The armed conflict maybe over in Sri Lanka but peace has not been won since the brutal end to the 27-year-old war three years ago. Credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity have been levelled against both parties to the conflict.
The underlying grievances of the Tamil minority remain outstanding with no clear proposal for long term peace in sight. It is in this backdrop that the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka seeking a roadmap to attaining peace, reconciliation and accountability. The resolution was proposed by the United States, and had 40 co-sponsors, including Canada.
In a war that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, 40,000 alone in the last months of the conflict, it is astounding that there have only been three resolutions with respect to Sri Lanka. The first in 1987 merely encouraged parties, namely the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to the conflict to negotiate. The resolution adopted in May of 2009, days after the end of the conflict, was a self-congratulatory pat on the back for Sri Lanka welcoming the defeat of terrorism in the island. The resolution adopted last week is the first real attempt by the international community to put Sri Lanka on notice. The international community has finally demonstrated that it is ready to confront the Sri Lankan state. Sri Lanka’s plea for more “time and space” was rejected.
The end of the war in Sri Lanka has brought an increased level of militarization in the north and east of the island. The Singhalese population is being relocated into traditional Tamil areas, thereby squeezing and curtailing the democratic voice of Tamils in those regions. There is a growing problem of sexual violence, harassment and abuse of women by military officials. Just recently, a known member of paramilitary force, a key ally of the government was accused of raping and killing a 13-year-old girl. There is rampant use of “white vans”, a term used in Sri Lanka to kill those who dissent or those who need to be taught a lesson. Thousands of civilians, many accused of being armed cadres of the LTTE, are being held under emergency laws without charges, trials, or convictions. These atrocities continue with impunity, as the mechanisms available to investigate, prosecute, and punish those who commit these types of crimes have failed, including, its tattered judiciary.
Sri Lanka’s response to these allegations has been to rely on its own findings of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), that by all accounts fall short of providing a meaningful model for reconciliation. It fails to address the issues of accountability, especially in light of the comprehensive report of the Panel of Experts Report of the UN Secretary General that was released last summer. Despite its shortcomings, the resolution last week calls on the Sri Lankan government to implement the constructive elements of its own LLRC Report, and seek other means to independently investigate allegations.
Many are left to wonder if Sri Lanka is really ready to take on the tasks that have been handed down by the Human Rights Council. The government sent over 100 delegates, many who were responsible for challenging, bullying, and intimidating human rights activists and defenders from Sri Lanka. This was the worst performance in the history of the Human Rights Council as it violated a key tenet of giving civil society the space to make submissions without fear of reprisals. Many activists from Sri Lanka simply stayed away from the Council and were clearly petrified of the consequences. Signs that said “traitors en route to Geneva” were posted at the airport in Colombo. These tactics were an insult to the very Council whose task it is to uphold human rights around the world. As a result, many statements were made in support of human rights defenders by member states, the President of the Council, and Navi Pillai, the Human Rights Commissioner.
The expectation that the Sri Lankan government would use this international censure to gravitate towards a peace pact seems overly optimistic. Initial responses from Sri Lanka are worrisome, given the statements of people like Mervyn De Silva, a government Minister, who promised to break the limbs of human rights defenders who returned to Sri Lanka from Geneva. Several protests were orchestrated in Colombo condemning the resolution – protests that could not be held without government endorsement. G. L. Peries, a high ranking Minister deferred any decision to implement the resolution at the hands of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The government controlled media continues to polarize the nation into the Bush mantra of either you are with us or against us, thereby failing to provide the context and analysis necessary for the message to be properly delivered to its people so they could understand the resolution. There is a lack of independent media able to provide this narrative to its readers. If Sri Lanka continues towards this eccentric, irrational response to the resolution, it may squander yet another opportunity towards the path to peace. The resolution as adopted is considered very weak, yet the significance lies in the international community finally giving Sri Lanka enough rope to hang itself.
The writer is a Barrister and Solicitor, and is the Sri Lankan Monitor for Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada. He attended the Nineteenth Session of the Human Rights Council Session held in Geneva from Febrary 27th to March 23, 2012. Gary is also one of the senior members with Canadian Tamil Congress and function as CTC legal counsel as well