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UN vote and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Experts debate whether UN resolution will help bring reconciliation between majority Sinhala community and Tamils.

Last updated: 05 Apr 2014 14:08
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Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009, but there is still little information on thousands of people who disappeared [AP]

The UN Human Rights Council at its session in Geneva passed a resolution against Sri Lanka that paves the way for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes in the final phases of the civil war in 2009.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam rebels have been accused of committing atrocities during the war, but the conduct of government troops have been criticised due to the high level of casualties, with one UN report saying that about 40,000 civilians were killed by troops.

We ask two Sri Lankan experts whether the UN resolution will help bring reconciliation between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority.

Cunning piece of work

Rajiva Wijesinha, Member of Parliament and Adviser on Reconciliation to the President. Former head of the Peace Secretariat and former secretary of the Human Rights Ministry.

Rajiva Wijesinha [Al Jazeera]

The resolution against Sri Lanka that the United States precipitated in Geneva was a very cunning piece of work. It dealt with a number of issues that are of concern to many Sri Lankans, but which are not material for such resolutions.

If every country, where there are worries about detainees or about attacks on other religions or transparency about inquiries, were to be subject to external investigation, the main sponsors of the motion would suffer.

What they did was introduce a hybrid to put maximum pressure on others in their clutches. They talked about reconciliation and the need for political progress, both of which we need to do much better on.

Thankfully India, which is most concerned about these, saw through the trap, and not only refused to vote for the motion, but pointed out how it would damage these priorities.

The United States had done something similar earlier, when former ambassador Robert Blake told an Indian politician that the US had found a way to pressurise Sri Lanka to move on those priorities. This was the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, who had previously been seen as a hardliner, but for whom they wanted the Tamil political party to vote.

The decision of the Tamil National Alliance to go along with Fonseka proved a disaster, since it led to deep distrust on the part of government. I myself think we should get over that worry, and with Indian support negotiate more positively.

But I do worry as to whether the US manoeuver was only because of ignorance or whether they had more sinister motives. After all, they have worked elsewhere with hardliners, where they want to polarise, assuming they can deal with the consequences, and then walking away when the consequences prove disastrous.

In this case, their insistence on war crimes accountability as opposed to asking for swifter progress and greater transparency with regard to implementation of our own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations will strengthen hardliners in the diaspora who still want a separate state, and hardliners in government who think that greater devolution will contribute to separatism.

Remembering how the West likes bite-sized chunks, beginning with partition in India and Palestine, going on to Serbia and Sudan, I think we need to worry. But we need also to understand that the best defence is reconciliation among our own people, with support from the region, so as not to play into their hands.

Prospect of genuine reconciliation

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu [Al Jazeera]

Despite attempts to suspend debate on the resolution and to delete its operative paragraph, the UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution - the third in as many years on Sri Lanka.

The latest resolution mandates the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan security forces in the period between February 2002 and May 2009. The Office of the High Commissioner is also requested to monitor the human rights situation in the country.

The resolution constitutes a defeat for the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa government and its allies, who declared it illegal and exceeding the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner.

The categorical denials and continued confrontational approach of the regime has clearly not earned it friends internationally and even those disposed to support it have been distinctly uncomfortable with its approach. In this respect, a major rethink of Sri Lanka's foreign policy is underscored by the resolution.

Most importantly, the resolution attests to the clear opinion of the majority of the international community that the regime lacks serious and sincere political commitment towards advancing meaningful national unity firmly based on reconciliation, the rule of law, religious tolerance and the eradication of the cancer of impunity.

It remains to be seen as to what the precise modalities of the international investigation will be -nevertheless it will give hope to many who simply want to know the truth and who seek justice as citizens of Sri Lanka.

The regime no doubt will continue to beat the "sovereignty" drum, charge "regime change" and neo-colonialism. Arrests and detention of human rights defenders even while the Council was in session, and the regime reports about an attempted LTTE revival, indicate that human rights defenders and dissenters in Sri Lanka will be tarnished with alleged LTTE links.

This, in turn, will be used to justify the continued and extensive use of draconian anti-terrorism legislation and militarisation, particularly in the north and east of the country.

The objective is to stamp out dissent and the flow of information on past and continuing violations, which crucially underpins the counter-narrative to regime propaganda, and to galvanise political support on the basis of the fear engendered by the prospect of a revived LTTE.

The immediate hope is that the political benefits of this strategy will be manifested in the provincial elections. The ruling party won the elections for southern and western provincial councils, further consolidating the regime in power. The long term hope is of this in perpetuity and accordingly, that citizens will be cowed into becoming subjects who will not dare to speak out about human rights, truth, accountability and fundamental freedoms.

The resolution, in the face of regime obduracy, has the potential for mounting a serious challenge to this project; cooperation of the regime in its implementation, on the other hand, holds out the prospect of genuine reconciliation and unity as well as democratic governance.

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The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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