A Turn­ing Point

The Unhrc-spon­sored res­o­lu­tion on Sri Lanka is cru­cial for post-con­flict eth­nic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. This in­ter­na­tional move could also pos­si­bly back­fire.

Southasia - - Front page - By S. I. Keethapon­calan Dr S. I. Keethapon­calan is Chair of the Depart­ment of Con­flict Anal­y­sis and Dis­pute Res­o­lu­tion, Ful­ton School of Lib­eral Arts, Sal­is­bury Univer­sity, Mary­land, USA.

Sri Lanka faced a tough au­di­ence

at the re­cent UNHRC meet­ing

In May 2009, Sri Lanka was re­joic­ing. The coun­try had killed two birds with one stone. The crush­ing of the LTTE re­solved one of the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems the state was fac­ing for over three decades and Sri Lanka’s sta­tus in­ter­na­tion­ally was boosted as a state, which achieved the un­achiev­able, i.e. suc­cess­fully ter­mi­nat­ing an armed re­sis­tance. The Sri Lankan lead­er­ship be­gan to ar­gue that it could be­come an ex­am­ple for other na­tions on how to deal ef­fec­tively with ter­ror­ism. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity also re­warded Sri Lanka with a com­men­da­tion in Geneva for de­feat­ing ter­ror­ism.

How­ever, the in­ter­na­tional eu­pho­ria did not last too long. Sto­ries of very se­ri­ous hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions al­legedly com­mit­ted dur­ing the last phase of the bat­tle against Tamil civil­ians and sur­ren­dered LTTE cadres be­gan to emerge cou­pled with pho­to­graphs and video clips of these in­ci­dents, which the in­ter­na­tional groups claimed “tro- phy footage,” taken by mem­bers of the Sri Lankan armed forces. In­ter­na­tional ac­tors, in­clud­ing the UN and USA, which as­sisted Sri Lanka to de­feat the LTTE, were un­der pres­sure to ad­dress the al­leged hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, some of which were amounted to “crimes against hu­man­ity.” Un­der the lead­er­ship of the US, some of the Western states be­gan to de­mand an “in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion” on the al­leged atroc­i­ties. A res­o­lu­tion against Sri Lanka de­mand­ing an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion was to be in­tro­duced in Geneva. Even­tu­ally the US cospon­sored a deeply wa­tered down ver­sion of a res­o­lu­tion in the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil ses­sion in March 2012, which de­manded that Sri Lanka im­ple­ment the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Lessons Learnt and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion (LLRC), a com­mis­sion ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ment of Sri Lanka. There was no men­tion of in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion against Sri Lanka.

Yet, Sri Lanka re­jected all al­le­ga­tions of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions and op­posed the res­o­lu­tion in Geneva, tooth and nail. It ar­gued that there was no in­ten­tional vi­o­lence against the Tamil pop­u­la­tion as what was un­der­taken was a “hu­man­i­tar­ian op­er­a­tion” and not a war. How­ever, Sri Lanka’s fun­da­men­tal ar­gu­ment was that the states that were spon­sor­ing the res­o­lu­tion, es­pe­cially the US, had no right to crit­i­cize Sri Lanka be­cause they were also guilty of se­ri­ous hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions else­where. The killing of Osama Bin Laden and the treat­ment of Guan­tanamo Bay pris­on­ers were cited as ev­i­dence of US in­volve­ment in hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. Min­is­ter Mahinda Sa­ma­ras­inghe, Chief of the Sri Lankan del­e­ga­tion in Geneva, on the day of vot­ing de­clared, “physi­cians heal your­self,” a term that es­sen­tially means to solve your prob­lems first. Sri Lanka strate­gi­cally also used the ar­gu­ment that a res­o­lu­tion against it may serve as a prece­dence and could

back­fire on other states in the fu­ture.

