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Sri Lanka Braces For Final Verdict

| by Dilrukshi Handunnetti

( March 25, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions draw to a close this Friday (28), there are last minute diplomatic and media offensives to portray Sri Lanka as the innocent victim in the hands of the UNHRC, several powerful nations practicing double standards as well as LTTE propaganda. It is a formula that had worked wonders during poll time but almost five years after the end of the war, counter allegations and crying foul add little value when the call is to demonstrate accountability.

Over 25 member countries, including several powerful nations and strategically important countries, such as India, are poised to vote in favour of the resolution which endorses, in paragraph 24, "the High Commissioners' conclusion than national mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and achieve justice, and her recommendation that the Human Rights Council establish an international inquiry mechanism to further investigate the alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law and monitor any domestic accountability processes."

An international probe

The general understanding is that, though the second version is mild in terminology compared to the first draft, it is likely to be further amended during the next two days to demand more accountability and transitional justice and to insist on a comprehensive investigation into allegations of serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka, by the High Commissioner. There is no guarantee that the third and final version would retain the same language. In any case, the call is for an investigation by the Hugh Commissioner and that is a probe of an international nature.

Instead of dealing with some of the core issues raised, such as credible investigations ( an inquiry by the Army and for the Army would hardly be acceptable to an international human rights community due to apparent conflict of interest), domestic mechanisms that inspire confidence (the LLRC implementation being less than satisfactory despite constructive recommendations) and institutions of the State that uphold law and order, Sri Lanka is on a dramatic offensive of its own which is hardly convincing.

There are government videos portraying the LTTE as the only aggressors (In response to the Killing Fields series by Channel 4) in contrast to the Sri Lankan military, portrayed as being Lily White. The world is aware that no country has had blame-free security forces and that Sri Lanka can be no exception. As much as it immature at the end of a violent war to have defences that are mostly rhetorical, the State should have invested its time in credible defences that could establish innocence whilst acknowledging the excesses wherever they happened, offering honest solutions – such as credible investigations and genuine measures of rectification.

Instead, there are suicidal missions such as the arrests of Fr. Praveen Mahesan and Ruki Fernando whose quiet rights-based work has hardly proved contentious. Pro-government groups last week protested before the US Embassy in Colombo to denounce US action. Nobody recalls a whimper of protest when the US backed the island's war, though continuously cautioning against excesses and to avoid the same. US in a statement last week expressed concern over intensifying pressure on Sri Lankan civil society and human rights activists, particularly of the detention of well-known human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan.

Yet, a government that appears ultra sensitive to reputational damage of a certain kind appears less interested in the long haul concern of its own performance in the area of accountability and transitional justice. Issuing a right of reply from Geneva in response to round condemnation it received, while the HRC sessions are in progress could only add credence to the widespread belief that the island's systems of justice are weak, or worse, hijacked for political interests. That was a case of playing a bad hand awfully.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan President's Special Envoy on Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe has gloated over the fact there is a 'division' among UNHRC members over the US and UK-supported resolution on Sri Lanka which signals a victory for the country. The Minister who has been widely critiqued for an unprecedented diplomatic faux pas two years ago (by publicly announcing India's officially undeclared position of backing Sri Lanka, which in turn resulted in an immediate change in stance by India) has just returned home after addressing UNHRC's regional groups. If the 47-member rights body stands divided over the resolution with over 25 ready to vote in favour, such a 'division' would hold little practical benefit for the island.

"We can clearly see a division among members. This itself is a triumph for us. This was because we could convince some of them with our progress achieved since the war ended," claimed Samarasinghe. Such support, if garnered by the intense lobbying by Sri Lanka, would translate to little in the event individual countries decide to impose various conditions, thus pushing Sri Lanka against the wall. Such an international response cannot take Colombo by surprise given that there had been individual and collective action on Sri Lanka.

Then there is External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, proposing ridiculous theories, in preparation of the 28 March outcome. He was quoted in the media having said that "Countries have told us they do not want to pursue Sri Lanka's case. But they want to be seen with the US. Some of them have defence pacts with the US and wider trade links." As one well-known political commentator noted, "it would be hard to convince that Sri Lanka has no defence and trade relations with the US, and strong ties at that."

Solution for Sri Lankans

For all the rhetoric, there is little that the administration can offer to the people, by way of a credible explanation. Sri Lanka's own aggression (and slow action) has isolated the island, though it is well cushioned by two giants, Russia and China. Despite such support, Sri Lanka has been steadily losing support among the international human rights community and it has little to do with the rhetorical Western conspiracies against a little island. Sri Lanka's flawed foreign policy has won little appreciation and playing China against India – Sri Lanka's most thrilling game – also has its ramifications. A steady and supportive neighbour during the war effort, without which Sri Lanka would not have had the opportunity to end the war – India– too has decided to vote in favour of the resolution.

It is easy to look for conspiracies, trade interests and other affiliations and show them as the only reasons for cornering Sri Lanka in this manner. There are agendas, trade and military interests as well as other affiliations. There are very strong biases towards and against countries and there is no refuting all that. But for Sri Lanka to genuinely progress and usher in a post-war era of reconciliation, then it calls for genuine introspection and effective international relations.

In the final analysis, our response has little to do with the rhetoric and western agendas but lots to do with how we as Sri Lankans, handle our own issues. It is a question of our own genuineness in addressing pressing human rights concerns that are affecting the wellbeing of the Sri Lankan nation and having sufficient and genuine interest in initiating processes and programmes aimed at corrective measures.

It is this humbling message that Geneva inspires. Sri Lankans can only hope that their administration would realise that reconciliation is for Sri Lanka and for the Sri Lankans and not for the international community. The actual beneficiaries are the nearly 21 million people who inhabit this island and after near three decades of war, they deserve justice, democracy and a climate that allows healing.

( The writer is an editor for the Ceylon Today, an independent newspaper based in Colombo, where this piece originally appeared) 

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