By Melissa Gurusinghe –
This week the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution giving the Office the High Commissioner on Human Rights a mandate to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes and human rights violation committed in Sri Lanka for future accountability.
The UN evidence gathering mechanism will be backed by $2.8 million funding under the resolution which was spearheaded by a UK-led ‘Core Group’ including Germany and Canada amongst others, whilst the newly re-engaged United States is also believed to have pushed hard to strengthen the wording of the final draft resolution against Sri Lanka. The passing of the resolution came a day after the same set imposed coordinated sanctions entailing travel bans and asset freezes against China, Sri Lanka’s closest ally.
The basis for this most recent western condemnation was a scathing report by UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet which highlighted several “alarming trends towards recurrence” in post-war Sri Lanka. The report alleged accelerating militarisation of governmental functions, political obstruction of accountability and the intimidation of civil society amongst a host of other overhanging concerns following the bloody end of the Sri Lankan Civil war in 2009.
From the outset Sri Lanka categorically rejected the report, criticising what they viewed to be an interference in the country’s sovereignty and political independence – not an uncommon allegation to be levelled at the UN HRC. The Sri Lankan delegation complained bitterly that the Core group’s motivations were political rather than humanitarian.
The UK is currently home to between 100,000-200,000 British Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom fled to the UK during the bloody civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Today, British Tamils constitute a vocal and organised community.
Referring to such communities, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage remarked that “the Tamil diaspora sympathetic towards the LTTE has become a sizeable vote bank for politicians in [core group] countries”. Such claims were among the least sensational aspects of the month-long discussions which preceded the voted, conducted wholly virtually for the first time.
The ambassador leading the Sri Lankan delegation to the UN HRC was former paramilitary death squad member C. A. Chandraprema who, unsurprisingly, is said to have adopted a persistently boorish stance throughout discussions. Sources said that other delegations appeared visibly shocked when the ambassador openly implied that the high commissioner’s office was in the pay of countries pushing for an unfavourable resolution for Sri Lanka.
Through a flurry of eleventh-hour lobbying Sri Lanka managed to gain the support of Pakistan and Bangladesh, who welcomed a very recent reversal of Sri Lanka’s controversial order to cremate all Muslim victims of COVID-19 in contravention with Muslim burial rites. Despite this, only 11 out of 47 council members voted against the resolution, in support of Sri Lanka. These included China, Russia, Phillipines and Eritrea.
Many of the states which had issued statements of support for Sri Lanka’s position in the discussions which proceeded the vote abstained, most notably India and Japan. The direction of the two Quad members’ votes was the subject of significant geopolitical speculation in Chennai, New Dehli and Colombo, coming to be seen as key indicator of India’s geopolitical priorities amid China’s growing influence in it’s backyard. Many politicians in Tamil Nadu welcomed India’s decision to abstain, ahead of important State Assembly elections in India next month.
In a hurried press conference to the English-speaking press following the passing of the resolution, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena made clear Sri Lanka’s intention to resist the process envisaged in the resolution. “Without the consent and acceptance of the country concerned, [the resolution] cannot be implemented”, said Gunawardena.
To the Sri Lankan press, he struck a different tone, opining the outcome of the vote as an overwhelming success on the basis that the ‘Core group’ of powers who voted to pass the resolution did not manage to achieve a majority.
The passing of the resolution undoubtedly presents an important step towards ensuring accountability for past and ongoing human right violations in Sri Lanka, particularly against the increasingly re-marginalised Tamil minorities. Yet many, particularly in the international community, felt that the resolution should have gone much further.
UK Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, Shadow Minister for the Asia and Pacific, wrote to Nigel Adams, Minister of State for Asia, challenging the draft resolution’s failure to even attempt to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court, stating “we fully acknowledge that two of the permanent members of the Security Council would likely veto such a referral were it to be tabled, but this is not an acceptable argument against trying.”
