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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sri Lanka still has to answer for human rights violations

A sense of outrage pervades Sri Lanka after the passing of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council critical of that country.

The chief mover of the resolution was the USA, which has become a target of public indignation. Demonstrations have taken place and calls made for the boycott of US goods. The resolution was passed despite strong efforts by Sri Lanka to lobby against it; large numbers of senior state functionaries were deployed for the purpose. Despite the effort, there was no stopping it; the resolution went through, and the angry aftermath continues. Strong and threatening statements in Colombo reflect the affronted mood in that city.

A particularly outspoken cabinet minister has denounced the role of three Sri Lankan human rights activists who were in Geneva when the resolution went through, and they have become targets of the media in Sri Lanka. Threatening language against them has caused the Sri Lanka Free Media Movement, which has supported the activists, to express concern for their welfare.

On the other side of the divide, the US secretary of state has asked for early implementation of the Council’s recommendations. Other senior US spokespersons have asked Sri Lanka to draw up a plan to meet the requirements of the Council resolution. The demand for follow-up action is strong and the need to account for rights violations in Sri Lanka is firmly presented. Without accountability for past events, it is argued, lasting peace will not be attainable.

This message from the US is not one that Sri Lanka’s government is in any mood to heed. That country feels, with reason, that it has been the victim of a dangerous insurgency that claimed large numbers of victims and did incalculable harm to Sri Lanka’s people. Many of the topmost leaders were assassinated in a series of targeted killings. It was the LTTE insurgency that made the world familiar with suicide attacks and the use of boy soldiers. Sri Lanka’s Tamil diaspora was carefully milked for resources to acquire weapons; progressively the strikes against authority became ever more audacious, and the virtual separation of the Tamil areas from the rest of the country was imposed by force of arms. The LTTE was able to run a state within the state, where it held absolute sway.

Having such an enemy to contend with, Colombo received abundant international support as it tried to maintain control. In searching for a solution, numerous attempts were made to mediate between the parties and bring reconciliation. These efforts proved unavailing, largely because the insurgents were adamant in rejecting anything short of their ultimate goal. In the last phase, the mediatory efforts seemed to be in abeyance and Colombo felt constrained to go all out for a military solution. The world did not stand in the way as a fierce military confrontation ran its course, leading eventually to success for Colombo.

The LTTE was defeated on the ground and the insurgency brought to an end. President Rajapaksa, the architect of the success, received praise from an international community that had identified terrorism as a principal enemy of peace. The crushing of the LTTE was seen as a positive gain. But the loss of life in the final encounters soon began to draw criticism from international media sources and human rights activists. The civilian toll was high and there were many accounts of summary disposal of LTTE cadres by the armed forces as they broke into their strongholds. Criticism mounted and, in the eyes of foreign observers, the sense of triumph brought about by a successful campaign began to wear off. Nor was there much evidence when the fighting was done of a determined effort by Colombo to seek reconciliation between the majority Sinhalas and the minority Tamils.

True, a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission was set up, but this does not seem to have had much impact as yet; not enough at any rate to deflect criticism in the UN Human Rights Council.

The perceived lack of meaningful action has contributed to the dissatisfaction and has helped push through the the resolution critical of Sri Lanka. The cause of human rights has powerful and vocal supporters across the globe, and they are vigilant in trying to identify and curb what they regard as instances of violation of human rights. India itself went through something comparable when the militancy in Kashmir was at its height and answers had to be given by New Delhi to vocal critics in Geneva.

From the start, India has been closely affected by the ethnic troubles in Sri Lanka. Over the last few decades, relations between the two have often been troubled and uncertain. The unsettled conditions in its close neighbour eventually caused India to intervene in a bid to reconcile the different groups, and an Indian peace-keeping force was dispatched for the purpose. It achieved little, the differences intensified, and ultimately India had to face the tragedy of the assassination of former premier Rajiv Gandhi. Subsequently, India kept a wary distance and left it to others to mediate across Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide.

It is only recently that relations have picked up significantly and India and Sri Lanka have strengthened ties. The crushing of the LTTE insurgency removed an obstacle, and the economic partnership has thrived. The Geneva meeting could, however, present a stumbling block. India felt it necessary to vote against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council, and though the reaction in Colombo has been restrained, especially when compared to the outpouring against the US, there has been some resentment toward India’s as a neighbour and friend. India claims to have succeeded in watering down the resolution to make it less onerous, but that may not cut much ice.

India does not customarily take a stand on human rights resolutions targeting individual countries, so its vote is a departure from normal practice. The prime minister has taken the initiative to write to President Pajapaksa on this matter, which indicates that, irrespective of the merits of the resolution it supported, New Delhi is aware that repair work needs to be done.
Salman Haidar
Salman Haidar is a former foreign secretary of India.

The Statesman


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