Sunday, May 01, 2011

Sri Lanka: Dare not criticise

Himal: South Asian

After many months of work, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka submitted its report to the Sri Lankan government. Though the report has only been sent to Colombo for review, and the formal release is still awaited as Himal goes to press, extracts have already been leaked to the media. As a result of these leaks, the report framed by this advisory panel – not an investigative panel, as often misrepresented in the media – has led to heated debate in the national and international arena. The External Affairs Ministry in Colombo has already rejected the report as flawed, and President Rajapakse has called for protests and mass mobilisations as a show of strength against the UN.

The report addresses the major abuses alleged to have taken place in the lead-up to the May 2009 end of the 25 years of civil war on the island. The Panel of Experts – composed of three members, from Indonesia, South Africa and the US – has decided that there are credible allegations that both the government and the LTTE committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during this period. The report also details the denial of humanitarian assistance to civilians by the government as well as systematic attacks against them, involving widespread shelling and targeting of civilian facilities, including hospitals. The LTTE, for its part, is condemned for having used civilians as hostages and ‘human shields’, shot at and killed civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, forcefully recruited children into its army, and used military equipment in the proximity of civilians.

The report also addresses obstacles to accountability after the war. This includes the state of emergency that remains in place, having been extended month by month, including, most recently, in April; the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which likewise continues to be in force; as well as lingering militarisation of the conflict zone and restrictions on the media. Sections of the Tamil diaspora also come in for criticism for two reasons: for having provided support for the LTTE and for continuing to refuse to acknowledge the LTTE’s role in the humanitarian disaster, thus undermining a sustainable peace. Finally, the report rejects the ability of the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – set up by President Rajapakse in May 2010 – to credibly address accountability, due to lack of independence and impartiality.

While the LTTE is gone, the significance of the report has to do with the record and continuing attitude of the Rajapakse government. None of the findings are new as such, reiterating concerns that have been voiced by rights groups and the media; nevertheless, the Panel of Experts report paints a very bleak picture of both the Sri Lankans state’s conduct during the war – and the steps taken since its end. This adds considerable weight to the demand that these concerns be taken seriously and addressed, which might go some way towards explaining the Rajapakse government’s vociferous reaction. However, what actually comes out of the work of the UN panel will depend on the steps that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon takes henceforth, as well as the political backing he gets from powerful international actors.

Here, the role of India and the US is probably going to determine whether the pressure mounts on Sri Lanka or the report is quickly forgotten. If one takes a cue from developments over recent years, Colombo’s successful prosecution of the war would not have been possible without both overt support and sins of omission and commission by both New Delhi and Washington.

Soon after the end of the war, an attempt by the European Union and other Western actors to condemn Sri Lanka’s wartime conduct at the UN Human Rights Council backfired. At that time, India, China and other governments turned the entire affair into a resolution congratulating Sri Lanka on ending the conflict. Indeed, one of the recommendations of the Panel report is for the UN Human Rights Council to reconsider that resolution. Now that India is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and is positioning itself as a regional power, it will be interesting to watch whether there is any change in New Delhi’s stance.

Polarising triumphalism
Since the war’s end, Colombo’s strategy has been to reject any criticism of its wartime actions, saying that such censure is being manipulated by the Tamil diaspora. While the new report does criticise sections of the diaspora, the latter’s importance as a political force has been on the wane. In fact, it could be argued that it is now the Western governments who use the politically weak diaspora to send a message to the Sri Lankan government, rather than the other way around. While Colombo is depending on Beijing and Moscow to mobilise support to undermine any political pressure relating to the Panel of Experts report, political will is required on the part of Washington and New Delhi ultimately to determine whether Sri Lanka will be called to account.

This month, we are seeing the second anniversary of the end of the war. But, after a quarter-century of conflict, with over 100,000 lives lost, the government of President Rajapakse has done little to deliver on the historic opportunity for political reconciliation presented by the conflict’s close. Rather than broad democratisation and a constitutional political settlement, which could have won over the country’s minorities, the Rajapakse regime has continued with its war-time mentality, promoting a polarising triumphalism in order to consolidate its power.

In this situation, the UN report could be a window of opportunity for progressive and democratic forces within Sri Lanka to begin a debate on the future of the country. Admittedly, this seems unlikely, given that the continuing repression and extreme nationalist demagoguery of the Rajapakse regime seems to have closed possibilities for a free, rational debate. Nonetheless, at the international level at least, if the Rajapakse government is in trouble with what it describes as the politically motivated ‘international community’, it has only its own post-war hubris to blame.

© Himal

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