Sri Lanka

War Crimes on the Is­land

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

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.

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