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.
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.