5 December, 2020

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Why The UN Acts To Hold Sri Lanka Accountable For War Crimes

A few incidents that have led to commentators voicing doubts on the impartiality of the UN’s role in Sri Lanka.

By J.S. Tissainayagam –

J.S. Tissainayagam

A resolution on Sri Lanka was passed in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Thursday. Human rights activists hailed the resolution as a hopeful first step by the international community in holding Sri Lanka accountable to war crimes. It is significant that this resolution was sponsored by the United States which became a full member of the UNHRC only in 2009.

The 27-year civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhala and Tamil communities ended in May 2009 with the government defeating the Tamil guerrilla group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The aftermath of the war saw increasing evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Government and LTTE during the final months of fighting.

The resolution in Geneva calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LLRC was appointed by Sri Lanka in the wake of sustained international censure for war crimes.

The LLRC’s recommendations, which were made public in December 2011, while acknowledging that civilians had been killed by the Sri Lanka military, exonerated its actions by saying that such deaths were not widespread and systematic. The LLRC, however, unambiguously accused the LTTE of war crimes. Its report recommended the Sri Lanka government appoint a domestic body to investigate these acts and punish the wrongdoers.

The recommendations of the LLRC were met with a robust pushback by the international community, Tamil groups and human rights organisations. They emphasised that only an international body, and not a domestic one, would have the stature and power to hold an impartial investigation free of government interference.

But while they called for an international investigation, Sri Lanka was reluctant to implement even the recommendations of its own commission, the LLRC. This resulted in the international community finally moving as a compromise in Geneva, a resolution which only called for implementing the LLRC recommendations and not for an international investigation.

The human rights community is reasonably satisfied that a clause in the resolution, asking the UNHRC to monitor progress in the implementation of the LLRC, will ensure compliance by Sri Lanka. But, at the same time, rights activists are cognisant that the UN’s institutional drawbacks in Sri Lanka could be an impediment in achieving this.

Rights activists are worried that the UNHRC will have to work through the UN office in Sri Lanka to monitor the progress of the implementation. Unfortunately, while the UN’s office there has a functioning human rights desk, it has been completely overshadowed by the UN’s role as a donor and implementer of economic development programmes. The question is: will the UN have the resources and more than that the will to make the necessary transformation?

If the past is anything to go by, the UN has not shown the will. For instance, just before the Sri Lankan military launched its final assault on the LTTE under whose control were at least 300,000 Tamil civilians, the Government made an announcement that all international organisations and NGOs should leave the conflict area. Despite fervent pleas by the civilian population not abandon them, the UN left without any attempt to negotiate with the government to remain. Gordon Weiss the then UN spokesman in Sri Lanka described this as “a mistake.” Leaving without attempting to negotiate runs contrary to the UN’s usual practice as was amply demonstrated in Darfur.

Another controversy was the UN’s refusal to release casualty figures in the final months of fighting in Sri Lanka. The UN initially maintained “we do not count bodies.” However, the Inner City Press said on March, 18, 2009 that leaked documents revealed the UN’s Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) did have the numbers, which were deliberately withheld. The Inner City Press observed that “unlike in other conflicts from Darfur to Gaza, the UN withheld the Sri Lanka figures, in effect protecting the Sri Lankan government.”

These are but a few incidents that have led to commentators voicing doubts on the impartiality of the UN’s role in Sri Lanka.

If so, how are the gains in Geneva to be preserved? One way out might be for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Department of Political Affairs to play more pivotal roles in Sri Lanka than they do today. If the UN is to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace” as is mandated in its Charter, its headquarters needs to work more closely with its Sri Lanka mission.

This could be accomplished is by the countries that voted in favour of the Geneva resolution taking the lead in making the UN strengthen its political and human rights mandates in its Sri Lanka mission. Negligence in this task might find Sri Lanka slipping out of its obligations.

