By Archana Arul
The setting in the run up to the Geneva meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council is getting increasingly clear, not just with Washington letting Colombo know that a third successive resolution against the island nation for alleged war crimes and accountability is very much on the cards. If US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal has made known the Obama administration’s patent displeasure with the goings on, Sri Lanka has responded not with substantive proposals but upping the ante by denying a senior State Department official a visa.
Biswal could not have been more clear when she made it known that the United States has been increasingly concerned about the worsening human rights situation in Sri Lanka as well as the weakening of the rule of law, together with an increase in corruption and impunity since the end of a nearly three decade civil war in 2009. “All of these factors lead to undermine the proud tradition of democracy in Sri Lanka,” the senior State Department official said while stressing that Washington was going ahead with the third resolution in Geneva in as many years.
Biswal’s comments and observations were more on the lines of what another top American diplomat, Stephen Rapp, the Ambassador at Large in the Office of Global Criminal Justice, had said recently after a visit to Sri Lanka. Colombo’s response was along expected lines. “The treatment of Sri Lanka (by the United States) is highly selective and patently unfair,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said. But Colombo responded in a clumsy fashion — by denying a visa for the visit of Catherine Russell, the Ambassador at Large for global women’s issues. Colombo maintains that the dates of Russell’s visit were not convenient and thus any issue of denial of visa does not arise.
The problem for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government does not just arise from Washington’s observations on human rights and accountability. Recently the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a resolution calling for an international probe into the war crimes allegedly committed during the ethnic conflict. In comments to The Hindu newspaper, a member of the NPC, M.K. Shivajilingam said that the council sought an international enquiry into the Sri Lankan government’s acts of “ethnic cleansing”. The small comfort to the government was that the moderate chief minister was supposed to have insisted that the term “genocide” should be avoided.
If the government of Mahinda Rajapakse in Sri Lanka is dispatching its top officials to Geneva and capitals of key nations, including India, it is not without good reason. The visits are undoubtedly scheduled for persuading world leaders of the “sincerity” of Colombo in meeting global expectations. And all this barely five or six weeks before the United Nations body takes up another resolution on Sri Lanka. But there is a difference this time — all indications are that the international community led by the United States means business having realized that what has come out of Colombo may have been nothing but huff and fluff over the last two years.
It is not just the US that is taking up the cudgels against Sri Lanka — Britain and Canada have already put notice on Colombo and the noise of India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress party this time around is going to be particularly shrill. It is not on account of any particular change in policy but the ground realities in the face of elections: political parties in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have already started upping the ante and the Congress party would have to fall in line even it means that this is going to mean nothing to it electorally.
That things are going to be difficult for Sri Lanka is pretty evident in the fashion in which the US and the UN are moving along, though not in a concerted fashion. Of interest to the US and the international community is particularly what took place during the closing stages of the war in 2009 which has given rise to allegations and accusations of genocide and war crimes by the Sri Lankan forces in a bid to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“…he (Ambassador Rapp) listened to eyewitness accounts about serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including those that occurred at the end of the war. In that context the government of the United States encourages the government of Sri Lanka to seek the truth through independent and credible investigations, and where relevant, have prosecutions” the American Embassy in Colombo said in a statement after the visit in January.
But what really ticked off Colombo, especially the defence ministry, were not the vague and innocuous statements put out by the embassy in Colombo but what came out of the official Twitter feed and accompanying photo captions, one of which that read “St. Anthany’s Ground — site of Jan 2009 killing of hundreds of families by army shelling”. This added fuel to the fire as a UN report already has it that as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the closing stages of the civil war and thereby setting off calls for an international war crimes tribunal.
The private speculation is that Washington has officially veered around to allegations of war crimes and genocide, and hence its reference to the “killing of hundreds of families by army shelling”. Further, the fact that Ambassador Michele Sison, the top American envoy in Colombo, and Ambassador Rapp met key representatives of media freedom and the plight of the disappeared has lent credence to the speculation that the Obama administration has actually hardened its stance and is in no mood for any sweet talk from Colombo this time around in Geneva.
The writing on the wall for Sri Lanka was actually done by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay who visited Sri Lanka last September and had some blunt words to say to the government and authorities there. Pillay slammed Colombo for not even following through on its own recommendations and going more on the authoritarian route. The Human Rights Council, Pillay noted in an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, had urged Colombo to implement its own recommendations.
“…I then reported to the council that that has not happened. Now, the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Rehabilitation Commission) recommendations fall short of our expectations on what should be done for proper accountability. Nevertheless, they have not fulfilled even their own recommendations, I view this with some seriousness and this is why I am urging the human rights council to consider that if implementation is not carried out, say, by March next year when I will be filing my further report, then the council should consider credible international investigations” Pillay remarked.
If on the one hand there is the perception that Colombo has really lost the opportunity to make matters different since the end of the war in 2009, there is also the feeling that in an effort to consolidate power, it has only implemented the “soft” recommendations of the LLRC and that the goings on will be difficult with the comity of nations. “The government cannot fool the international community in the same manner it fools the innocent voters in villages,” says United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian and former deputy foreign minister Lakshman Kiriella in an interview.
“Who created this problem? The international community did not create this problem. It was the government which created this problem by giving false promises to the international community. The government has to tell the country as to how it is going to manage this problem. The saddest outcome of this issue is that the government has brought the country into disrepute in the eyes of the rest of the world,” he remarked.
There is no question that Colombo will have to work overtime if it is to escape the full scrutiny of the international community at the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. Talking of Washington paying lip service to issues of human rights and war crimes when seen in the context of what went on in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan is not going to cut much ice. What Sri Lanka needs to understand is that in spite of the best possible internal investigations, the armed forces cannot absolve itself when it is the focal point of interest and investigation.
(Archana Arul is assistant professor and research scholar in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of the School of Media Studies, SRM University, Chennai, India. She can be contacted at [email protected])
This article appeared at South Asia Monitor and reprinted with permission.