For months, Sri Lanka fought off calls for an international probe into war crimes allegations by marching its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission down the catwalk. Look, the government said firmly, let our domestic mechanism complete its work first. It was not something the world could dismiss. International devices gained relevance only if local processes failed.
And there was nothing yet to say that the LLRC–despite its limited mandate–would not deliver.
But just two months after the LLRC’s final report was made public, the novelty has worn off. The government is back in defensive mode. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris that the US would sponsor a resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions next month. It will reportedly ask the government to “take more concrete action towards reconciliation, including on the question of accountability and implementation of LLRC recommendations.”
Patience is not infinite
It is not the first time that Sri Lanka faces the possibility of a resolution in the HRC. This spectre has risen each time the council is in session, prompting the government to fall back on a familiar strategy-making promises, buying time. But judging by the US move, patience is wearing thin. Clinton’s letter is a signal at the highest level that patience is not infinite.
The wording of the resolution is not known. It’s also not confirmed whether the US will use a proxy (such as Canada) or submit the resolution itself. There is some degree of consensus among observers that Sri Lanka will be put on notice next month with more concrete action to follow at later sessions.
Dayan Jayatilleka is Sri Lanka’s ambassador to France and a former permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. He said that in a recent article, little noticed in Colombo, Louise Arbour mentions two dates for a move against Sri Lanka at the HRC. These are March and June. Arbour, the former UN high commissioner for human rights, is now the president and chief executive officer of International Crisis Group.
“They are not alternative dates, but linked or on a sliding scale as it were,” Jayatilleka told LAKBIMAnEWS. “Reading between the lines, I think it’ll be a two-step thing or a one-two punch. I do not expect the crunch to be in March, but the curtain raiser, with crunch-time in the second half of the year, once we’ve been put on notice in March with a draft resolution perhaps.”
“Our critics will hope we would have proven our unwillingness or incapacity to deliver on the LLRC and ethnic reconciliation through political dialogue by a decent interval, and therefore the middle ground states, those on the fence, could be swayed to shift against us later in the year,” he analyzed. “That would be the game-plan, I think.”
Sri Lanka is now fretting about securing a numerical majority in the 47-member council. Among the states Minister Peiris has wooed in recent weeks are Jordan, Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Qatar. He has been assigned to enlist more countries in Sri Lanka’s favour but the government’s overall strategy is not yet clear.
“Are we going to lobby and prevent a resolution or let it come, fight it and vote it down?” asked an analyst who requested anonymity. “There are some in the government who think it would be good to fight a resolution and to die fighting. Then you become popular here and can gain mileage out of the favourite ‘Western conspiracy’ mantra. Others in the government may think it’s better to prevent a resolution by lobbying your friends; to say we have enough to vote you down, so don’t float it. I would follow the preventive strategy because fighting a resolution is far more difficult than preventing one.”
Viable and effective
There is no gainsaying that Sri Lanka will fight hard. But on what basis will it campaign? The existence alone of the LLRC report will not give its friends ammunition to combat a resolution. To date, none of the recommendations have been implemented. Even two of the simplest suggestions were ignored on Independence Day. The national anthem was not sung in Tamil and Sinhala; and the government did not hold a separate event to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the conflict. Instead, the president only paid tribute to war heroes and, vaguely, to “all others who were committed to freedom.”
Had they been carried out, what harm could these gestures have caused? On the contrary, implementing them would have given out a strong message in the period preceding the HRC sessions that Sri Lanka is serious both about implementing the recommendations of its own commission and about healing relations with and among all communities. Never mind accountability for war crimes, for which there undeniably is no great domestic appetite. What of healing the war’s wounds for our own sakes?
“Even your friends cannot help you if you have done nothing domestically,” said the analyst. “If Western countries mount a huge campaign, they can also muster numbers. African states don’t vote as a bloc anymore. The Western countries will not float a resolution if they think they cannot get votes.”
To many, it is inconceivable why the government, having appointed a commission as a smokescreen, appears so reluctant to implements its recommendations–most of which have been welcomed locally and internationally as positive. India, USA, UK, Canada and South Africa are among the states urging Sri Lanka to carry out the LLRC proposals.
“When domestic processes are not given effect to, you create a situation where outsiders will prescribe solutions to your political issues as well as your governance, human rights and the rest of it,” commented another observer who wished to remain unnamed. “The Tamil National Alliance seems hell-bent on internationalizing this and thinks that the path to peace in Sri Lanka lies through the diaspora. For that reason, the TNA, Western countries and, by extension, India, see a resolution in the council as a viable and effective pressure tactic against Sri Lanka.” (Incidentally, the percentage of people–particularly professionals–who request anonymity during interviews continues to rise).
Then there is that familiar complaint of ‘double standards.’ “The West is singling out Sri Lanka,” maintained a Sri Lankan diplomat. “It is hypocrisy and their need to save face.” But most nations practise double standards, including Sri Lanka.
Selective and subjective
“Human rights resolutions are always double standards because they are selective and subjective,” said the analyst quoted above. “See how they protect Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and punish regimes like Libya. They protect Yemen but punish regimes like Syria. That is always the case. There is no point in stating the obvious.”
Back home, the government has adopted a familiar path. The president used his Independence Day speech to remind Sri Lankans of the war victory. He referred to conspiracies and terrorist propaganda aimed at destabilizing the nation. The government released some videos of LTTE atrocities (lest the world has forgotten how brutal they were). It promoted a pared-down National Human Rights Action Plan. It leaked Clinton’s letter to media, presumably to whip up anger against “international intervention.” Once again, it played local politics with international affairs.
No Indian help?
India remains a big question in this equation. In 2009, India joined forces with China and Russia to edge out a strong European resolution criticizing Sri Lanka for human rights and humanitarian law violations during its final battle with the LTTE. A resolution was passed instead that congratulated Sri Lanka for defeating the terrorist organization.
It would be an understatement to say the situation has changed dramatically since then. Today, India is silent. If Sri Lanka does nothing, India is unlikely to go out of its way to help. It might also prefer to study the positions of other nations before reacting.
There’s unlikely to be a strong resolution condemning Sri Lanka at the sessions in March. It is more likely that the resolution will expect action on key issues and will include a timeline for implementation. What the government still does not acknowledge is that, however adept it is at buying time, war crimes and accountability will not go away. The government must consider how best it can engage with the international community to bring closure to this recurring issue.
In the end, however, accountability and human rights are only ever important because they are important to the people of Sri Lanka.