J. S. Tissainayagam is a Weatherhead Fellow in International Affairs at Harvard University. He was Nieman Fellow in Journalism (2010-11) also at Harvard. Previously, he worked for a number of English national newspapers in Sri Lanka. ( Global Post)

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Latest comments

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    A quality article without any hatred and venom.This is what you call journalism.These are the kind of journalists who could defuse a situation rather than pouring petrol in to fire.

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      He is someone who got neutral by {<>}

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      Ha Ha I am very happy this time I can join Max Silva Yes very good article. (lol)

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      dear max tamils are till in sucicidal journalism with the knowledge use the time to write about human needs like oxygen ,food and water .it is more value than past terroism.

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    Nice to see him write in the liberal frame work. his stuff in the north east herald, when it became a magazine was very violent.Like justifying the killing of Kardiragama. i was very upset to read that kind of thing

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    Tissa speaks about the resolution tabled about Sri lanka and wants it strengthened. What about the other resolution where 46 was for it and 1 against.Even Hillary Clinton spoke harshly about Sri Lanka and wanted immediate implementation of LLRC.The resolution on Israel where every one voted for and USA against, she was strangely silent.Most probably at the next election she and husband will be treated as pariah’s. Shows that Money speaks. Tissa who has become a strong human right activist and wish to ask him this question. Where were you when LTTE frog marched 90,000 Muslims men, women and children with only their clothes which they were wearing and the jewellery the ladies were wearing was forcibly plucked out by the LTTE thugs and requested not to return and if they did they would get a third eye in their forehead?. Did you even squeak in your gutter paper at that time. You applauded their work. What a hypocrite.

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      I say Sanoon Tissayanayagam is a Tamillian naturally his concerns are on Tamil perspective.just like Buddhist with Buddhist,Muslims with Muslims.

      Which has become a curse everywhere.

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    Article is balanced. Finger point at UN failures.

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    Excellent neutral article. Now the ball is in the UN court. Now that they have passed the resolution, it is up to them to devise a way of monitoring and following up on the resolution.Lets hope the UN will not let down the Tamils and make a “mistake” again.

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    CT,
    I made a comment on this topic about an hour ago.But you have not posted it.Any particular reason?

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    J.S.Thissanayagam is lucky to be alive today. If not for the intervention of the FMM and some of the Human Rights watch dogs he probably will be langushing in jail on trumped up charges. Who knows he would have committed suicide in custody as it happened to so many others who were not so lucky.

