With the international community reacting on expected lines to the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the matter could now be expected to be taken up by the West in forums where they have a say. The LLRC was purportedly set up to ‘fix’ accountability for alleged ‘war crimes’, but is said to have fallen short of fixing any responsibility on any one. The pitch will be queried possibly at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, where the Sri Lankan efforts to buy time had paid off in September. Yet, Colombo will have to be more than being innovative and imaginative to ward off furthering of what it perceives as the Tamil Diaspora efforts at embarrassing the Government and scuttling the on-going political negotiations with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
The LLRC, itself a product of protests at the UN, UNHCR and elsewhere by the international community, and campaigns launched successively by INGOs and sections of the global media, has all but cleared the Sri Lankan political leadership and armed forces command of any wrong-doing for what it acknowledges as the ‘considerable’ loss of lives in the last stages of the war. Until the LLRC Report was out the Government had denied such charges, and stuck to its considered and well-intentioned war-time policy of ‘zero-casualty’ on the civilian front. The Commission, in its report submitted to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, suggested that the Government to inquire into individual cases of wrongful deaths and disappearances.
Tabling the LLRC Report in Parliament, Leader of the House and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva promised to investigate individual cases of the kind to fix criminality behind such deaths and disappearances. This has cut both ways as sections of the international community have reacted in ways that reflect along their known positions vis a vis Sri Lanka in the contemporary geo-political context, where human rights and violations are seen as being interpreted in political, and not absolute terms. It is thus that the US has reacted strongly while Canada, which has been vociferous for action against Sri Lanka until recently, has welcomed the LLRC Report and yet commented that it was still inadequate.
In a way, western nations that have since commented on the LLRC Report have stopped short of demanding an international inquiry. They are possibly waiting for the promised Government action on the Report before making up their minds. China, a known backer of Sri Lanka ever since war crime charges came to be thrown at Colombo, has not named the LLRC Report but wants to allow the country to address internal problems internally. Russia, another perceived ally of Sri Lanka in the matter, has maintained silence thus far. Russia and China, both veto-powers in the UN Security Council, are seen as opposing any global bias against Sri Lanka when charges of human rights violations could be thrown at many other nations as well. Their support for Colombo in the UNSC had forced the West to take up the matter to the UNHCR, where it now rests.
Preparing the defences on the domestic front?
In a move that surprised many, President Rajapaksa told Parliament, post-LLRC Report, that the United National Party (UNP) rival had failed to rally round Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to propose alternative programmes for the nation, but were resorting to in-fighting all the time. UNP dissidents who had lost inner-party elections to the Wickremesinghe camp only a day or two earlier, alleged, as in the past, a secret understanding between the two leaders. As if by cue, Wickremesinghe himself alleged that a foreign NGO had funded party dissidents, and the Government too did not lose much time in promising a probe.
Separately, there were also reports of the Government and family members of jailed former army commander Sarath Fonseka negotiating the latter’s release through a parliamentarian, after his twin convictions and consequent imprisonment were upheld by the appellate judiciary. As commander of the armed forces at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, Fonseka had gone on to contest Rajapaksa’s re-election for the presidency, and embarrassing both, and also the nation’s troops in the process, through a series of media interviews that would put the political and military leadership in an uncomfortable light on the human rights front in particular.
Wickremesinghe’s charge against an INGO, while keeping the more ‘nationalist’ UNP dissidents on the bind, could go to strengthen Colombo’s earlier claims that foreign governments and funding agencies were interfering in the internal affairs of the country. Team Rajapaksa had laid such charges when Wickremesinghe had contested against him in 2005, and later when Fonseka was the common Opposition nominee during President Rajapaksa’s post-war re-election bid of 2010. Media reports indicate a competition between Wicrkemesinghe and the UNP on the one hand, and the leadership of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), an unacknowledged breakaway group of the Left-leaning JVP, on the other, seeking to claim credit for Fonseka’s release, if it materialised.
Simultaneously now, the Government has hardened the stand on the political negotiations and the TNA, declining any bargaining on three contentious issues, namely re-merger of the North and the East, Police and Land powers. It has begun likening the TNA to the erstwhile Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), with President Rajapaksa making a reference in a meeting with Editors, followed by a public mention of the same in Parliament. It is possible that the Government’s new position may have flowed from signals that the West may not any more link accountability issues to progress on the political negotiations — and that they were stand-alone issues for them, after all. It thus remains to be seen if Colombo would first succeed in re-establishing such linkages for the Geneva session to delay action, at least until the regular, once-in-four-year HR review of the country becomes due in September next.
Playing for time, or what?
Whatever it be, Sri Lanka seems to be always playing for time in the matter, rather than addressing issues squarely. It owes to the deliberate diplomatic posturing of the West wanting accountability issues to rest at the door-steps of the political and bureaucratic masters of the armed forces, as much as the higher command — but not wanting to put across the idea in substantive terms. Such a course, while reading undiplomatic, would also lead to charges that the West had pre-judged issues and was biased in the matter. Yet, friends of Sri Lanka have been frustrated by the imaginative interpretations often offered by Colombo to emerging situations, which however had often flowed from its previous commitments.
The Colombo Government knows what the West is aiming at but pretends as if it does not understand. This has given the impression that Colombo is non-serious in its approach to HR violations and consequent commitments from the past. The Government denies such charges squarely. Instead, Government leaders have often argued that the international community has been acting in ways that has been providing oxygen to separatists in the country at a time when it could ill-afford the same, in terms of political stability and developmental programmes in the post-war era. To the Government leaders, the West is weighed down not as much by considerations of human rights but by compulsions of Diaspora constituency back home.
From among the friends of Sri Lanka, Russia was the first one to speak out when the controversial ‘Darusman Report’ from the three-member advisory committee appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was made public. China followed suit. The burden of the two positions was that Sri Lanka was being singled out by the West, many of whose members had wronged more on the HR front even in recent years, and that Colombo should be allowed to address the issues through internal mechanisms. Now that the focus has thus shifted to the LLRC Report, from Darussman Report, it will be interesting to note what positions Beijing and Moscow take on the follow-up action, at least as far as the Sri Lankan Government goes.
The fact however remains that during the course of ‘Eelam War IV’, the Sri Lankan leadership had reportedly and repeatedly promised the international community of imminent political solution to the ethnic issue once they had helped Colombo to end LTTE terrorism for good. That has not happened since. Independent of the Government’s submissions on the scope and scheme of the current negotiations with the post-LTTE TNA, the general perception continues to blame the former as being as ‘insincere’ as it was over the past 60 years. Now the perceived unwritten understanding between President Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe may be used to paint the ‘Sinhala majority’ with a common brush, as in the past.
N Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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