As the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted in, Thursday, a resolution asking Colombo to act on recommendations made by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Buddhist prayers reverberated through the Sri Lankan capital.
“It is a resolution that encourages Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its own LLRC and to make concerted efforts at achieving the kind of meaningful accountability upon which lasting reconciliation efforts can be built,” United States ambassador to the Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said in Geneva.
As expected, Sri Lankan leaders rejected the resolution. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, head of the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva, termed it as misconceived, unwarranted and ill timed. “Shouldn’t we be given more time and space?”
But, two years and 10 months have elapsed since the Sri Lankan military decisively ended this island’s three-decade-old civil war, and the majority of UNHRC members thought it was time Colombo acted to safeguard the rights of the Tamil minority on the island.
Thousands of civilians died as the war ended in 2009 with a bloody offensive into the northern areas of the country where the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was then entrenched.
The U.S. – led resolution was passed with 24 voting in favour, 15 against and eight abstaining in the 47-member U.N. body.
“It is a matter of great satisfaction to us that 15 countries voted with Sri Lanka, despite the intensity of pressure, in a variety of forms, exerted on them all,” said G.L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, in a statement.
“As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, our policy in respect of all matters will continue to be guided by the vital interests and wellbeing of the people of our country. It hardly requires emphasis that this cannot yield place to any other consideration,” Peiris’ statement said.
Significantly, Sri Lanka’s ally and influential neighbour, India, voted in favour of the resolution. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had indicated to Indian parliament, on Mar. 19, a shift in stance by a country that had stood with Colombo against U.S. and European moves to bring the war before the UNHRC in 2009.
An Indian official statement said the Sri Lankan government had committed at the UNHRC in 2009, to “forge a consensual way forward towards reconciliation through a political settlement respecting all the ethnic and religious groups inhabiting the nation.”
India urged Sri Lanka to “take measures for accountability and to promote human rights that it has committed to. It is these steps, more than anything we declare in this Council, which would bring about genuine reconciliation between all the communities of Sri Lanka, including the minority Tamil community.”
“As a neighbour with thousands of years of cordial relations with Lanka, with deep-rooted spiritual and cultural ties, we cannot remain untouched by developments in that country,” the Indian statement said
Rights activists in Sri Lanka told IPS that the UNHRC resolution’s impact on the country would be symbolic.
“The symbolism is that many countries have expressed their assessment that the country has not lived up to their expectations in terms of international human rights obligations,” Ruki Fernando, head of the human rights in conflict programme at the national advocacy and research body, the Law and Society Trust, told IPS.
Fernando said much now depends on “whether the government is willing to move ahead with the LLRC recommendations and work with the Council as suggested in the third recommendation in the resolution.”
Established in September 2010 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to look into the conduct of the war from 2002 till May 2009, when it ended, the LLRC handed over its final report with the recommendations last November.
Indications, in the build up to the vote in Geneva, suggest that the government is unlikely to cooperate. Sri Lankan delegation leader Mahinda Samarasinghe told UNHRC that his country would inform it periodically on progress, voluntarily, as it had done even before the war.
Barely 24 hours before the vote, President Rajapaksa told a public meeting in the northwestern town of Puttalam that he would not allow any form of foreign intervention.
“This is the second battle we are facing, after the war (against the LTTE),” Wimal Weeravansha, minister for housing, told another packed rally in Colombo on Mar. 13.
Weeravansha who has been leading public protests against what he terms as attempts by West to interfere – he launched a fast-unto-death in mid-2010 before the U.N. offices in Colombo that only ended when the president intervened – called on Sri Lankans to boycott U.S. products, including Coca-Cola and Google.
The overwhelming sense at public rallies is that Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa government are being targeted by Western powers for independent policies and alignment with powers like China, Russia and India.
Tamil political leaders have a completely different view and support the U.N. resolution.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest party representing minority Tamils in parliament, said that it was pushed to support the resolution because of the government’s lethargy in acting on power devolution and feels that only international prodding will help.
“The government has not done anything towards finding a solution (to power devolution) but has been going on according its own agenda. We have no option but to ask for international support,” TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran told IPS.
“The LLRC is the government’s own baby. But, it has not even implemented the interim recommendations of the LLRC. We strongly feel that these issues cannot be solved without international participation,” he added.
The resolution, however, avoids reference to war crimes or an international investigation, as called for by international rights groups like Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group.
The final draft said assistance from the UNHRC will be obtained “in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the government of Sri Lanka” – reportedly through Indian influence.
These nuances are, however, no reason for a change of heart from the supporters of the government on the streets.
“This is a veiled attempt to influence our country, to make sure that they (West) can set up a proxy administration here,” said Waragoda Premarathana, a Buddhist monk who had taken part in the Mar.19 rally.