Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sri Lanka: UN Panel and Sovereignty Issues

By N Manoharan | Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

The appointment of a panel of experts by the UN Secretary General to look at accountability issues relating to human rights violations during the last stages of Eelam War IV in Sri Lanka in 2009 triggered protests in Sri Lanka against the United Nations. The protesters led by Housing Minister and leader of National Freedom Front, Vimal Weerawansa, laid siege outside the UN country office in Colombo in July 2010 preventing the UN staff and visitors from entry and exit of the premises. The Minister stretched the protest by observing hunger strike for three days before abandoning it. The issue clearly brought to the fore tussle between the authority and legitimacy of inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations on the one hand and the extent of sovereignty of individual states on the other.

The anti-UN stand in Sri Lanka is not without its politics. Colombo has been upset ever since the UN Human Rights Council’s attempted resolution against Sri Lanka last May. The Sri Lankan government has been lobbying strongly against the Panel ever since it was announced in June 2010 claiming that it was “interference in the internal affairs” and “violates sovereignty”.

Apart from failing to recognize the Panel, Colombo refused to issue visa to its members. When such diplomatic tactics failed to work, there was a need for extra pressure in the form of protests with the blessings of the government. The government easily washed its hands off the protests saying Sri Lanka was a democratic country and its citizens were “free to demonstrate peacefully”. At the outset, Colombo denied any human rights violations during the ethnic war, and clarified that any investigations in that regard would be taken care of by its own ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’. Present Rajapakse’s regime believes that the UN Panel is the first step towards an international inquiry on the conduct and avoidable consequences of Eelam War IV through the International Criminal Court. Hardliners in Sri Lanka argue that despite large scale human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of the ‘global war on terror’ there is no inquiry into that by any international body. To them, what Sri Lanka did was similar: decimated a deadly terrorist group that was acting as a think tank for all terrorist groups of the world. In such case, why the double standards, they ask.

All these should have been taken up by Colombo through negotiations with the international community. It is the responsibility of any country to clear all doubt involving the lives of thousands of people. Instead, display of less than peaceful demonstrations in the name of ‘right to expression’ have damaged Sri Lanka’s credibility in the eyes of the international community. It should be noted that present ultra-nationalistic sentiments and confrontationist postures against world bodies like the UN are not in the interest of Sri Lanka, a small state that is still in the process of post-war reconstruction. It should not be forgotten that Sri Lanka got its membership at the United Nations out of much difficulty after independence due to prevailing Cold War politics. At this juncture, the country needs support and resources from all over the world. The UN is not a separate entity, but an organization with states as representatives. It enjoys legitimacy as long as states respect the sanctity of the organization. The advisory panel’s mandate is limited to advising “the secretary general... on the modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience relevant to an accountability process.” It is neither a fact-finding mission nor an investigative body.

On its part, the UN Secretary General should have appointed the Panel with the consent of Colombo or at least filled in with acceptable faces. Presently it consists of Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general (as chairperson), Steven Ratner, a US lawyer, and Yasmin Sooka, who served in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Marzuki Darusman was already part of International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) that was invited by President Rajapaksa to observe work of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into some instances of human rights violations. The IIGEP called off its exercise unilaterally not without disappointing Colombo. Cooperation of the concerned country is vital for the success of any such panel. The team has been given four months to submit its report. However, if it cannot travel to Sri Lanka to meet the concerned people, it may not be in a position to come out with any useful recommendations.


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