One of the ma­jor ques­tions that tran­spired from this sce­nario was why the US was so in­ter­ested in in­ves­ti­gat­ing vi­o­lence or the al­leged hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions in Sri Lanka. This ques­tion gained sig­nif­i­cance due to the fact that the US was a ma­jor ally of Sri Lanka dur­ing the last phase of the war and ex­tended cru­cial strate­gic as­sis­tance to the coun­try in the war against the LTTE. It was clear that the US un­leashed a ma­jor as­sault in Geneva to get the res­o­lu­tion ap­proved. It main­tained that an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion and es­tab­lish­ing ac­count­abil­ity were cru­cial for post con­flict eth­nic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. There­fore, the US brought the res­o­lu­tion on Sri Lanka on the ground that it was try­ing to help the small state.

It is pos­si­ble that there are other rea­sons as well. The US and other western co-spon­sors of the res­o­lu­tion cer­tainly wanted to pre­empt the pos­si­bil­ity of Sri Lanka be­com­ing a model for con­flict res­o­lu­tion in terms of in­ter­nal vi­o­lent con­flicts. States like Pak­istan and Nepal have al­ready be­gun to dis­cuss Sri Lanka as a model wor­thy of em­u­la­tion, to deal with their prob­lems. The US may also have geopo­lit­i­cal rea­sons to spon­sor the res­o­lu­tion. The rapidly in­creas­ing Chi­nese pres­ence and in­flu­ence in Sri Lanka is cer­tainly a prob­lem for the US as it has a strate­gic in­ter­est in the In­dian Ocean re­gion. The US was los­ing its grip on Sri Lanka as, in the post-ltte era, China emerged as the ma­jor part­ner of Sri Lanka and a pre­dom­i­nant player in the re­gion. The res­o­lu­tion also has the po­ten­tial to en­sure some western con­trol over Sri Lanka and as a re­sult, mit­i­gat­ing grow­ing Chi­nese in­flu­ence in re­gion.

Sri Lanka, how­ever, was con­fi­dent that it could suc­cess­fully de­feat the res­o­lu­tion in the Hu­man Rights Coun­cil, largely due to the fact that it had pow­er­ful friends in the Coun­cil. China and Rus­sia, both Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­bers, have con­stantly sup­ported and pro­tected Sri Lanka from in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism. They also voted against the res­o­lu­tion in Geneva. States that sup­ported Sri Lanka in the Coun­cil ar­gued that it is wrong to bring in coun­try-spe­cific res­o­lu­tions as it amounts to in­ter­fer­ing in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of a sov­er­eign state. It is also ob­vi­ous that these states agree with Sri Lanka on the ar­gu­ment that the res­o­lu­tion, in the fu­ture, could come to haunt them.

On March 22, 2012 the US spon­sored res­o­lu­tion on Sri Lanka was en­dorsed by the UNHRC by 24 to 15 votes with eight states ab­stain­ing. The res­o­lu­tion em­pow­ers the UNHRC to work with Sri Lanka to im­ple­ment the LLRC rec­om­men­da­tion and re­quires Sri Lanka to come up with a roadmap. The im­me­di­ate Sri Lankan re­ac­tion was to re­ject the res­o­lu­tion say­ing that it did not need ex­ter­nal as­sis­tance in the im­ple­men­ta­tion of hu­man rights stan­dards. Since the res­o­lu­tion is “non-in­tru­sive,” thanks to In­dia, and non-bind­ing, due to the back­ing of China and Rus­sia, Sri Lanka has the abil­ity to be in­tran­si­gent. How­ever, non-com­pli­ance with the res­o­lu­tion has the po­ten­tial to in­sti­gate more ob­sti­nate de­ci­sions in the fu­ture. One has to wait and see how Sri Lanka will re­act in prac­tice as rhetoric is for lo­cal con­sump­tion only. It is, how­ever, im­per­a­tive to note that the res­o­lu­tion has the po­ten­tial to be a turn­ing point in the his­tory of Sri Lanka.

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