing it to hold the VVIP they were waiting for. It doesn’t. Slowly, the crowd returns to its previous formation a few metres away from the Jaffna Library, the Police making no attempt to move them. Silently, as the minutes ticked by, they waited.
But in the end, British Prime Minister David Cameron never saw the missing people’s protest.
Moments before his motorcade travelling from the Palaly Airport arrived at the Jaffna Library, a Police truck was moved across the road, blocking Cameron’s view of the waiting protestors. Instead, other pro-Government demonstrators at the Library intersection were in full view of the Prime Ministerial motorcade holding placards that asked Britain to keep its nose out of Sri Lankan affairs.
Not too far away, the screaming and wailing at the missing people’s protest prompt British journalists travelling with the Prime Minister to run towards the Police barricades. Among them was Channel 4’s Jonathan Snow. Cut away from Cameron, the demonstrators turned their eyes to the Channel 4 news anchor, recognising him from a series of documentaries aired about the last days of the war.
Snow was at the receiving end of the protestors’ anguish, gratitude and hope, as they heaped more documents and photographs than he could carry into his arms. Crying mothers thanked Channel 4 for their ongoing campaigns about human rights violations by the Sri Lankan Government.
The Government regularly portrays Channel 4, together with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and human rights activists in the country and overseas, as chief antagonists in its international battle over human rights. In the south, where the people appear content with a no-questions asked, ‘look-at-all-the-pretty-roads’ peace, the Government claims resonate. But in the north, where the war raged most cruelly, the international community provides the people’s only hope against militarisation and State oppression that has continued since the war ended.
The notions are reinforced strongly by Tamil parties like the TNA which have repeatedly asked the people to place their faith in the international community. Bereft of local heroes, Cameron, Pillay and even Snow appear to be flying into their rescue, becoming instantaneous symbols of that hope and change during their visit.
In the rest of the island, where the majority strongly endorse his war effort, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, the Defence Secretary, remain the people’s heroes. Their enemies – real and perceived – are also enemies of the Sri Lankan State.
The reaction to the US draft resolution that sets the stage for an international probe led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka is equally – and stringently – mixed. The dissonant narratives emerging domestically makes international engagement on the issues in Sri Lanka a potential minefield for countries seeking to push Sri Lanka to make post-war changes. The US and India, chief protagonists of the push, must manage both the overwhelming expectations of a community feeling marginalised and victimised in the north and the growing hostility of the ruling Rajapaksa administration that perceives the move as blatant interference.
The Government remains vehemently opposed to any kind of investigation into allegations of abuses during the war by external forces and passionately believes the anti-Sri Lanka actions at the UN Human Rights Council to be driven by pro-LTTE diaspora lobbying and the insidious imperialist agendas of the West.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha alluded to this, when he reminded the UNHRC informal session on the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka last Friday (7) that the co-sponsors of the resolution appear to have forgotten that Sri Lanka ceased to be a colony in 1948.
Making what is likely to be the Sri Lankan delegation’s sole intervention, Aryasinha said the US moves against the country smacked of prejudgment since Washington had informed Colombo it would sponsor a third resolution this month in January, at least two months before High Commissioner Pillay submitted her damning report on the country’s human rights situation to the UNHRC.
Since 2009, when the first signs of an international movement to hold Sri Lanka to promises made and accountable for dubious incidents that had occurred during the war emerged, the Government has been demanding ‘time and space’ to get on with the work of reconciliation. Five years later, that remains the country’s key defence against growing international frustration over a lack of progress.
But with the argument placed alongside increasing belligerence and the consistent erosion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law post-war and what diplomats call an ‘unyielding’ attitude by the regime on all outstanding concerns, international appetite for the argument has waned.
Inside the informal session
Member states of the Council met for the second informal discussion on the Sri Lanka resolution on Monday (10) in meeting room VIII of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Following the circulation of the US draft resolution which happened last week, informal sessions on the sidelines of the UNHRC session are used to firm up the language of the draft resolution, lobby support for the resolution and this year, to discuss the modalities of a proposed international inquiry into violations in Sri Lanka.
Members from all five sponsoring states – the US, UK, Montenegro, Macedonia and Mauritius – reportedly chaired Monday’s meeting, a sign that with two weeks to go before a vote on the resolution, the talks were getting serious.
At Monday’s session a representative of the Chinese delegation made the argument for Sri Lanka to be provided time to work on reconciliation, since it had been only five years since the Government had concluded a 30-year war. The Canadian delegation counter-argued that while the Government was demanding time, the issue had to be observed also from the perspective of the victims. How much more time was fair by the victims of human rights violations and disappearances when the Government had failed to make a single credible prosecution, the delegation argued. The points were reinforced by other member states also backing the US resolution.
Pakistan and member states from Latin American and some African member states spoke supportively of Sri Lanka during the session. The Government has been engaged in heavy lobbying of Latin American and African countries ahead of the session in Geneva this month, sending several Ministerial missions overseas earlier this year to shore up support.
Pakistan and Cuba strongly opposed the inclusion of an inquiry by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka, arguing that the Council had no mandate for such action.
However while this argument is being made by Sri Lanka and her allies, the UNHRC has established both OHCHR investigations and Commissions of Inquiry (CoI) through resolutions at the Council during its eight years in existence. (see graphic).
