Post UN Report on War, it is War on the Report in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan reaction to the UN Report (“ Advisory Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka Allegations”) on alleged war crimes committed by the two sides in Sri Lanka has been as emotionally violent as the war itself was physically.
Even before it was formally published, a leaked version of it appeared in the Sri Lankan media, leading to a cacophony of voices against the UN. Speaking in the Sri Lankan Parliament, the Minister for External Affairs Prof. GL Peiris said, “It is not a UN Report, but was constituted at the private initiative of the UN Secretary General. It has no investigative power, it is not a fact finding body. The Advisory panel has no formal nexus with the United Nations”. He further added that while “Colombo was involved in a reconciliation process with the Tamils, the Advisory Panel Report would sharpen the dividing lines between the Sinhala and the Tamil communities”.
Later, on May 1, barely a week after the release of the UN report, about 200,000 people came together in 11 rallies at Colombo Town Hall, carrying huge banners and effigies that poured tasteless scorn on the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, by calling him a monkey.
The fact that the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the principal architect of the raised temperature of country-wide protests became clear when he, amidst his 12-15 meter tall posters and a sea of Sri Lankan flags, addressed the protestors:
”There are certain international conspiracies that want to bring back the terrorism that we defeated. This is a take back of the victory we achieved with enormous dedication and patience.
During the war, we initiated a massive humanitarian operation to rescue more than 300,000 people from the clutches of the LTTE. We clothed them, fed them, gave them medicine, shelter, and help to resettle them.
Is this a crime or a violation of human rights?”
Completing the full picture of the ‘organising committee’ of the May Day protest were ministers of President Rajapakse’s United People’s Freedom Alliance.
Till the sun went down, the air in Colombo echoed with slogans such as “Ban Ki-moon, we don’t want you. We want our president”; supported in good measure by barely concealed disrespect for UN and the U.S. via placards that read “Banki is a Yankee. Go home” and “We reject the UN.”
As an interesting aside, here’s something for those protesters:
About 23 years ago, in 1988-90, Sri Lanka had regressed into such an all-encompassing violence that distinguished anthropologist Valentine Daniel had commented, “violence is no longer inter-ethnic, but intra-ethnic, with Tamils killing Tamils, Sinhalas killing Sinhalas and the State killing the most, Sinhalas and the Tamils”.
It was a period of that saw a cocktail of LTTE violence, the arrival of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) into Sri Lanka and the consequent second uprising by the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), a Marxist-Leninist, Communist political party that first drew international attention in 1971 because of its revolt against the Bandaranaike government, in which about 15,000 – mostly youth – lost their lives.
The arrival of the IPKF was just the shot-in-the-arm that JVP could have ever asked for. It quickly put aside its communist ideology and jumped on to the massive Sinhala outrage against the Indian forces in their country. Riding on the wave of it being seen as a champion of Sinhalese nationalist feelings, the JVP began to hit violently at both the state machinery and those sections of civil society that opposed its ideas and methods. Based in Matara, in south Sri Lanka, the JVP murdered thousands of people and brought the entire nation to its knees through its violently-enforced general strikes. That continued for 2 years, till the Sri Lankan army gradually got the upper hand and captured & killed most of JVP’s higher leaders – and thousands of its own Sinhalese youth.
While the decimation of ‘Sinhala nationalist youth’ was going on at the hands of the Sri Lankan army, a young Sinhala politician left the shores of Sri Lanka, made a base in Geneva and pleaded fervently for UN intervention to save his Sinhalese friends.
That young politician was Mahinda Rajapaksa, the present Sri Lankan President.
Maybe the UN is no longer what it used to be!
Meanwhile, inspite of the outright rejection of the UN report by Sri Lanka, the fact remains that Sri Lanka is now facing renewed Western pressure to submit to an international probe over allegations that thousands (40,000, as per one estimate) of civilians were killed by the time the 25-year internal war ended in the island nation.
Although the report had nailed the LTTE, which – apart from all other violent crimes against humanity – kept about 300,000 of its own people captive as human shields and shot them from point-blank range when found suitable, the truth of the moment is that with the organisation now being decimated, any prosecutions by the international probe panel would hit only the Sri Lankan government! And that makes it the UN role even less palatable to the Lankans.
