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Sins of war: the ball is in Sri Lanka’s court

17 September 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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International judges in a local mechanism - hybrid or not - does not make sense

At a meeting on Wednesday (16) in Myanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw with the country’s Minister of Information U Ye Htut, who had been a friend of mine for the past several years, inquired after the developments in Sri Lanka. 

In our discussion on Geneva and the OHCHR report, the minister made an interesting remark:

“You are trying to correct mistakes of ten years, but we are trying to correct those of fifty years. Imagine our plight and the challenge.”

When you embark on a change, the expectations – both locally and internationally – expectations are  high and it is a real challenge to meet them at the desired speed within the existing mechanisms and systems, the minister explained. People expect changes on a daily basis but it is a nightmare to meet them. Of course the current changes in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are entirely on different platforms and paradigms, the minister said. 

In Myanmar the military leaders who ruled the country for fifty years decided on their own to make  a change and embarked on a vigorous democratisation process in late 2010. The same military rulers who were accused of human rights violations and curtailing democracy became the leaders of the change and champions of that process. 

Minister U Ye Htut was a Colonel of the former military regime but became a strong advocate of freedom of expression and democratic values. His ministry’s Permanent Secretary U Tint Swe was the country’s chief censor for seven years until it was abolished in August 2012. But then Tint Swe became a leading figure in state media reforms. 

Importantly, they welcomed international assistance but were extremely selective and careful in choosing partners. 

By adopting a policy of engagement, Myanmar walked a long way in democratisation in a considerably short period of time. It had adopted many new laws with sound international standards and the country is due to have its first free and fair polls on November 8. 

Combined with the country’s political changes, Myanmar has become one of the fastest developing economies in Southeast Asia today.

The former military leaders who were outcasts of the international community became role models of democratisation within a matter of a few months. If not, there could have been a series of OHCHR reports against them as well. Thus, the minister was perfectly correct when he said they were in the process of correcting (their own) mistakes of fifty years. Of course, mistakes are natural but admitting them in a transparent way and taking measures to correct them in an acceptable manner is the most pertinent matter. And Myanmar adopted this bold path.




Look at South Africa. Immediately after the end of apartheid, the visionary leaders led by Nelson Mandela adopted a policy of correcting mistakes and embarking on a reconciliation process. All parties admitted their own mistakes and agreed on a process of compromise through unity and solidarity. 
Sri Lanka, though the context was different from that of Myanmar or South Africa, policywise it was following an entirely different procedure; a path of duplicity. 

It was a ruthless war of thirty years – a battle between a formidable terrorist organisation with a strong international network and a conventional army. The war took the worst turn of its entire history in its last leg. Who on earth can claim there had not been any breach of international norms and practices of war when both sides used heavy artillery and human shields? Probably this bitter reality could have been the reason behind President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agreement with UN Chief Ban ki-moon to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the alleged incidents. 
He promised total transparency and accountability in the process by appointing several commissions – the LLRC, Paranagama and Udalagama et al. Almost all these commissions spoke a common language and in a common tone, which the then regime was not comfortable with. Thus many reports were not made public or tabled in the House. 

The ground reality was entirely contradictory to what has been pledged to the international community. Thus, trust and confidence were lost and a hostile environment was in the making against Sri Lanka internationally. Mostly the politics of duplicity was clearly visible as the regime had two different messages – one to the local audience and an opposite one to the international community. 

What were the immediate necessities in the aftermath of the war? Apart from the most important process of reconciliation, establishing law and order; releasing the judiciary from the clutches of politics and making it independent; strengthening democratic institutions such as Parliament and independent commissions and establishing freedom of expression and basic democratic norms took precedence. 

These were the essence of all commissions report recommendations, and mind you – the commissions were appointed by President Rajapaksa himself. But, at the end of the day he did not like what these professionals stated and recommended in their reports.  

When an army officer was accused of shooting a group of protestors who demanded pure drinking water in Rathupaswala, he was appointed to a diplomatic posting in Turkey. 

When the IGP resigned after a civilian was killed in a Police shooting incident in Katunayaka, he was appointed ambassador to Brazil. 

When the then deputy minister Mervyn Silva created mayhem at the state run Rupavahini Corporation, he was promoted to the rank of a Cabinet Minister to handle public relations. 

The list can continue with hundreds of such case studies. These issues should not be considered as confined to the domestic theatre, but destroying a system of governance deliberately. 

Now the cat is out of the bag; the expected UN report is out and the ball is in Sri Lanka’s court and the name of the game will be ‘Winning Trust.’ It seems that the policy of the new government has diluted the tone of the report and the new regime should get the entire credit for converting the international inquiry proposal into a domestic mechanism. This is a major leap forward when rebuilding the lost reputation of the country. Still the existing mechanisms within the country are not sufficient to handle an issue of such magnitude says the UN in its report. True enough; a lot has to be done in strengthening democracy in the country and the clock is ticking. However,  the international community should understand that the mechanism needed cannot be established in a haphazard manner, 

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced that ten independent commissions will be established within a month; candid measures in establishing democracy and winning trust. Appointing international judges to a locally driven mechanism - hybrid or not - does not make sense. For me it is like parachuting experts for a particular task without strengthening the local systems. One could easily classify it as ‘typical UN way of handling matters’ through highly paid consultants. The local mechanism should be locally handled through a well-established international observation procedure. 

Such observation should not be viewed as ‘foreign intervention’ but technical assistance to correct ourselves. That does not mean we have to obey all those recommendations – but we need a good mechanism of reviewing these suggestions and adopting suitable ones for a locally driven process. 

I cannot finish this piece without mentioning about the time frame of this report, which is 2002 to 2011 confining it to the last decade of the war between the government and the LTTE. But what about the crime against humanity during 88-89 period, or even in the early 70s? 

Is this particular time frame the result of  heavy lobbying by diaspora groups? 

If we were talking about serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity, there are plenty of them that took place at other times in Sri Lanka. Whether they are North or South issues we need permanent solutions not permit repetitions of the same catastrophes. 
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