When addressing allegations of war crimes, govt. has to balance domestic audience if it were to remain in office
he 261-page-report on Sri Lanka presented to the UN Human Rights Council is not a pleasant reading.
Understandably so, because, it refers to the rot that set in this country for too long. It offers a catalogue of allegations of grotesque abuses and potential war crimes that took place between 2001-2009.
It says Sri Lankan institutions are not yet ready for holding a credible internal investigation and recommends a ‘hybrid court’ which involves foreign judges and investigators to probe allegations of the ‘horrific level’ of war crimes.
Those lines could have been a good enough pretext for another series of zombified protests, a phenomenon that was common during previous rounds of UNHRC sessions. That did not happen. Nor does it appear that the UNHRC, or at least, its influential member states are gung-ho on a hybrid court. However, their position would only be known on September 30th when the report and its recommendations would be taken for debate.
As it appears the most influential backers of this investigation now seem to be content with a domestic investigation. Nisha Biswal, the US assistant secretary of Central and South Asia now says the new government has shown ‘strong intent’ to address the rights concerns and the US supports a credible local inquiry with a ‘substantial involvement’ from the international community.
The US earlier said it would present a resolution supporting an international investigation.
Understandably enough, there is temptation among some members for a hybrid court, especially when there is a government in Colombo that is willing to walk the extra mile. But, despite its good intentions, the government seems to be a bit clueless as to how far is too far.
In the past, the government ruled out an international inquiry, and said it would hold a credible domestic investigation, which remained to be the government’s position.
"That is when the social contract between the new government and the people begins crumbling. If the government chooses (or is forced) to go beyond its comfort level, it may find itself in extreme discomfort, domestically in the not so distant future"
Sri Lankan experience in the past will tell, foreign initiatives, though probably well intentioned, have turned sour. Recall the Norwegian brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) had the blessings of all the international members, but apparently not the consent of the majority of the Sinhalese, who increasingly became distrustful of the government’s appeasement of the LTTE.
Chandrika Kumaratunga, the then president was blamed for the constitutional coup, but the fact of the matter is that in the subsequent election, her coalition resoundingly won the majority in Parliament. The excessive foreign oversight emanating from a hybrid court would not be welcomed domestically in the long run.
That is when the social contract between the new government and the people begins crumbling. If the government chooses (Or is forced) to go beyond its comfort level, it may find itself in extreme discomfort, domestically in the not so distant future.
Another foreign meddling in the past (The Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, 1987) gave momentum to another nihilistic militant group in the South, JVP. (That parochial patriotism cost us a historical opportunity to get the Indians to defeat the LTTE, which could have saved thousands of lives and property lost in the subsequent decades)
In fact, the OISL report acknowledges that its findings are being released in a context different from what the investigation was mandated for. It says Maithripala Sirisena’s election on January 8th is a ‘watershed’ moment and acknowledges salient initiatives the new government has taken to strengthen independent institutions under the 19th Amendment, releasing land to original owners and setting up of a reconciliation secretariat (Though it notes, rightly so, that there are many more to be done).
But the allegations are so horrendous and that the OHCHR believes that our institutions are so politicised and polarised, that it recommends a hybrid court. Both are reasonable observations, though Sri Lanka has recently shown that it can get acts together, though, that itself is a gradual process.
The OISL report also notes that Sri Lanka in the past had opportunities to turn around its rights record, and that the governments, which pledged to do so, failed to deliver. But, it misses a salient point: All that time, until 2009, we have been fighting a monstrous terrorist group, which hardly left room for moderation.
As Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister acknowledged in Geneva, rightly so, that the defeat of the LTTE was a necessity and now we have more freedom and opportunity to address the past issues and forge ahead.
However, is the defeating of the LTTE worth its cost? The vast majority of Sri Lankans would say ‘yes.’ (Though Gotabaya Rajapaksa has told media that he regrets the decision, citing numerous summoning for investigations that he has been issued with)
The new government should be discernible enough to distinguish the genuine concerns of Human Rights from hypocritical cants of sour grapes that emanate from another articulate section, who laments the annihilation of their model terrorist group.
The LTTE is a terrorist group as much as ISIS is, no matter David Cameron loves the British Tamil Diaspora (Many of whose members bankrolled this terrorist group) for electoral considerations.
Mr. Rajapaksa, the ex-President, should be pondering why this went this far.
It was his political leadership that brought an end to the war. But, unfortunately, he succumbed to triumphant ultra-nationalism and had no room for niceties of reconciliation and to redress sufferings of the Tamil people as well as implications of the military excesses and abuses, all of which are predictable outcomes of a prolonged conflict such as ours.
Rajapaksa earlier vowed to go to the gallows to defend the country and the security forces. He can now take solace in the fact that it appears he does not need to do so.
And also no matter the outcome in Geneva this month, the prospects of travel embargoes on the political leadership and potential economic sanctions from the US and the EU have faded away.
Obviously, Rajapaksa lacked commitment; the commissions he appointed turned out to be farcical. Perhaps, he failed to understand the intricacies and implications of the problem.
That is where those like G. L. Peiris are expected to perform their roles and caution the Head of the State of the potential repercussions. Perhaps, Rajapaksa preferred to listen to Sajin Vas, who pretty much was the de-facto Foreign Minister. Perhaps, Prof. Peries told Rajapaksa only the things the latter liked to hear.
"Obviously, Rajapaksa lacked commitment; the commissions he appointed turned out to be farcical. "
Why things got degenerated and ended up where we are now was because of Rajapaksa’s intransigence.
If the West is contemplating to push the new government beyond its comfort zone, in order to make it atone for the intransigence of the previous administration, there is one other reason that it should not succumb to the temptation: Rajapaksa himself.
Rajapaksa is patiently waiting for the opportune moment to make a decisive comeback.
He is quite capable of mobilising millions and is loved by millions of Sinhalese who share, among others, same insecurities of foreign meddling.
Last week, Rajapaksa supporter Udaya Gammanpila tried to test the water. He announced to bring an indemnity bill in order to exonerate security and political officials of their past abuses. But, he failed to make an impact. But, that complacency would not last long.
Nisha Biswal says the new administration during ‘the last nine months has done more to try to build trust and move the country towards a more inclusive society, than perhaps been done in the last nine years and beyond.’
The stark contrast of the track records of the incumbent government and its predecessors is another reason why the West should not force the government to chew more than it can swallow.
The oppressive institutions and structures that were in place even before Rajapaksa’s ascendance to Presidency and were nurtured by the ex-President to a level of monstrosity would not disappear overnight.
They have to be dismantled through a concerted effort. A government that has to do a tight rope walk in order to address those entrenched problems, at the same time balancing against an ultra- nationalist backlash, should not be further burdened with external strictures.
There is only one alternative to the approaches in reconciliation taken by the current administration. That is the hate-filled rhetoric emanating from Rajapaksa camp (Though the ex-President is, surely, not a bigot, he is surrounded by many).
If the current administration’s international friends force it move beyond the comfort zone of the majority Sri Lankans, it would not be long before that the people would choose the alternative.
After all, it needs only a swing of one million votes from the villages, or in the worst case scenario, mass protests. Either is not unfeasible in the Sri Lankan context.
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