In an emotionally surcharged atmosphere, it has now become a world Vs. Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority) scenario; with the report being seen as an attack on the country and its army.
Interpreted as a document that absolutely exonerates the LTTE, the government has opposed the report from the outset, while most government ministers and prominent Sinhalese have condemned it as ”one-sided” and ”baseless”. Sri Lanka had actually even refused entry for the three UN investigators and denied them permission to speak to senior government officials.
The Sri Lankan conviction lies in a pretty straight-forward belief:
“What the government did was protect innocent civilians from the clutch of terrorists.
Children who went to school were forcibly taken to fight during those days. Today, they play cricket. Students who wore cyanide capsules around their necks today learn chemistry.
Are these human rights violations or crimes?”
In fact, most Sri Lankans – belonging to the majority Sinhalese community anyway – express their bemusement at the prospect of their country facing war crimes inquiry for defeating an enemy that was declared a terrorist organisation by the U.S., UN and about 3 dozen other countries. For them, it is a clear case of double standards of the western nations – especially in the light of UN’s unmitigated disasters in places like Rwanda.
And yet, the country had clearly foreseen this. Maybe that explains why it was quick to form a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to look into the various aspects of the war and the future of the nation. The idea seemed simple enough – to pre-empt and ride over any international inquiry on the war crimes. For, if all the witnesses were to give their testimonies in front of international agencies, the Sri Lankan government would have come out looking very bad; and, who knows, maybe ended up facing war crime charges a la Bosnian genocide leaders.
So, following a mandate given by the Sri Lankan President, LLRC, under the Chairmanship of Chitta Ranian de Silva Esquire, President’ s Counsel and retired Attorney General, set out to inquire and report on the following matters that may have taken place during the period between 21, February 2002 and19, May 2009, namely;
(i) The facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement operationalized on 27,February 2002 and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to the 19th of May 2009;
(ii) Whether any person, group or institution – directly or indirectly – bears responsibility in this regard;
(iii) The lessons we would learn from those events and their attendant concerns, in order to ensure that there will be no recurrence;
(iv) The methodology whereby restitution to any person affected by those events or their dependants or their heirs, can be effected;
(v) The institutional, administrative and legislative measures which need to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities, and to make any such other recommendations with reference to any of the matte$ that have been inquired into under the terms of this Warant
In the opening statement itself, the Chairman of the commission had set the tone of the government favoured exercise:
As we are all aware, people of our country have gone through the traumatic nightmare of 30 years of war, which ravaged our motherland. It is just one year back that our military forces were able to vanquish the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world. Time has now come to consolidate the military victory by addressing the root causes of the conflict and to establish national unity and reconciliation.
In the same statement, he then outlined the procedure that the Commission proposed to adopt:
Sittings will be held in public, but of course if persons making representations before this Commission so require this Commission will hold sittings in camera. All matters which affect the security concerns of this country also will be held in camera. Otherwise the sittings would be open to the public. Persons making representations are entitled to make their opening statements and thereafter the Commissioners could ask them questions for the purpose of clarification and also on matters which are relevant to the Warrant. Members of the public are not entitled to ask any questions from persons making representations before this Commission.
It all sounded good on paper; alas somehow it just did not add up. For the opponents of the government anyway.
As the recently released UN Report highlights, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the President in May 2010 could never have been able to achieve the precise purpose “due to lack of independence and impartiality”. The UN Report clearly mentions:
“The LLRC is deeply flawed, does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism and, therefore, does not and cannot satisfy the joint commitment of the President of Sri Lanka and the Secretary General to an accountability process.”
Giving credence to the doubts about its intentions, and despite claiming that the LLRC is being held in public, the Sri Lankan government blocked coverage of the hearings by international broadcasters like the BBC. Though, it was not too much out of sync with the regular practice of Sri Lankan government officials to accuse journalists, both foreign and domestic, of bias against the government.
Outrageous as it may sound, most Sri Lankan Tamils believe that the LLRC is a mere eyewash and was set up primarily under the direction of India’s intelligence wing, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in order to have a face saver amidst extreme pressure from the politically important southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu!
