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Panel pressure

Print edition : Aug 13, 2010 T+T-

The government objects to the U.N. setting up a panel to look into human rights violations during the war but finds itself isolated.

in Colombo

MORE than 14 months after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan security forces and the death of its chief, Velupillai Prabakaran, reported on May 18, 2009, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is engaged in a bitter war of words with the international community in general and the West in particular over perceived and real humanitarian issues. The political drama played out outside the United Nations' office in Colombo from July 6 to 10 brought to the fore all the elements of the unending feud.

Coming close on the heels of the decision of the European Union (E.U.) to discontinue, from August 15, tariff concessions to the garment and apparel industry (known as generalised system of preferences +, or GSP+) to the tune of $150 million per annum and the announcement by the Barack Obama administration of a review of trade tariff concessions (linked to workers' rights), the U.N. episode showed the complete isolation of the government not just from the Western bloc but also from the larger world community.

The Sri Lankan government may have a point in its criticism that the West is applying double standards on the human rights issue, but its failure to secure the support of the countries in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in its confrontation with the U.N. demonstrates the stark reality.

The supposed fast-unto-death by Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa, which went on for a little over 50 hours, seeking the scrapping of the three-member experts' panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on June 22 to advise him on accountability issues relating to alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the military operation against the LTTE was perhaps a telling commentary on the state of affairs in the post-war era. And with the U.N. showing no signPresident himself visited the protest site and offered a glass of water to Weerawansa to end the fast.

Weerawansa, a rebel of the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF), a constituent of the ruling alliance, is seen as a staunch loyalist of the President. Little wonder no one was convinced by the government's explanation that the protest fast had nothing to do with it. The dominant view among political observers is that the government has no one but itself to blame for the crisis centred on the U.N.

The protest

On July 6, two weeks after the announcement by the office of Ban Ki-moon on the Sri Lanka experts' panel, supporters of the Minister staged a protest outside the main gate of the U.N. office compound in the heart of Colombo. Hours later, the hundred-odd demonstrators worked themselves into a frenzy and burnt an effigy of the Secretary-General as Weerawansa arrived on the scene. They laid siege to the U.N. office and prevented the U.N. staff from leaving the building for a few hours. The police tried to stop the protesters but had to retreat reportedly on the orders of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the younger brother of the President. The drama continued into the night.

On July 7, the U.N. virtually shut down its office and asked its staff to work from home. The protesters continued to camp at the site. On day three the Minister joined the protest, set up a makeshift tent outside the gates of the U.N. compound and vowed not to eat until the U.N. panel was dissolved. A report that the U.N. was winding up the UNDP's office in Sri Lanka and recalling its chief, Neil Bhune, created a sensation on July 8. But it soon came to light that the UNDP was in the process of winding down for some time now. The timing of the news, however, was seen as a counter from the U.N.

Fifty-two hours into the fast, President Rajapaksa intervened. He visited the site and served water to the Minister, apparently after his family requested him to do so. The direct intervention from the head of state revealed once again the many layers of the politics of the island nation.

Meanwhile, on July 17, a week after his recall to the U.N. headquarters, the Sri Lanka Resident Coordinator was back in the island nation. He was reportedly called for consultations to the U.N. headquarters but was back in Colombo to help rebuild the nation and assist in rejuvenating its ties with the U.N. Despite the move, the damage seemed to have been done.

The experts' panel

What is this experts' panel that led to the showdown? It was announced on June 22 and its mandate is to prepare a report within four months on the implementation of the government's commitment on human rights accountability made in the joint statement issued by the Secretary-General and the President after the former's visit to Sri Lanka in May 2009, less than a week after the end of the war.

Indonesia's Marzuki Darusman is to serve as the chair of the panel, which includes Yasmin Sooka of South Africa and Steven Ratner of the United States. As per a statement by the U.N., the panel will examine the modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience with regard to accountability processes, taking into account the nature and scope of any alleged violations in Sri Lanka.

'Not a follow-up'

Within hours, the government denounced the panel as an intervention in Sri Lanka's internal affairs and asserted that it was not a follow-up of the commitment made by Colombo during Ban Ki-moon's visit in 2009.

At a news conference, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris went to the extent of saying that the panel's members would not be issued visas. The Minister noted: Sri Lanka regards the appointment of the Sri Lanka panel of experts as an unwarranted and unnecessary interference with a sovereign nation. This interference, moreover, has potential for exploitation by vested interests hostile to the process of reconciliation taking place in Sri Lanka.

The government referred to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation' Commission appointed by Rajapaksa in May and argued that it would address all concerns, including questions on accountability. The government's explanation raised more questions than it sought to answer. Why did it take a year for the President to appoint the commission after the end of the war?

If the government has nothing to hide about the conduct of the war, as Rajapaksa and others in his regime have said, why is it so allergic to a mere advisory panel to the U.N. Secretary-General?

Gap in perceptions

The answer perhaps lies in the gap in the perceptions of the government and the U.N. on the commitments made by Colombo to Ban Ki-moon. It is true that there is no specific reference in the joint statement on the alleged human rights violations and the accountability process. But there is also no movement on the promises made by the President on most issues.

Extracts from the statement read:

The government expressed its commitment to ensure the economic and political empowerment of the people of the North through its programmes. President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment [on the devolution of powers to the provincial councils], as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties, in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka's international obligations. The Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The government will take measures to address those grievances.

In an opinion piece in the English daily Daily Mirror, Harrish Peiris (spokesman of the President from 2001-2005) wrote that while on the face of it the U.N. panel was a direct international intervention in Sri Lanka's affairs, it reflected the lack of credible progress on crucial issues of reconciliation and political solution to the ethnic confict.

The writer expressed the view that the U.N. endorsement of the victory of the security forces over the LTTE came with the caveat that Colombo would pursue three objectives, namely, rehabilitation and reconstruction of conflict-affected areas; finding a political solution that addresses the causes of the conflict, through a dialogue with all parties, especially the Tamil parties; and measures to deal with possible violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Peiris wrote: Of the three issues above, post-conflict rehabilitation we would need to do for humanitarian and equity reasons and to continue to claim to be a civilised society. It's the absence of a political solution or at least a credible political process, of engagement with the Tamil polity and its dominant representatives, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the world is suspicious about our intentions and the trajectory of our post-conflict socio-political order. A political solution that receives the approval of the TNA would have international credibility and reduce the political pressure on the accountability issues, which anyway we should do domestically with the emphasis on truth and reconciliation and not crime and punishment.

In this context the protest and fast by a Cabinet Minister on the constitution of the U.N. panel becomes interesting. According to reports, the heat being turned on ever so mildly by the international players, as showcased by the E.U.'s latest moves plus the lack of support from the NAM, Russia and even to some extent China, perhaps fostered this approach ingeniously unofficial yet enough to draw attention to the Sri Lankan government's official standpoint.