Sri Lanka’s referral to the International Criminal Court has long been the primary demand of many Tamils, both abroad and in Sri Lanka. Among them is Ambihai Selvakumar, a 71 year old former UK Civil servant who garnered attention from around the world for going on a 17-day long hunger-strike, demanding that the UN HRC take significant steps to hold the Sri Lankan government to account. The prominent activist’s actions inspired solidarity hunger strikes and protests in London, as well as Trincomalee and Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
“Britain has the historical responsibility for the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and therefore has the moral duty to protect Tamils from Genocide”, said Selvakumar speaking in Parliament Square, “You have a chance now to rectify the mistake you made.”
One protest in London in support of Mrs. Selvakumar’s hunger strike drew more than 100 people. Metropolitan police drew significant criticism from the international Tamil community when they drew batons on the protestors and arrested at least one person. Many present at the protest donned LTTE flags, despite the fact that the organisation remains proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK Home office. In Sri Lanka, papers dubbed Mrs. Selvakumar ‘the starving Tigress’, highlighting her alleged links to senior members of the LTTE as well as a UK-based charity which was suspended by British authorities in 2009 amid concerns the organisation was being used to illegally funnel funds to the LTTE.
Nevertheless, parliamentarians from the UK including Sam Tarry, MP for Ilford South and Virendra Sharma MP for Ealing South, all expressed their solidarity with Mrs Selvakumar’s pursuit for “truth and justice”. During her hunger strike in which the 71 year old consumed only water, a petition to save her life received 36,000 signatures and she was lovingly dubbed “Ambihai Amma” within diaspora networks. She concluded her strike following the tabling of the draft resolution on 12 March.
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, as the delegation to Geneva brazenly challenged the veracity of every single egregious allegation within the UN High Commissioner’s report, many of the “alarming trends” that were highlighted were unfolding real time on the ground.
Last week, a Sri Lankan journalist Sujeewa Gamage, who was claims to have been abducted and assaulted by a group of armed men was detained by the Colombo Crimes Division. The CCD subsequently accused Gamage of fabricating the whole incident and torturing himself. Gamage would later state in front of a magistrate how the CCD had coerced a confession from him. The incident appears to be an eerie rerun of the 2019 Francis Garnier case where the Swiss Embassy employee was allegedly abducted, assaulted and pressed for information about the embassy before Sri Lankan authorities came to the swift conclusion that Garnier had fabricated the whole story to bring the Sri Lankan administration to disrepute. Gamage is set to provide more information about his detainment by the CCD on 26 March.
Whilst the Sri Lankan delegation vehemently denied the “use of ethno-nationalistic and majoritarian rhetoric” by the Rajapaksa administration, Public Securities minister Sarath Weerasekera was presenting a Cabinet paper to ban the burqa and over 1,000 madrasas (Islamic schools) on the Island. Though the proposal is yet to be approved or drafted, it is feared that the minister’s latest inflammatory remarks will exacerbate anti-muslim sentiment which simmers dangerously beneath the surface of hardline-Buddhist nationalist political discourse in Sri Lanka
Whilst the Sri Lankan envoy refuted allegations of “surveillance and intimidation of civil society”, 19 year old environmental activist Bhagya Abeyratne who had called attention to concerning deforestation of a local area near the UNESCO protected Sinharaja forest, became the target of intimidation and harassment by a number of government officials. Within 24 hours of comments she made on the popular local TV programme Who Wants to be A millionaire, two police officers and others identifying themselves as “state officials” came to her home to enquire as to who had “influenced her to make these statements”. “I completely disregard what I might have to face, including accusations levelled against me that I’m acting with a political motive”, Abeyratne said through tears.
The passing of the UK-led UN HRC resolution against Sri Lanka represents the most recent manifestation of ‘Global Britain’ might this week, coming only a day after many of the ‘Core Group’ countries which pushed the resolution through also imposed a historic set of coordinated sanctions against China for over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Regardless of whether collective western condemnation arrives on Asia’s shores through material sanction or humanitarian imposition, whether toward China, Myanmar or Sri Lanka, it remains to be seen if resolutions like the one passed against Sri Lanka will herald any actual progress on accountability or human rights for people living under less ‘Global’ administrations. For many sectors of Sri Lankan society, the stakes are extremely high.
*Melissa Gurusinghe is a final year undergraduate student at King’s College London. She is a freelance writer and filmmaker interested in human rights, foreign affairs and UK politics.