Although the Sri Lankan government has evaded calls for an international probe into alleged excesses while militarily defeating Tamil separatism in 2009, it may yet be called to account at the September session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The United States has asked Sri Lanka to place its own internal investigation under the ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ before the UNHRC, but Colombo has refused to comply.
Addressing a seminar in Colombo this week, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, said that discussing Sri Lanka’s internal affairs at the UNHRC would set a dangerous precedent.
Had Colombo complied with the U.S. demand it would have risked putting damaging material on the conduct of the war up for discussion. On the other hand, there is now a growing fear in Sri Lanka that the U.S. may now back resolutions calling for a full international probe.
“We want to see the Sri Lankans do this (investigation) themselves in a way that meets international standards. And we continue to urge the government of Sri Lanka to do just that and to do it quickly,” U.S. state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press conference in Washington on Aug. 9.
Nuland was clear that should Colombo continue dragging its feet, “there’s going to be growing pressure from the international community for exactly the kind of international action that Sri Lankans say they don’t want.”
This is not the first time that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has faced critical resolutions at the UNHRC.
In May 2009 just as the war was ending, Sri Lankan diplomats were able to head off a resolution that may have led to an international investigation. Instead, with support from India, China, Russia and other regional countries, a resolution was passed praising Sri Lanka’s efforts to end separatism.
Global and regional attitudes have changed since then. Earlier this year, a U.N. research panel reported that there was evidence that tens of thousands of civilians may have died in indiscriminate attacks. Colombo dismissed the report as baseless and biased. As the import of the latest warning from the U.S. sank in, Rajapaksa flew to China for a state visit in the second week of August and used the opportunity to get assurances of support from Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva.
The attitude of India, Sri Lanka’s influential northern neighbour, is vital. India fully backed Colombo during the war, but it has now joined the chorus demanding investigation into alleged war crimes.
International concern has grown after Britain’s Channel 4 aired in June a gruesome documentary, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, which showed Tamil men, bound and naked, being summarily executed by Sri Lankan soldiers.
Observers here feel that until the government addresses the issues of rights violations in a manner acceptable to its international critics, the calls for probes will gain strength.
“I don’t think this is an issue that will go away like that,” Jehan Perera, from the Colombo-based advocacy group, the National Peace Council (NPC), told IPS. Perera feels that the calls for international investigation have grown precisely because the government has been evasive.
Recently, the government released a report and an accompanying video as an answer to the allegations of abuse, which Perera saw as an indication that the government was willing to face up to uncomfortable questions.
“The government has now put out its version of history. There are two versions now,” he said.
In its report, the government says avoiding civilian casualties was impossible during the last phase of the war.
Those more critical of the report said it did not indicate what the government plans to do about its own findings.
“The report does not say whether they (the government) are going to engage international critics or whether this is the one and final answer,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based advocacy group Centre for Policy Alternatives said.
Saravanamuttu said it is unrealistic to expect any government to investigate itself objectively, especially if it stands to lose political support at home by doing so.
Ruki Fernando from the Law and Society Trust told IPS that the government may now actually harden its stance. “The government is not likely to open up any more.”
Fernando said the report was certain to be seen as falling short of expectations by international observers and was likely to stimulate calls for more independent probes and follow up action.
India, which has a sizable Tamil population of its own, has been pushing for wider power devolution for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka’s north.
Following its recent electoral victory in the Tamil-dominated areas, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has renewed the party’s call for more powers to be devolved to the regions.
TNA parliamentarian Mavi Senathiraja told IPS that the alliance was seeking such minimums as police powers.
NPC’s Perera feels that if the government comes up with a credible power-sharing proposal it would satisfy international critics. “Power sharing can lead to national reconciliation and no one would want to upset such a deal,” he said. (END)