A Hostile World

In May 2009 the Sri Lankan Government claimed victory over a ruthless terrorist organization and ended 30 years of civil strife in the island. Four years later, it’s still consistently losing the battle for the international narrative

By Echelon.

Published on April 06, 2013 with No Comments

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Moments before the UN’s Human Rights Council adopted its second resolution on Sri Lanka on March 21, Sri Lanka’s Special Envoy on Human Rights and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe placed a strange question before the international body. “Why this preoccupation with Sri Lanka? Why this inordinate and disproportionate level of interest in a country that has successfully ended a 30-year conflict against terrorism and has demonstrated so much progress in a relatively short space of time?” the Minister asked the 47 member states of the Council.
The question posed in Switzerland is one that reverberates in Sri Lanka as the country attracts increasing international criticism and censure for its failure to win the peace, four years after it declared victory in the war. The ruling administration in Colombo has a knapsack of phrases to explain away the international outcry against the country. Western conspiracies, pro-LTTE agendas, rights groups and NGOs fighting to stay relevant – even jealousy on the part of the world community towards Sri Lanka’s success in rooting out terrorism.
Minister Samarasinghe makes a valid point. There are other conflicts in the world that should garner greater global attention. Sri Lanka is of little interest, strategically speaking, to any of the world’s major players, with the exception of India. Regardless, the world’s most powerful nation has taken the lead on international action against Sri Lanka. In both 2012 and 2013, the resolutions adopted at the UNHRC were drafts sponsored and authored by the United States of America.
So why Sri Lanka?
The simplest answer might be ‘why not?’
The Sri Lankan Government is increasingly belligerent in its engagement with countries urging progress on achieving genuine reconciliation between communities of people torn apart by three decades of ethnic strife and rapprochement for alleged atrocities committed in war-time. Colombo actively seeks to align itself with the anti-West bloc, even though the grouping includes some of the world’s worst dictators and human rights offenders. Spurning liberal democracy as an overly Western ideology, Sri Lanka looks overwhelmingly to Beijing, for economic assistance, and counts on its high profile backing at major international forums like the UNHRC and the UN Security Council. As an ally that demands nothing of Colombo in terms of setting its human rights affairs in order or sharing power with the Tamil minority in the island’s north, China is Sri Lanka’s best friend in the world.
All this may have been overlooked if the country was putting its affairs in order domestically in the post-conflict phase. Progress on resettlement, demining and rehabilitation of ex-combatants has been marred by the continued over-garrisoning of the north, the intrusion of the military into civilian life in the former battle zones and the Government’s glaring lack of political will in terms of devolving political power to the island’s north and east and investigating alleged crimes of war. Having established its own Truth Commission known as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to forestall an international transitional justice mechanism, the Commission’s report has become the greatest thorn in the Government’s side.
The LLRC findings and recommendations have become the basis upon which the international community censures Sri Lanka, with the ruling administration showing itself bafflingly loathe to implement the Commission’s recommendations in order to achieve stable peace and bring closure to the victims of war. Loathe to move on reconciliation, accountability – or the credible investigation of alleged excesses in war time – remains an even more remote prospect in post-war Sri Lanka.
But in this age of new media, accountability has become inescapable.
Days before the latest UNHRC sessions opened in Geneva, devastating images surfaced of a child believed to be the youngest son of the slain LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. The pictures showed a nervous 12-year-old in a bunker, chewing on a snack, followed by images of the same child, allegedly shot at point blank range. In the final stages of the conflict, the Sri Lankan authorities imposed a blanket ban on travel to the war zone, barring the local and international press from covering the battles unless they were embedded with the military. UN staff and aid workers were yanked out of the Wanni region where the final battle was to unfold, after Colombo announced they could no longer guarantee their safety. It was as if Sri Lanka was adamant in controlling every piece of information that flowed out from the zones of this final battle. And for some time, it appeared to have done so with significant success. hostile
Somehow, in a deeply ironic twist, the final phase of the Government’s military push against the LTTE, dubbed a ‘war without witness’ by the world’s media, ended up having a great many witnesses after all. Year after year, new images and video footage emerge and is beamed across the world. The first installment of this footage has already been authenticated by UN experts.
The horrific images coupled with the Government’s own reticence on a credible inquiry into the allegations create a powerful narrative that consistently, relentlessly portrays Sri Lanka’s final battle against the LTTE in the most unfavourable light. Faced with these challenges, instead of engaging in a genuine attempt to investigate and prosecute wrongdoers, the Government demands that the world lowers its standards on states’ obligations to protect the lives of its civilians and to adhere to international humanitarian law in wartime. Accountability has never come easy to Sri Lanka – over 35,000 cases of disappearances remain unresolved following a violent insurrection and an equally brutal state crackdown in 1988-89.
The one instance in which accountability was thrust upon the Sri Lankan defence establishment, was when the accused soldier in the rape and murder of a young Tamil woman testified to the presence of at least 600 skeletons in a mass grave in Chemmani in the Jaffna peninsula. No prosecutions took place, even after the remains were discovered in 1999, but the ghosts of Chemmani still haunt Sri Lankan regimes that persistently wonder if the prosecution of an individual or small group of soldiers for atrocities could open the floodgates of command chain responsibility.
Colombo’s inadequate response to mounting charges of major rights abuses during the last stages of the war brings the prospect of an international war crimes probe ever closer. The wheels of international justice turn slowly, but there is little doubt where resolution after resolution before the Human Rights Council in Geneva will eventually lead.
In all of the diplomatic shenanigans Sri Lanka has attempted in the past four years, it has always omitted one important facet in foreign relations: credibility. Promises were made every year, only to be broken by the time the next session rolled around. Ultimately, it is the conduct of a state itself that makes it vulnerable to international action. In the long term therefore, false promises and expediency in its foreign relations may prove costly for Sri Lanka. Compared with 2012, the 2013 US-backed resolution is more extensive and distinctive in its scope. Without genuine progress on the reconciliation and accountability fronts that lives up to the rhetoric, 2014 may prove even more devastating for Sri Lanka in Geneva.

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