Ever since its heady win in the war against the LTTE, the gov­ern­ment in Sri Lanka has found it­self in the eye of a storm on charges of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Dr. S. I. Keethapon­calan

Al­le­ga­tions of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions are eyed with sus­pi­cion in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa was in an en­vi­able po­si­tion when he con­ducted the war against the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam since the mid 2006, be­cause he had the en­dorse­ment and sup­port of all and sundry. The Amer­i­cans had the LTTE on their For­eign Ter­ror­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion list and froze their as­serts, the Euro­pean Union pro­scribed it as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, China and Pak­istan sup­plied mil­i­tary hard­ware, In­dia worked hand in hand with the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment pro­vid­ing arms and train­ing, mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence and de­fend­ing Sri Lanka on the in­ter­na­tional arena. The de­ter­mi­na­tion of the gov­ern­ment, the lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional sup­port ex­tended and the meth­ods adopted paved the way for the mil­i­tary to crush the LTTE in May 2009. A num­ber of peo­ple were killed and the gov­ern­ment called them the LTTE. More than 300,000 peo­ple were dis­placed and kept in in­tern­ment camps called wel­fare vil­lages. Yet, un­til the war ended there was hardly

any ques­tion about hu­man rights con­di­tions as the world fo­cused on terrorism.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity was also con­fused to a large ex­tent. This is ex­actly why a mo­tion pro­posed in the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil con­demn­ing the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment for se­ri­ous hu­man right vi­o­la­tions dur­ing the fi­nal phase of the war, ended up as a res­o­lu­tion com­mend­ing it for de­feat­ing terrorism thanks to the in­ter­ven­tion of states like In­dia, China and Rus­sia. Al­though the state par­ties were con­fused, the In­ter­na­tional NGOs, such as the Hu­man Rights Watch, the Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, kept up the pres­sure on what is called the “accountability is­sues” re­leas­ing more and more in­for­ma­tion on se­ri­ous hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. One can­not also un­der­es­ti­mate the im­pact of the pe­ri­odic video footages broad­cast by the Chan­nel 4 tele­vi­sion net­work in the United King­dom. Ob­vi­ously, the Tamil Di­as­pora also ex­tended ad­e­quate as­sis­tance in fa­vor of ac­tion against the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment. As the al­leged ev­i­dence be­gan to mount, mostly West­ern states like the USA and Great Bri­tain de­manded an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion on al­leged hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions com­mit­ted dur­ing the last stage of the war.

Es­pe­cially, the UN was sub­jected to se­vere crit­i­cism for not do­ing enough to pro­tect the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion from armed at­tack. Rad­i­cal crit­ics also claimed that in fact the UN was abet­ting the crime by un­der­play­ing the civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. Un­der pres­sure, the UN or rather the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral ap­pointed a three mem­ber panel headed by In­done­sia’s Marzuki Darus­man to ad­vise him on the accountability is­sues dur­ing the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment re­jected the panel as ir­rel­e­vant and cen­sured the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral for in­ter­fer­ing in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of a sov­er­eign state. The gov­ern­ment ar­gued that it fol­lowed a “zero civil­ian ca­su­al­ties” pol­icy and Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa claimed that his sol­diers fought the war “with AK-47 on one hand and the Hu­man Rights Charter on the other.” As the work of the panel pro­gressed in­tensely, the gov­ern­ment felt that it is im­por­tant to present its side of the story and sent a group of high rank­ing bu­reau­crats to meet with the panel clan­des­tinely, al­most on the eve of the con­clu­sion of the panel’s work. Hence, the panel had an op­por­tu­nity to hear the sto­ries of all sides.

The panel con­cluded its work in early 2011 and handed over its re­port en­ti­tled “Re­port of the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral’s Panel of Ex­perts on Accountability in Sri Lanka,” on April 13, 2011. Al­though the re­port was crit­i­cal of both the LTTE and the gov­ern­ment, it was the Sri Lankan armed forces and the gov­ern­ment that were tar­geted pri­mar­ily. The re­port claims that “the panel’s de­ter­mi­na­tion of cred­i­ble al­le­ga­tions re­veals a very dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the fi­nal stages of the war than that main­tained to this day by the gov­ern­ment of Sri Lanka. The gov­ern­ment says it pur­sued a ‘hu­man­i­tar­ian res­cue op­er­a­tion’ with a pol­icy of ‘zero civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.’ In stark con­trast, the panel found cred­i­ble al­le­ga­tions, which if proven, in­di­cate that a wide range of se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law and in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law was com­mit­ted both by the gov­ern­ment and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against hu­man­ity.” The panel also rec­om­mended that the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral should es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­leged vi­o­la­tions.

Shocked by the tone and the rec­om­men­da­tions of the panel re­port, the Sri Lankan po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment and the peo­ple, es­pe­cially the Sin­hala peo­ple, re­acted an­grily. Some ar­gued that the re­port should be thrown into the dust­bin. The gov­ern­ment, how­ever, was sys­tem­atic and strate­gic. In or­der to counter the im­pact of the re­port in­ter­na­tion­ally and pre­empt an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion, it im­me­di­ately ap­proached two al­lies; China and Rus­sia. China is a tra­di­tional ally and ever-de­pend­able for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka there­fore, could count on Chinese sup­port even with­out ver­bal as­sur­ances. Rus­sia, the new friend, has al­ready re­it­er­ated that it will use its veto in the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil against the re­port. In­ter­nally, the gov­ern­ment mo­bi­lized the masses against the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral, the panel and the re­port, know­ing very well that such na­tion­al­is­tic mo­bi­liza­tion would also as­sist in sus­tain­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for the gov­ern­ment.

The Sec­re­tary Gen­eral on the other hand dis­ap­pointed the hu­man rights lob­bies and the Tamil Di­as­pora groups by declar­ing that any ac­tion, i.e an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion against Sri Lanka, re­quires ap­proval of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil or any other UN in­sti­tu­tion. Since China and Rus­sia will cer­tainly de­fend Sri Lanka, ac­tion on the ba­sis of the re­port for the mo­ment seems ex­tremely re­mote. The re­port has cer­tainly opened a Pan­dora’s Box and the in­ter­na­tional de­bate on hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions in Sri Lanka will con­tinue for a while. The writer is Head of the Depart­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Science at the Univer­sity of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has re­acted an­grily to the UN’s lat­est re­port

on hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.

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