Fixing the problem

by Sarala Fernando

(February 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the current situation of natural disaster with the floods, not much attention is being paid to the race that is being run between the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in Sri Lanka and the Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General in New York to "advice" him on the accountability issues with regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Will the race climax at the next session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva at the end of February? The LLRC was off to a fast start, mobilizing quickly, the Commissioners opting to take only minimum allowances, with few support staff. The LLRC has the advantage of "home-turf’ and was probably the first non-military mechanism to conduct hearings in the conflict affected areas. They have had access to hear testimony from former combatants in prisons, detention centres and rehabilitation camps.

The LLRC Commissioners are veterans, with a broad mix of local and international experience, and they have the ability to conduct business in Sinhala, Tamil and English, thereby reaching the people directly. The panel bogged down in New York, appears to have little Sri Lanka experience and is presumably restricted to English with the use of translators and interpreters. From my days supervising consulates abroad, I do know that English is not spoken fluently by many of our refugees and that written English is virtually non-existent. Even to fill a passport application, they have recourse to a paid translator – so there is a question right at the start, who is acting as translator/ petition writer to those who are giving testimony or sending representations to the panel in New York?

This is an important point as there is an enormous gulf between elements of the Tamil diaspora mobilizing on the basis of ethnic nationalism, raising funds to sponsor "investigations" of war crimes and those residents of all communities in the North and East of Sri Lanka who just want their livelihoods back and to live in security. American Ambassador Butenis made this point (in the leaked cable to Washington) that "there is an obvious split, however between the Tamil Diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka on how and when to address the issue (of accountability). While we understand the former would like to see the issue as an immediate top-priority issue, most Tamils in Sri Lanka appear to think it is both unrealistic and counter-productive to push the issue too aggressively now…"

There is also a question of what is the relative weight of "international standards" compared to "local knowledge and commitment to the country." The UN Panel runs the risk of broadening the split between the diaspora and those back home. Instead of taking on the mantle of a ‘shadow’ report, the UN Panel should have taken a supportive role and worked in tandem with the LLRC. In the past, quiet advice given by international experts and special mechanisms helped create viable domestic mechanisms to resolve protection issue in the aftermath of insurgency. For example, from once having the largest number of recorded disappearances coming down from the days of the Southern insurgency, thanks to quiet cooperation with NGOs working on a framework approved by UN experts, only a few cases now remain unresolved.

With the ending of the armed conflict, statistical analysis will show a sharp decline in allegations of human rights violations. Remarkable progress has been made on the caring and resettlement of IDPs, the parallel process of de-mining is almost completed and solid progress recorded on the rehabilitation of child soldiers and other combatants. Progressive lifting of the Emergency regulations has already begun. Is it not time for all the good news to be collated and disseminated through a credible website? How else to combat the endless propaganda churned out by the diaspora?

Disseminating the good news is important particularly because of the island’s proximity to Tamil Nadu where millions of computer users, sometimes youngsters just surfing the net, should have a picture of the evolving scenes of normalcy in the North and East so they do not get fooled by the diaspora propaganda. Needless to say, such a site should not be "propagandist" but represent creative diplomacy, using your assets to "attract" attention and sending out a positive message.

In Sri Lanka, testimony before the LLRC has been given by persons from all walks of life, from all religious persuasions, from government and non government, academics, professional organizations, soldiers and civilians, affected individuals. There was provision for testimony in camera upon request, but virtually all of the sittings have been open to the public and the press. Thus, the whole country is sharing in the testimony and discussing the proposals, in a more transparent manner than the process in New York.

A "smart" step has been taken by the LLRC to initiate an officials level mechanism, the Inter-Agency Committee (IAC) to begin immediately the process of granting relief based on its interim recommendations on issues of detention, land issues, law and order, language issues, socio-economic and livelihood issues. This mechanism is reminiscent of the Coordinating Committee on Humanitarian Affairs (CCHA) which worked so successfully during the armed conflict to get essentials to the conflict affected civilians.

Human rights advocacy groups usually take idealistic positions, based on international standards and do not accept the argument that countries are at different levels of development and need space to build credible national protection mechanisms. It has always been a problem how to sift the idealistic or uninformed complaints from those that suggest a useful course for action. During my time in Geneva, after every gruelling session of the CHR or HRC, the entire delegation, with representatives from different departments, would sit together, look at all the criticism leveled by states or NGOs, and decide what action could be usefully carried out back home. One recommendation, taking up a suggestion of the Special Rapporteur against Torture, was to remove corporal punishment, (dating from the colonial period) off our statute books. This did lead to positive action, which provided protection from physical harm for young children while winning international commendation.

Fortunately there is a return to professional diplomacy in Geneva, with the amiable Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe also taking up again the human rights portfolio, who has both institutional knowledge and experience. In the current situation of natural disaster, with damage estimated to exceed Rs50 billion, we can attract as much sympathy for Sri Lanka at the forthcoming HRC session, as there was when the tsunami hit in 2004. Supported by quiet diplomacy, that goodwill extended over a period of years, such that when I left Geneva in early 2007, a Special Session on Sri Lanka would have been unthinkable.

Today, armed with the recommendations of the LLRC, the report of the IAC and a compilation of the huge humanitarian contribution made by the forces post-conflict, our delegation has all the facts to win the case with the traditional diplomacy of courtesy, leaving "naming and shaming" to others less well equipped.

(Sarala Fernando is a retired diplomat and served as Ambassador in Geneva from 2004-2007)
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