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    Jim,
    I didn’t say that i agreed with what Tissa says.What i said was that it is written without hatred unlike certain other posts.Tissa is entitled to his opinions.It is about the manner in which it was written,that i said was good.As a Tamil there is nothing wrong in speaking on behalf of Tamils,as long as there’s no any other ulterior motive other than what he believes is right.Tissa is not another Johnny come lately journalist unlike most other journalists turned human rights activists who shed crocodile tears on behalf of Tamils.The manner in which the article was presented,deserves frank debate.When an article is presented without hatred,it deserves criticism and discussion in a cordial manner.At least we could agree to disagree like proper human beings.I don’t agree with what Tissa says.But the way i see it, is that whatever he writes,it is on behalf of the welfare of the Tamils whom he represents.The tone and the style amply demonstrate that fact.Let me give you just one example.The article written by Ivindu does not help to defuse the situation.Instead such articles make a bad situation worse.It was purely intended to wipe up anti Sinhala feelings.It was a ball by ball description of how Balachandran died,regardless whether it’s true or not.War is bad,conventional or otherwise.But where does such articles lead to?Only disaster for both Tamils and Sinhalese.A British forensic expert going by the name Pounder(only god will know what he is pounding at his age)tries to play Sherlock Holmes.There’s no question that he poked his dirty nose into it with an ulterior motive behind.If this professor is genuine,then first he should examine the murder of the driver of the Fiat Uno car which was involved in the murder of princess Diana.This man was supposed to have shot himself twice on the head and then poured petrol over his body and lit a match by himself.I wish to ask from this professor fellow whether dead men light matches.Being a British i am sure that he ought to investigate the murder of Diana the princess of Wales rather than the death of Balachandran.That particular article was written with the intention of murdering a head of state after a Kangaroo court trial in the Hague.I say Kangaroo court because it is these type of professors who preside over in such cases.Going by the article,the head of state in question Rajapakse,if he is murdered after a Kangaroo court trial,will it help reconciliation?Will the Sinhalese kiss the Tamils and say lets reconcile?What will happen is there will be a blood bath of unprecedented dimension.The ultimate result will be the landing of murderous US and NATO forces in creating another Afghanistan.They are called articles written with hatred.In fact such articles are Kangaroo courts by themselves..The writers and contributors pretend to be intellectuals.But the truth is that such articles are written solely to spill more blood.Now Tissa’a article does not imply such hatred.As long as one speaks on what he believe is right ,it’s OK.But articles written by such Johnny come lately as Paki,Sunanda and Uvindu is pure crap.Such articles does not help the Tamils one bit.Sometime back Tissa wrote some interesting articles to the Sunday Times.Though i didn’t agree,i never missed reading his articles.When he was arrested on trumped up charges,i was very sad.Tissa had been writing for quite a long time.It was when Paki was dining,wining and dancing with CBK without a care in the world about Tamils.That’s the difference.Tissa wrote on behalf of the Tamils and the other NGO vultures write with five star comfort and $$$ in mind.
    Talking of UN intervention is a lot of crap.The UN has lost it’s credibility long time ago.If the UN acted in a responsible manner,then the deaths of millions of Iraqis could have been avoided.Today the UN is a tool of the US and NATO.The sponsors of this phony resolution,the US is the world’s #1criminal state.In the guise of reconciliation,it’s ultimate goal is to destabilize Srilanka.Where in the world do you find reconciliation after it’s head of state is murdered on trumped up charges brought up by the likes of channel 4,Gordon Weiss,Paki,Uvindu and the rest of such devious outfits and characters?True reconciliation must be without vengeance and without foreign interference.In South Africa no head of state was put on trial and the black prisoners were freed.If Srilanka is to achieve real reconciliation then,nonsense of war crimes should be dropped and like wise the GOSL should rehabilitate and release LTTE prisoners so that they will contribute to the society in a positive manner.But this resolution is a time bomb.Articles such as the one by Tissa merits debate while the rest should be flushed down the toilet.I reply accordingly.

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      Hi Silva,

      Did you know Tissa is a genius? Even Horapakse was afraid to kill Tissa directly. Tissa is at Harvard now.

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    Great comment max,better than the article itself.I want to add two things. One is, this article nicely dress up an attemp to promote the idea of establishing a UNHRC office in colombo which,the government has vehemently resisted. Secondly try to justify the claims of exaggerated casualty figures given by the likes of Gordon Weiss.If UN offices in colombo had any casualty figures they could release,as Tissa claims,they have to be less than what Gordon Weiss claimed but the UN disowned.(If the official figures were higher than the gordon Weiss figures weiss would jumped on them and made them officialy.) Officail lower figures would have been beficial to Sri Lanka vastly than the fairy tale Gordon Weiss figures, therefore contrary to Tissa’s claims UN did not release the casualty figures they had in order to allow gordon weiss’s exaggerated figures get credence.

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      Gordon Weiss is a pensioner now.To earn some spare cash he is now pimping for leftover Tamil Tiger terrorists.Mustn’t take such hoodlums seriously.

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    What a comment Max. You are a disgrace to the entire Sinhala Race. What to do when you are only half Sinhalese. I do not know that Gordon Weiss is a hoodlum, but you certainly have displayed in ample measure who the hoodlum is.

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      Gamini,
      I said that Tissa’a article deserves cordial debate.But you poke your dirty nose and spoil everything.Haven’t i told you before?Get on licking Gordan’s smelling toes.A bloody time wasting clown!

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    A good piece of journalism, with malice to none and charity towards all. Those who vilify human rights activists,due to ‘blind’ patriotism, are the dregs of society.

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    He did good job

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