Several delegations at the informal session argued against this claim therefore, citing examples of previous investigative mechanisms mandated by the Council against member states with major human rights problems. Syria is the most recent precedent for an OHCHR type inquiry mechanism that the US resolution on Sri Lanka appears to be setting up.
In April 2011, the UNHRC, through a resolution sponsored by the US and other Western states, mandated the Office of the High Commissioner to investigate major violations in Syria, where a civil war was raging, after the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East prompted pro-democracy protests in the country.
The OHCHR, headed by Pillay established a Fact Finding Mission on Syria in May 2011. The mission never obtained access to the country, but presented a report of its remote findings to a Special Session of the Council in August of the same year. With violence escalating, the Council set up an independent commission of inquiry on Syria, through a resolution at the Special Session. It took just four months after the OHCHR inquiry was begun and Syria was in the throes of conflict at the time. The response to Sri Lanka will be far more paced out, diplomatic sources explain, a process that will still prioritise negotiation and engagement with the Government over direct intervention.
During the discussion on Monday, member states also dealt with the scope and budgetary demands of the OHCHR investigation in Sri Lanka. Member states were attempting to reach consensus on whether the investigation would take the form of a fact finding mission or a special rapporteur mission nominated by the High Commissioner’s office. UN Special Rapporteurs have investigated and reported to the Council on Myanmar and North Korea previously, and the mission could comprise one individual or a team of rapporteurs with separate mandates. These are the two available models for OHCHR inquiries.
Explicit OHCHR inquiry?
Observers at the session in Geneva said that while Sri Lanka’s allies at the Council seemed vocal in their opposition to the resolution, indications are that the balance was tilting already in favour of the US-led move. While China appeared to be determined in its position against an inquiry against Sri Lanka and the Russian delegation is likely to hold a similar view, it was not yet clear if these two power brokers would use their muscle with smaller states in the Council to swing votes for Sri Lanka.
There will be one more informal meeting on Sri Lanka next Tuesday (18), by which time the language of the final draft to be tabled later this month should be ready. The vague reference to the OHCHR inquiry in the first draft is likely to be made more explicit in the final version of the resolution, according to authoritative sources. What remains unclear is whether the co-sponsors will risk including the phrase ‘international investigation,’ which may make New Delhi in particular skittish in the race to the vote on the resolution on 27 March.
Indian officials are reportedly privately pleased with the US draft resolution, since it does not overreach on the investigation, after months of build up internationally over the prospect of a war crimes inquiry into Sri Lanka. In its current form, the US resolution is infinitely palatable to New Delhi, which must balance the twin concerns of an irate neighbour across the Palk Strait and an agitated Southern electorate at home ahead of key elections for Parliament in April-May.
With the resolution likely to be adopted at the end of this month, as it stands Sri Lanka has two options. It can opt to cooperate with the OHCHR inquiry and attempt even at this late stage to put credible measures in place to address the concerns over human rights that are mounting globally. At this point, it remains unclear whether the Government will permit entry to Pillay or staff from her office who could be representatives on the fact finding mission or to a Special Rapporteur on Sri Lanka.
After the furore created by Navi Pillay when she concluded her visit to Sri Lanka with a blistering statement that the country was headed in an increasingly authoritarian direction and the international attention her visit garnered, the Government would be loathe to permit access to any persons associated with her office to the country again.
The Sri Lankan Government may place their hopes on the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who will take office in August being more sympathetic to its situation, but this strategy could backfire badly. Pillay will be gone by the time the oral report on the Sri Lanka inquiry is due in September, but who her successor will be remains a mystery. And with Washington driving the push for accountability and a political solution in Sri Lanka, the international pressure is unlikely to go away whoever sits next on Pillay’s chair.
Any attempt to bar access to UN rapporteurs or an investigative mission mandated by the UNHRC would seal Sri Lanka’s fate. It would be in the Government’s own interest therefore to eschew jingoism, seek to engage and have its voice reflected in any investigative report that goes before the Council next year. But that has rarely been a motivational factor for the regime since it embarked upon this precarious path.
Yet again, the Sri Lankan Government stands at an unprecedented crossroads. Decisions made now, will prove the Government’s salvation or destruction on this road to international justice. The regime had similar choices in May 2009 and it made all the wrong ones. It chose polarisation over unification, marginalisation and alienation over reconciliation. It put physical reconstruction over healing hearts and minds that had been brutalised and broken by 30 years of war. It heaped minorities with terrorists and then proceeded to do the same with dissidents.
The result is the two Sri Lankas, the post-war story that goes two separate ways, depending on the ethnicity and ideology of the narrator. Imagine a different Sri Lanka. What if the north and south had the same post-conflict heroes? What if truth and magnanimity had presided over denial and jingoism? Imagine life after war if this was only the Sri Lanka that produced the soldier who gave a 12-year-old boy a packet of biscuits to put him at ease.
Imagine the country that produced only men of war who instinctively covered a woman’s exposed body even in the heat of conflict, because of personalities nurtured by an age-old culture of respect towards women. Imagine the war-winning President who had not only defeated a ruthless terrorist outfit, but also brought healing to all communities of people rent apart by 30 years of war?
Imagine only those images on a screen and watch it tell the story of everything this country might have been five years after the guns fell silent. Would Sri Lanka’s political leadership still be hurtling down this road to a potential international war crimes inquiry then?
Courtesy Daily FT