War Crimes on the Island
Sri Lanka needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate war crimes.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa never had it so good. Everything seemed to have been perfectly cut out for him. The Tamil Tigers had been totally effaced and their leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran killed. One of the president’s brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, is Defence Secretary – “the most senior civil service position in the Ministry of Defense.” Another, Basil Rajapaksa, is Minister of Economic Development. Between them the three Rajapaksa brothers are in charge of five government ministries: Defense & Urban Development, Economic Development, Finance & Planning, Highways and Ports & Aviation. By appointing numerous other members of the extended family to senior positions in state institutions, the president has turned the state into a family fiefdom.
It was in such serene ambiance that the issue of human right abuses and war crimes during the anti-LTTE campaign erupted as a kill-joy. President Rajapaksa won a decisive victory over the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in 2009. But the most recent UN report suggests that at least 70,000 civilians died in the last few months of the war.
According to Callum Marae who has made a film, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” the government of “Sri Lanka told some 400,000 civilians to gather in what they described as ‘no fire zone’" and then subjected them to merciless, sustained shelling.” Killing was done by both sides. The Tigers thought the situation would invite international intervention. So, they killed people who tried to get out of their captivity. But the killing by the government forces was wholesale and vengeful.
The government launched some impressive reconstruction and development programs in the areas devastated by the 26-year-long civil war. Yet, the wounds of human rights abuses and war crimes failed to heal. Ultimately, the UN Human Rights Council adopted two resolutions to
probe allegations of serious human rights problems in Sri Lanka.
Pursuant to the resolutions, the UN sent Navanethem Pillay, its High Commissioner for Human Rights, on a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka. She is also a former judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa and former member of the war crimes tribunal in Rwanda. Initially, Colombo had been publicly hostile to her visit and the UN Rights body that had adopted the resolutions, but relented ultimately, saying it had nothing to hide, and even welcomed the visitor.
Perhaps it was the apprehension of boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) that Colombo is to host in November which softened the government’s attitude. Canada had already announced its decision to boycott. Others were likely to follow had Colombo stuck to its obduracy.
The High Commissioner visited the former northern war zones in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and the eastern district of Trincomalee. She met a wide range of people, including leaders of the government, opposition, civil society and war victims. She also met with the families of the disappeared and was touched by what she saw. Later, in an interview with the media, she is reported to have said, “I have never experienced so many people weeping and crying. I have never seen this level of uncontrolled grief.”
However, some of those whom she had met with in the North and East were subsequently visited and intimidated by members of the security and intelligence services. Reacting to the incidence, Ms. Pillay said in a statement that it was "utterly unacceptable that rights activists who spoke with her during her factfinding mission had subsequently faced harassment by the police and the military.”
In her final statement on Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner made critical comments on the government both for its “lack of progress in investigating war crime allegations and a general drift towards an authoritarian style of rule.” She said she was “deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
The criticism drew the ire of the government and its supporters. President Rajapaksa is reported to have told the visitor that “his people believed the UN was a biased organization, and a report she was due to release next month had already prejudged the country.”
Even some Buddhist monks staged a protest outside the UN office in Colombo against Ms Pillay’s visit, while pro-government activists have accused the international community of drumming up false allegations of war crimes. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s information ministry, in an unusually harsh statement, dismissed Ms Pillay’s remarks regarding “lack of progress in investigating war crime allegations and a general drift towards an authoritarian style of rule” and attacked her directly, saying her statement “clearly transgresses her mandate and the basic norms which should be observed by a discerning international civil servant”.
“The judgment on the leadership of the country is better left for the people of Sri Lanka to decide, than being caricatured by external entities influenced by vested interests,” the statement added.
But the timing of the report is important. The Commonwealth summit, which is barely a month away, is expected to bring renewed international focus upon Mr Rajapaksa’s record. If things do not improve, other countries may follow Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's example which may jeopardize the high-profile meeting.
Moreover, Sri Lanka’s continued intransigence would make it awkward for the countries which backed the UN resolution and which continue to press Mr Rajapaksa “to investigate wartime abuses and introduce further devolution of power in the nation’s Tamil-majority northern region,” to still attend the CHOGM.
President Rajapaksa is firmly in his saddle. There is no opposition worth the name. And even if it were, it would not obstruct him should he use his wide powers to improve his human rights record by launching an investigation into war crimes and introducing measures to integrate the Tamils into the political mainstream. He may even form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the pattern of South Africa.
The ball is in his court. How he plays it remains to be seen.