David Vs Goliath in Geneva

Harsh rhetoric and emotional outbursts before the commencement of the19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council next week in Geneva have obfuscated the objectives of the resolution to be moved against Sri Lanka at the sessions. The issue on alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan servicemen has polarised into a debate of pride and prejudice. The realisation of the challenges faced by the Sri Lanka government, the charges made against it by its accusers and dispensation of justice and relief to war victims should be of far greater concern to both sides of the divide than the rhetorical abuse in the media, now in full flow.

The allegations made against the Sri Lankan armed forces – the subject of the UNHRC deliberations – came after three decades of a brutal war and relates to only what is alleged to have happened in the final phases of the conflict. The war ended three years ago but the allegations of war crimes have still not been taken up for resolution.

The Rajapaksa government facing a barrage of criticism both nationally and internationally on its inaction regarding the allegations made, appointed the Lessons Learnt and Rehabilitation Commission (LLRC) headed by former Attorney General C. R. De Silva.

The report does seem to have taken off much of the heat generated against the government because of its call for investigation of alleged war crimes, following stubborn denial of any such crimes made by the government. But since the release of the report in December last year, positive moves to implement the recommendations were not visible. The pressure is now on the Sri Lanka government to implement the recommendations made by its own presidential commission of inquiry and that is what the pith and substance of the American sponsored resolution at Geneva is about.

However a major reservation made by Western nations has been that the LLRC report falls short of accountability and this is an issue that could lead to much fire at the UNHRC talks. Whether the Rajapaksa government likes it or not, they are now in the dock and postponing answers and evading responses to this issue can only prolong the agony.

The government stumbled in not implementing the recommendations of the report soon after its release giving room for America and other Western powers to get their foot in with the resolution at Geneva.

No sovereign government likes to have interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs and Sri Lanka is no exception. Sri Lanka’s accusers are America and other Western powers like Britain whose horrendous records on violation of human rights and war crimes in recent times certainly do not entitle them to be arbiters on similar allegations made against Sri Lanka. In this context, the wrath of Sri Lankan defenders can be appreciated. However, Sri Lanka has been a signatory to international conventions and other documents on human rights and thus is subject to international legal jurisdiction. Last week, following pressure brought on by two visiting high ranking American officials, Under Secretary of State Maria Otero and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, some kind of impetus has been given to recommendations made by the LLRC. The army commander has appointed a court of inquiry to investigate charges that Sri Lankan troops were responsible for killing of civilians and prisoners in the final stages of the insurrection. The court is also empowered to investigate allegations of executions as claimed by Channel 4, a British TV Channel. The police have been instructed to record statements of persons who in their evidence before the LLRC alleged violations by the armed services.

Western nations have said that they have no objections to investigations being made locally instead of foreign involvement but the question of credibility looms large. Investigations by the armed services themselves of the conduct of their members and by the police into the allegations made against policemen would make even Sri Lankans say: Hora ge Ammagen pena ahanawa (Like asking the rogue’s mother to look into a crystal ball to detect the culprit). It has also been asked whether Tamil citizens who had made statements to the LLRC would repeat their statements to the police as is supposedly legally required. Given the present state of affairs where people are still being abducted in white vans similar to what happened last week to a Tamil businessman abducted opposite Majestic Plaza in broad daylight, the response is likely to restricted.

The Geneva resolution against Sri Lanka will undoubtedly question the time frame in which the said recommendations are to be implemented.

Procrastination in attempting to resolve the Tamil problem has been the hallmark of the Rajapaksa government and a major contributory factor to the current problems they are being confronted with.

Shorn of all the verbiage, the American sponsored resolution appearsto be aimed at bringing justice to victims of the war, their rehabilitation and reconciliation with other communities. But most supporters of the Rajapaksa government feel that this is an issue resulting from bad blood generated during the ‘peace offensive’ and also inspired by its geopolitical interests and its allies in the region.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is resentful of interference of foreign powers in the internal affairs of the country which can be appreciated but foreign interference he could have avoided by acting quickly to resolve Tamil grievances. He need not have been confronted with foreign interference had he resolved the problems of the Tamil minority instead of pandering to the Sinhala electorate even after his ‘historic victory’. Until and unless he resolves this issue it will remain his biggest challenge.

There are other issues to be considered apart from this insular perspective. His domestic policies have resulted in him coming into confrontation headlong with the world’s biggest powers – America and the European Union. China and Russia are with him but it is unlikely that they would risk their vital interests with these world powers for small gains in this island nation. Besides Lanka’s biggest markets are in America, Europe and other Western nations. The oil crisis with Rajapaksa’s two bosom buddies – Muammar Gadaffi gone and Ahmadinejad in deep trouble should provide him with the fickle nature of international politics.

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