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Why the UN acts to hold Sri Lanka accountable for war crimes

J.S. Tissainayagam
A few incidents that have led to commentators voicing doubts on the impartiality of the UN’s role in Sri Lanka
Unhrc sri lanka resolution war crimes protests. A resolution on Sri Lanka was passed in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Thursday. Human rights activists hailed the resolution as a hopeful first step by the international community in holding Sri Lanka accountable to war crimes.
It is significant that this resolution was sponsored by the United States which became a full member of the UNHRC only in 2009.

The 27-year civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhala and Tamil communities ended in May 2009 with the government defeating the Tamil guerrilla group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The aftermath of the war saw increasing evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Government and LTTE during the final months of fighting.

The resolution in Geneva calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LLRC was appointed by Sri Lanka in the wake of sustained international censure for war crimes.

The LLRC’s recommendations, which were made public in December 2011, while acknowledging that civilians had been killed by the Sri Lanka military, exonerated its actions by saying that such deaths were not widespread and systematic. The LLRC, however, unambiguously accused the LTTE of war crimes. Its report recommended the Sri Lanka government appoint a domestic body to investigate these acts and punish the wrongdoers.

The recommendations of the LLRC were met with a robust pushback by the international community, Tamil groups and human rights organisations. They emphasised that only an international body, and not a domestic one, would have the stature and power to hold an impartial investigation free of government interference.

But while they called for an international investigation, Sri Lanka was reluctant to implement even the recommendations of its own commission, the LLRC. This resulted in the international community finally moving as a compromise in Geneva, a resolution which only called for implementing the LLRC recommendations and not for an international investigation.

The human rights community is reasonably satisfied that a clause in the resolution, asking the UNHRC to monitor progress in the implementation of the LLRC, will ensure compliance by Sri Lanka. But, at the same time, rights activists are cognisant that the UN’s institutional drawbacks in Sri Lanka could be an impediment in achieving this.

Rights activists are worried that the UNHRC will have to work through the UN office in Sri Lanka to monitor the progress of the implementation. Unfortunately, while the UN’s office there has a functioning human rights desk, it has been completely overshadowed by the UN’s role as a donor and implementer of economic development programmes. The question is: will the UN have the resources and more than that the will to make the necessary transformation?

If the past is anything to go by, the UN has not shown the will. For instance, just before the Sri Lankan military launched its final assault on the LTTE under whose control were at least 300,000 Tamil civilians, the Government made an announcement that all international organisations and NGOs should leave the conflict area. Despite fervent pleas by the civilian population not abandon them, the UN left without any attempt to negotiate with the government to remain. Gordon Weiss the then UN spokesman in Sri Lanka described this as “a mistake.” Leaving without attempting to negotiate runs contrary to the UN’s usual practice as was amply demonstrated in Darfur.

Another controversy was the UN’s refusal to release casualty figures in the final months of fighting in Sri Lanka. The UN initially maintained “we do not count bodies.” However, the Inner City Press said on March, 18, 2009 that leaked documents revealed the UN’s Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) did have the numbers, which were deliberately withheld. The Inner City Press observed that “unlike in other conflicts from Darfur to Gaza, the UN withheld the Sri Lanka figures, in effect protecting the Sri Lankan government.”

These are but a few incidents that have led to commentators voicing doubts on the impartiality of the UN’s role in Sri Lanka.

If so, how are the gains in Geneva to be preserved? One way out might be for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Department of Political Affairs to play more pivotal roles in Sri Lanka than they do today. If the UN is to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace” as is mandated in its Charter, its headquarters needs to work more closely with its Sri Lanka mission.

This could be accomplished is by the countries that voted in favour of the Geneva resolution taking the lead in making the UN strengthen its political and human rights mandates in its Sri Lanka mission. Negligence in this task might find Sri Lanka slipping out of its obligations.

J. S. Tissainayagam is a Weatherhead Fellow in International Affairs at Harvard University. He was Nieman Fellow in Journalism (2010-11) also at Harvard. Previously, he worked for a number of English national newspapers in Sri Lanka.


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