By Col R Hariharan
President Mahinda Rajapaksa confronted his moment of truth at Geneva on February 27 when the 19th meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) started discussing Sri Lanka. It was third time Sri Lanka’s accountability issue had figured at the 47-member body. This time it is going to be difficult for Sri Lanka to ward off discussion as the U.S. has circulated a draft resolution that questions Sri Lanka’s accountability during the last days of Eelam War in May 2009.
The US draft resolution calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations in the LLRC report and additionally to take immediate steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations. It also expresses concern that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report relating to human rights does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law. It also highlights international disappointment that Sri Lanka had not fulfilled its own stated commitment to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations.
Allegations about Sri Lanka’s conduct in the last stages of war had been haunting President Rajapaksa after his spectacular victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil insurgency outfit that had terrorised the country for nearly three decades. However, Rajapaksa had chosen to defend his conduct even when it became indefensible after UN Secretary General’s experts panel of advisors found the issue needed further probe.
Every time the UNHRC meet wanted to put Sri Lanka on its agenda it had triggered national passions in Sri Lanka as its detractors also have their own baggage of human rights aberrations. Almost all political parties of Sri Lanka have voiced their objection to the UN body taking up the Sri Lanka issue. Even those who had criticised Rajapaksa for the very same issues contained in the U.S. draft resolution have joined the protests or are silent. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which continues to raise issues of human rights violations, has avoided the temptation to send its representative to Geneva to garner full propaganda value against Rajapaksa.
Their response is based on average Sri Lankan’s reaction: his national pride, boosted up by military victory, has been hurt. Political parties and leaders have reacted with political pragmatism, than principles, as their relevance is local rather than international. To this end President Rajapaksa has successfully sold his “nationalist” card (that had even shades of xenophobia) to rally support for his approach to the whole gamut of issues germane to the discussion at the UNHRC. The whole political machinery was at work to prove the people are behind the President.
Rajapaksa’s orchestration of public rallies and protests does not address the core issues at discussion in the UNHRC meet. This time around, it looks serious as many nations are losing their patience with Sri Lanka’s prevarication. The U.S. draft appears to have been worded cautiously with some understanding of the national sensitivity. And the U.S. had told Sri Lanka well in advance of its intentions so that Sri Lanka could take follow up measures on the recommendations of the LLRC report on its own.
The international dimension of the issue at the UNHRC, despite lofty words about defending human rights, is not wholly about it. Cynically viewed, all UN forums are conditioned by issues of diplomacy, real politick, political horse trading, and inter-power and inter-regional politics. But that would be trivialising the core issue of “accountability” which Sri Lanka government had been evading – whether it is the reconciliation, denial of fundamental rights, or aberrations of governance, Sri Lanka has consistently gone back on its promises.
In the Cold War period, nations could get away by cocking the snook at other nations. Now it is not so easy; nations are networked in multiple modes. Even the U.S. has discovered this, just as its detractors are doing. North Korea, world’s number one loose cannon, striking a compromise with the U.S. is a very recent example of this.
The allegations of war crimes and human rights violations have provided a convenient rallying point for international community (and in English speaking world it means the U.S. and the West) to take Sri Lanka to task for going back on many a promise made to them both publicly and privately by President Rajapaksa and his government.
The issues before the UNHRC only reflect this. Sri Lanka also appear to have realised this only after the issue figured at this UN forum twice and threatened explode for a third time; rather late in the day as its army has ordered a court of inquiry to look into the allegations of war crimes screened by Channel 4 videos. Surprisingly, this positive action is tucked in the generalities of its legalistic argument that had been repeated any number of times.
Dispassionately viewed, the U.S. move has strengthened the voices of civil society that Rajapaksa regime had relentlessly tried to stifle before, during and after the War. It has brought international focus on the voiceless victims – both Tamil and Sinhala – who have been left in political wilderness in the aftermath of war. It has shown that regardless of the despicable acts of terrorism perpetrated by insurgents or the State, the government has to be accountable for its actions in peace and war. And that is what good governance is all about.
Even Mahinda Rajapaksa would agree that he was the chief architect of ending Tamil insurgency by militarily eliminating the LTTE as a viable threat to national unity. This has helped him to emerge as a national hero of unmatched popularity – a modern day Dutta Gamanu, the legendary Sinhala warrior who routed his Tamil foe in battle. In the triumphant days after the war, President Rajapaksa was in a unique position to push through any legislation or Constitutional amendment he wanted to put an end to Tamil grievances festering for five decades. But unfortunately, he used his popularity solely for his ends – to crush political opposition, strengthen his power base, and to delay the process of reconciliation.
Why are the U.S. and the West hell bent on throwing the book at Sri Lanka? It is simplistic as Sri Lanka leaders often say that they were “jealous” of Sri Lanka’s victory over LTTE as they have not been able to tackle Jihadi terrorism so effectively. Equally facile will be the explanation that they were pandering the Tamil Diaspora for their votes. This is not wholly true; western nations have continued to bring to book elements of LTTE embedded overseas as part of their commitment to prevent terrorism of the LTTE-kind staging a comeback. Even UK, which repeatedly figures in Sri Lanka’s black book, has deported large number of dubious asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka lest fresh blood is pumped into resurrect the LTTE.
Even if Sri Lanka fights the war of words in Geneva successfully, respite for Rajapaksa will only be temporary both locally and internationally. Already the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is speaking about the President blowing the UNHRC meeting out of proportion to divert peoples’ attention from the enormous price hikes the government has imposed.
The ethnic reconciliation process is still being subject to political acrobatics, as Rajapaksa is trying to promote yet another committee solution – this time with a parliamentary select committee. His tactics are patently to buy time rather than go through a slightly painful reconciliation process. This is not surprising because he has wished away the existence of a Sinhala-Tamil divide long ago in his vision statement – Mahinda Chintanaya.
But delay switches have a nasty habit of exploding in the face. Though it may not happen immediately, but “the Rajapaksa approach” is paving the way for resurgence of the call for independent Tamil Eelam. Otherwise it is difficult to explain how the LTTE’s overseas remnants, who were running for cover after the slaughter of their leadership at Mulliyavalai in May 2009, are slowly staging a comeback once again.
President Rajapaksa can be a man of action, not words, when he wants. He proved this during the Eelam War. So it is not too late even now for him to take remedial action to regain lost ground. And the first step would be to implement the recommendations of the LLRC report, complete the reconciliation process on a time bound plan and restore security and trust in his regime both at home and abroad by toning up governance. There need be no loss of face because this is what democracies do all the time – correcting their actions to improve the nation’s prestige and peoples’ sense of security.
Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog site: www.colhariharan.org