That aside, the mute question about the LLRC is this: Can the victor be the sole arbitror in a conflict between the victorious and the vanquished? If not, then can the Tamilians in Sri Lanka have faith in the LLRC?
Most Tamilians don’t. But some do; and they do go to the LLRC to narrate their horrors in front of the commission – knowing full well of that the people across the table are the representatives of their ‘enemy’.
Fortunately for those deposing in front of the LLRC, even though the armed forces and other government agencies are restricting media outlets in the coverage of the hearings, Tamils who are living abroad do have the opportunity to record what the civilians have been giving in their testimonies – because the Commission hears the complaints in public, thereby allowing sympathizers of the Tamil cause to relay the statements to the world.
And they are indeed doing that.
On one hand, they have been successful in getting ‘diplomatic successes’ such as this Declaration by the European Union on the UN Report on Sri Lanka, they have been quite active in carrying out street protests too – the fear of which had forced the Sri Lankan President to abandon his UK visit around the time of the release of the UN Report. Earlier last week, scores of British Tamils staged a night long vigil in Trafalgar Square to protest against Sri Lankan government’s ‘inability’ to provide an impartial and independent investigation into the last days of the civil war. “As Tamils we have been waiting for two long years seeking justice for our dead, injured and orphaned,” President of the Global Tamil Forum, Father S J Emmanuel said.
While public and organisational activities from both sides are at the peak, the UN, typically, is still in a comatose state. The most that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said so far on the subject is that “he is ‘still deciding’ on what the UN’s next step should be following the report.
Not only is the silence going to earn him or the UN any positives, opinions are becoming even shriller in the wake of the status-quo. Vidar Helgesen, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway, said this week that it is the international community’s duty to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. But even he couldn’t help hide his frustration by adding:
“As Sri Lanka has not ratified the International Criminal Court (ICC), the only way to engage ICC on Sri Lanka is through the UN Security Council. I am not the best placed person to suggest how China and Russia could be convinced and how one could pass a resolution at the UN Security Council.”
May with the intention of plugging that one troublesome spot, Sri Lanka is now all set launch a pre-emptive offensive ahead of the UN Human Rights Council sessions that begins in Geneva on May 30 to ward-off any moves to trigger a debate on allegations of human rights violations during the last stages of the fighting against the LTTE. Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Irrigation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Attorney General Mohan Peiris have been assigned the task.
One of the principal parts of the campaign would involve tackling the issue of a video footage telecast by Britain’s Channel 4 (and even Al Jazeera in its program People & Power) that purportedly showed soldiers shooting LTTE cadres held in their custody. The Sri Lanka delegation plans to convince the international community of the dubious authenticity of the video by categorically stating that the video was filmed with high quality equipment, which could not have been available in the battle zone at the time. The people behind the video footage have claimed that the incident was filmed by a soldier on his mobile phone camera. Several other factors will be brought up to prove that the footage was bogus.
But even a bigger challenge, probably, for the Sri Lankan delegation would be to calm down the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay, who has been extremely belligerent in her demand for a follow-up action on the UN Report. How that would be achieved is anybody’s guess at the moment.
On the last occasion, during the 11th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 26-27 May 2009, when the question of Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka was discussed, Colombo was able to muster the support of not only China, Russia and Pakistan, but also, quite interestingly, India. Moreover, the resolution of the time had come down heavily on LTTE, without questioning Sri Lanka on anything.
But it might be a lot trickier for it this time around, what with all the ‘evidence’ floating around in public domain. For the moment, the ball is in the UN Secretary General’s court, who says that the UN cannot act on the advisory panel’s recommendation to investigate, saying this could only happen if Sri Lanka agreed to a probe or if the UN Security Council or Human Rights Council voted to take action.
While Sri Lanka can count on unflinching support in the Security Council from Russia and China for its opposition to a probe, it remains to be seen whether it can muster enough backing at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The UNHRC will be in session till June 17. The 47 member Council comprises Thailand (Chairman), Angola, Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, the Maldives, Moldova, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Uganda, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uruguay and New Zealand.
// End of Chapter 2 //
Chapter 3 – Indian Riddle and the SAARC Ripple