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Sri Lanka and the West head for a showdown over human rights

Sri Lanka and the UN; Unslayable ghosts
BURY the past. Those killed nearly three years ago in the last, savage days of Sri Lanka’s civil war will never return. Foreign and local critics who harp on about horrors are doing down a fragile country. “Any sensible person will realise the advantage our people got. Today there is no more killing, fighting. It is peaceful, people are free.”

So argues Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defiant and powerful defence secretary (and brother to the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa). But for the first time since the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government may be forced to answer for its actions to the United Nations’ human-rights council. This week, a Sri Lankan delegation arrived in Geneva, for a council session starting on February 27th. America (with European support) is expected to propose a resolution, calling for the government to report on both how it is fostering better ties with Tamils and its inquiries into possible war crimes.
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At the moment, the government is unrepentant. “Go by the facts”, advises Mr Rajapaksa. “Nobody can categorise [the crushing of the separatist rebel army which itself had committed atrocities] as a genocide.” He dismisses televised footage of Sri Lankan soldiers executing several naked prisoners as a fake (see picture). Briefly angry, he dares any relative who recognises a victim to speak out: “Bring me any person.” Did he order civilians or prisoners killed? “Nobody can say zero [deaths occurred], but there was no policy.”

The Rajapaksa defence will be repeated at length in the coming months. The terms of the dispute will probably be determined by a government-backed inquiry into the war’s end, called the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Mr Rajapaksa says some LLRC proposals may have merit. He promises, for example, “military boards” to look into its timid suggestions of army wrongdoing. But the expected Western-backed proposal may also try to use the LLRC to put pressure on the government by asking for other recommendations to be implemented. These include liberal things like letting the national anthem be sung in Tamil (as well as Sinhala), ensuring press freedom, reducing the clout of the army, putting the police under civilian control, cracking down on paramilitary groups that harass Tamils, resolving land disputes and asking if at least individual soldiers committed crimes.

Outsiders need to speak up, since many locals seem increasingly cowed. “The fear psychosis is more than before,” laments Mangala Samaraweera, an ex-foreign minister who defected to the opposition. One critic describes in bitter detail how a relative was recently shot dead by a close ally of the defence secretary, while out campaigning. The past few months have seen cases of abduction, torture and disappearance at the hands of thugs travelling in white vans.

Official claims of peace and freedom hardly ring true, at least among Tamils. Some of them talk of occupation. R. Sampanthan, an ageing leader of the Tamil National Alliance, scoffs at suggestions of ethnic reconciliation and claims that mass graves are hidden in “high-security zones” in the north. Testimony from mothers and widows in the north-east leads him to believe that government soldiers killed 10,000 opponents at the end of (or even after) the war. Over 1,000 Tamil fighters who surrendered are missing, he says.

Sri Lanka’s stance is that the rights council in Geneva has no business poking its nose into this. Along with a motley club of Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Algeria and China it is backing a counter-resolution criticising Western funding of the council. Another presidential brother and leading minister, Basil Rajapaksa, claims that it is the outsiders who are causing tension. He says criticism “has made us more nervous. If we were not pressurised we would do more than this” for reconciliation.

Americans and Europeans think the opposite is true. Sri Lanka undertook its LLRC inquiry partly because an investigation was being launched by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Many moderates, even in government, want friendlier ties with Europe—still easily the island’s biggest trading partner—and the West generally. Warm relations with India, too, rest in part on reconciliation with the Tamils. Even the Rajapaksas are anxious that next year’s Commonwealth heads of government meeting, in Colombo, should not be overwhelmed by a row over abuses. Maybe a tacit deal is possible: if the Rajapaksas show proper reconciliation efforts and beef up democracy, outsiders may talk less about the horrors at the end of the war.
The Economist


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