By Namini Wijedasa
lobal politics is notoriously skewed. Large, powerful, white governments get away with murder even when it is committed on the territories of other countries. Sri Lanka does not have this luxury.We already knew that. We are always bleating about it. But unless Sri Lanka has a formula up its sleeve that will cure the world of its lopsided obsession with international criminal justice, our sullen reaction to such galling hypocrisy must change. 5-1
David Kilcullen, an Australian counterterrorism expert, put it best when he addressed a recent seminar organized by the army to teach the world about successful counterinsurgency. “I must say that it is very difficult to see how the international community can accept the Sri Lankan model without a frank and honest discussion of these allegations of abuse,” he said.
The government disagrees. It hides behind a flimsy veil of denial, citing sovereignty while aggressively attacking anybody that suggests war crimes were committed. Outright hostility has been a key feature of most official responses.
GSP Plus benefits
The same aggression was displayed towards the European Union when it asked for certain requirements to be fulfilled in exchange for an extension of GSP Plus benefits. If implemented, each of the European Commission’s conditions would have led to better lives-with stronger civil liberties-for Sri Lankans. But the government told the Europeans to go to hell citing sovereignty.
Sri Lanka reacted angrily, too, to the report of the panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to advise him on accountability issues arising from the end of the war. While Ban has invited a response, the government has maintained a rigid silence. Having failed to avert its appointment by speedily setting up a local accountability mechanism, the government then refused to engage with the panel.
This defiance works wonderfully among a local populace that wants the country to stand mutinously against powerful nations. Just as the government withstood international pressure to bring the war to its bloody but victorious conclusion, Sri Lankans like to think that it can win against the world. But as many academics, analysts and diplomats point out, it is just not that simple.
None of the persons interviewed for this article agreed to be identified, itself a telling indictment on the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. If you don’t toe the line, you had better stay under the radar. But one group of intrepid academics, senior diplomats and professionals did recently speak out under their own names.
Chaired by Jayantha Dhanapala, the former UN under secretary-general for disarmament affairs, the Friday Forum, said in a press release that the argument of double standards in global power politics cannot prevent international scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s record.
This is a reality that the government must take cognisance of in formulating future reactions to international pressure. If you don’t want the world banging down your door, you have to do your housekeeping.
The Friday Forum called on the government to adopt an effective and non-confrontational response to the panel report with the international community. Merely raising issues of process and procedure, and alleging conspiracies and bias against the panel, will not serve the national interest.
Among other things, the Friday Forum urged the government to establish a credible domestic mechanism with adequate powers and resources to comprehensively address accountability issues relating to violations of human rights and humanitarian law during the armed conflict in the northeast.
Among worst culprits
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which the government regularly trots out in answer to criticism, has a limited mandate. Not even its progressive interim recommendations were implemented in full. It is becoming increasingly clear that the government values the LLRC only as a scapegoat. Still, scapegoats can only get you so far.
Today, because of unanswered questions about how Sri Lanka ended its war with the LTTE, the country is fast getting lumped with some of the worst human rights offenders in the world. It is not uncommon to see Sri Lanka mentioned in the same sentence as Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone.
Moreover, when reasonable doubts are not believably clarified, all nature of information is arbitrarily treated as fact. Take this position recently adopted by Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper in the UK: “So in 2009 Sri Lanka could kill between 7,000 and 20,000 civilians, displacing 300,000 more in its bombardment of the Tamils at about the same time as the Gaza conflict – but you will search in vain for the Goldstone report into Sri Lankan war crimes. Nor will you find Caryl Churchill writing a play called Seven Sri Lankan Children – asking what exactly is it in the Sri Lankan mentality that allows them to be so brutal.”
First, the numbers of how many were killed are in dispute. Second, it is presumptuous to declare that all 300,000 civilians were displaced in the government’s “bombardment of the Tamils”. Finally, many Sri Lankans would dispute the unsubtle assertion that there is anything in their mentality that “allows them to be so brutal”.
The more such claims are repeated, the more they assume the mantle of truth. To prove they are lies, Sri Lanka too must provide credible evidence to the contrary.
A litany of allegations
If anything has become clear during the two years since the war ended, it is that the phantom of war crimes will not dissipate. The government might wish it away-but every time one ghost bows out, another makes a theatrical entrance.
Last week, it was Judge Richard Goldstone that summoned up a ghoul. The former chief prosecutor for the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals wrote an opinion column hailing the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, among other offences.
Goldstone noted that there is a warrant out for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Bashir while the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has requested its judges to issue an arrest warrant for Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader. It is his hope, he said, that the leaders of Sri Lanka and Syria will not be granted immunity for the crimes they are alleged to have committed against civilians.
Earlier in the week, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Christof Heyns spoke to journalists after reviewing a video clip first aired by Channel 4 depicting, allegedly, the execution of unarmed prisoners of war by Sri Lankan soldiers.
Heyns said the footage showed “definitive war crimes” that merited domestic and international proceedings. “There is a prima facie case and it should now go to the next level,” Heyns told the AP. He added damagingly that, “So far, we haven’t seen any concrete result on the domestic level.”
Soon, new images will emerge. On Tuesday, Channel 4 broadcasts an hour long documentary about atrocities allegedly committed during the war. ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ will show gruesome and horrific footage captured on mobile phones, the UK based television has said. The report premiered on June 3 at an Amnesty International event in Geneva.
Sri Lanka was also discussed at sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva where its delegation was observed in defensive mode, fending off familiar accusations with familiar rhetoric.
Around the same time, at a seminar organized in Colombo by the army, Sri Lanka was told that it would be in its best interest to be as open as possible in answering the international community’s legitimate questions about human rights and about the way operations were conducted.
“…before you can put forward your approach as a model for others, it’s extremely important to address some important human rights critiques, and consider how to turn a military success into a sustainable peace,” said David Kilcullen, an Australian counter-terrorism, who addressed the seminar. “I don’t believe we are there yet.”
Irritatingly, a triumvirate of influential non-governmental lobbyists-Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group has also maintained a constant stream of pressure on the Sri Lankan case.
Sri Lanka features prominently in AI’s campaign for effective international criminal justice. HRW continues to press for a UN commission of inquiry into alleged wartime abuses in Sri Lanka. ICG famously produced a 54-page report that purported to provide evidence of major war crimes committed during the final months of the war.
Adding to a growing body of paperwork on Sri Lanka is the report of the panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to advise him on accountability issues here. Although the panel was not sanctioned by any UN body, its report is authoritative enough to be treated as a serious challenge to the government.
The experts found credible allegations that comprise five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the government in the final stages of the conflict, including killing of civilians through widespread shelling and the denial of humanitarian assistance.
The credible allegations concerning the LTTE comprise six core categories of potential serious violations, including using civilians as a human buffer and killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control. The panel’s first recommendation is that the government should respond to the serious allegations by initiating an effective accountability process beginning with genuine investigations.
Not least due to the actions of an efficient and committed pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora, the allegations are stacking up everywhere.