Using UNSG’s panel report

for restoring democratic normalcy, not as weapon of revenge

by Jehan Perera

(May 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The report of the Panel of Experts to advise the UN Secretary General on the issue of human rights violations in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s internal war has become the dominant political issue in the country. It became the main issue on May Day, a day traditionally respected as the day of the working class, when speaker after speaker at the government organized rally denounced the UN, imperialist powers and their local agents of a conspiracy to bring a patriotic national leadership into discredit. Invariably politicians have sought to use the issue for their own parochial purposes. A campaign by university academics to obtain long overdue and promised salary increases has been criticized by government ministers as being part of a campaign to give life to the UN panel report.

More than a fortnight after its publication, the dominant public opinion is that the UN panel report is an unfair, unnecessary and anti-national intrusion into the affairs of a sovereign country. This opinion is only partly the result of government propaganda. There is also spontaneous nationalist sentiment that is protective of a government that recently succeeded in ridding the country of a tenacious armed organization that gave rise to years of terrorism. Apart from finding factual and legal deficiencies in the report many in political society, even those in the Opposition have also been critical of the use of double standards in the targeting of Sri Lanka’s government leadership. The US government’s admission of the killing of Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden when he was unarmed and with his family is cited as evidence of war time exigencies that ought to apply in Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism also.

The issue of the panel report has also divided civil society. The dominant sentiment echoes that of political society, with statements issued by high ranking religious clerics and youth groups alike, condemning the report as an unacceptable intrusion into the affairs of a sovereign country that is competent to deal with its own problems without outside interference. Most of the statements issued by these organizations condemn the UN Secretary General for his partisan actions and offer advice to the Sri Lankan government to defeat the machinations of the country’s external and internal foes. Those in civil society who state that the panel report sets out difficult issues that the government was avoiding but now need to be dealt with are viewed with disfavor and hostility as succumbing to the wiles and material inducements of outside powers.

Civic role

One of the important tasks of civil society opinion makers and activists is to fill in the gaps that exist in the political debate. At present the debate on the UN panel report appears to be between those who wish to defend the government and justify its actions during the end phase of the war, those who want to see it held accountable and take responsibility for what it did - even to the extent of being judicially punished, and those who wish to use it as a instrument for furthering the slow moving reconciliation process. The issue of crime and punishment loom large in this debate. This includes the question whether going into the past is for the purpose of digging it up to find hard evidence that could send the perpetrators before international criminal courts or to ascertain the identity of the victims and compensate them, or a combination of both.

The visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Robert O Blake would seem to be reassuring to the government on this score. One of the key messages during this visit and reported by the media was the importance of closure that went beyond judicial accountability to larger political issues that underlie Sri Lanka’s continuing political problems. The meaning of accountability that the US government has been stressing in its communications with the Sri Lankan government is not settled in relation to either Sri Lanka or to the US government’s own practices internationally. Perhaps on this account, the meeting that Mr. Blake had with members of the government seems to have had a positive impact on them. Leading government members have been reported by the Sri Lankan media to have said that the visiting US official had not stressed punishment in relation to the UN panel report. Those who have been involved in wars against terrorism would recognize the nature of decisions that are made.

It has been pointed out the winning side in wars, whether against internal or external foes, are not often subjected to judicial accountability procedures. Sri Lankan and international experience suggests that it is more the exception than the norm. In both 1971 and 1989 insurgencies, the governments of the day quelled them at much loss of innocent life but were not subjected to any concerted campaigns for accountability. Likewise, internationally, although there have been calls by human rights groups for the indicting of President George Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for war crimes, there has been no realistic prospect of doing so. In this context, it is not surprising that Sri Lankan leaders as well as the general public should resent and oppose any moves to punish the war victors or even bring them to task.

Vavuniya Opinion

On my way to Jaffna over the past weekend I stopped over in Vavuniya to meet with several civil society leaders. When we discussed the current political situation, the main issue that was brought up was the over-control by the military in the affairs of the people. The military presence in the Northern Province continues to be very high. They complained that virtually every decision relating to community life needed to be taken after permission was sought and obtained from the military. They spoke of the vulnerability of women-headed households, of which there are very many after the war, in the more interior parts of the Vanni and the presence of large numbers of military personnel. Their plea was for a return of the military to barracks and a return to full administration by civilians rather than by the military.

As the second anniversary of the end of the war approaches it seems clear that the military role in governance of the north needs to be substantially reduced if there is to be alignment with the legitimate desires of the people, which is what democracy is about. There is resentment that they feel current imperatives and protocol demand military permission for the events they conduct, and even school events, where to make matters worse they believe they have to sing the national anthem in the Sinhala language rather than in Tamil. It is in this context of frustration and powerlessness that it appears the community leaders of Vavuniya see the UN panel report as an opportunity for re-establishing democratic normalcy to their lives.

There are sections of the international community, both human rights groups and the Diaspora, who see the UN panel report as a means of paving the way for the future punishment of Sri Lanka’s leaders who were responsible for the prosecution of the war and its great human and material costs. However, at the meeting in Vavuniya, there was no opinion expressed in favour of using the UN panel report as a weapon of revenge. Instead the panel report was seen as an opportunity to put pressure on the government to be responsive to their needs for reconciliation with democracy and justice. It is, therefore, no cause for surprise that the UN panel report is also welcomed by those sections of the people who were the main victims of the war.

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