Rights, realism and duplicity: the two faces of Rajapaksa

With an international war crimes inquiry dangerously close, Sri Lanka’s president takes on big powers.

As Mahinda Rajapaksa takes over the position of Commonwealth chairperson-in-office, he faces pressure to investigate human rights abuses in Sri Lanka [Getty Images]

When Sri Lanka’s former President J R Jayewardene was accused of showing scant respect for human rights in the early days of the country’s separatist war, he said in the 1980s, “All is fair in love and war.” Quoting the 16th century English poet John Lyly, the erudite president was able to silence some of his critics.

But President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who last week assumed the title of Commonwealth chairperson-in-office, has no such excuses. He is being cornered.

During President Jayewardene’s time, Rajapaksa was an ambitious up-and-coming politician. The foundation he chose to build his political career on, was human rights. When Sri Lanka was being turned into an island of terror during the presidency of Jayewardene’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, the voice of Rajapaksa was one of the few who spoke against the excesses of the government. He even went to the United Nations Human Rights Commission – the predecessor of the Human Rights Council – in Geneva, to bring international pressure on the Sri Lankan regime. The government which, at the time, was fighting a separatist war in the country’s north and east, and a socialist youth insurrection in the rest of the country, accused Rajapaksa of internationalising what was essentially a Sri Lankan problem.

But Britain has put Sri Lanka on notice: Either launch an independent domestic probe on alleged war crimes before March or face an international inquiry.

Today the wheel has turned full circle – with Rajapaksa at the receiving end. Given his human rights credentials which add strength to his curriculum vitae, the biggest insult one can heap on him is to call him a human rights violator. But the reality lies somewhere in the middle of the human rights spectrum. He is neither a human rights idealist, nor an outright oppressor. Depending on the need of the hour, he positions himself on that spectrum. In 2005, he won the presidential election not on a promise to fight the war till its end, but on a promise to bring about peace with dignity. In the face of a series of ceasefire violations by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he held his calm and resisted a call for all-out war until it was no longer possible for him to ignore the calls for a fitting response to LTTE aggression.


During the war, excesses did take place. Even the Rajapaksa-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has noted them and called for an inquiry. According to a United Nations report, some 40,000 people died during the final stages of the war, a figure the Rajapaksa administration has hotly contested. However much the government of Sri Lanka tries to dismiss the allegations contained in the UN report and the Channel 4 documentaries, human rights activists insist these allegations warrant independent and credible investigations by the Sri Lankan government or by an international tribunal.

Rajapaksa’s mistake was not acting promptly on these allegations. This is because he does not want to be seen as a traitor in the eyes of his supporters, who hero-worship him for ending the 30-year war.

The delay or the reluctance to act on allegations of war crimes was perhaps also in deference to his troops, whom he respectfully addresses as “Ape Ranawiruwan” (our war heroes). He cannot penalise the troops without drawing upon himself the wrath of the people and letting his popular base erode. So his strategy apparently is to delay inquiries until such time when international pressure becomes too heavy a burden to bear.

That moment unexpectedly came last week, when the world attention was not only on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the Rajapaksa regime’s international magnum opus, but also on its alleged war crimes that have not been independently investigated.

He cannot wear the mantle of the Commonwealth chairperson-in-office and let the world see him as an alleged war criminal – he knows his new responsibility. The job as the chairperson-in-office of the Commonwealth demands that he uphold and promote the Commonwealth’s core values which include human rights, good governance, freedom of speech, and the independence of the judiciary, among others. He has pled for time, because he implied that at stake is Sri Lanka’s reputation as a civilised nation.

But Britain has put Sri Lanka on notice: Either launch an independent domestic probe on alleged war crimes before March, or face an international inquiry. In March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council will hear a report from UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay on the progress Sri Lanka has made in addressing war crime charges. A bad report is likely to pave the way for the United States, Britain, Canada and other Western powers to move for an international inquiry.

The Rajapaksa government has taken a few hurried measures to avoid such an eventuality. A week before CHOGM in Colombo, it agreed to a Commonwealth-assisted national inquiry on torture, although for public consumption, it claims that it would resist, at all cost, the move to set up an international inquiry.

In a way, Cameron’s mission to Sri Lanka smacks of hypocrisy. While projecting Britain as a champion of human rights, Cameron stole the Commonwealth limelight to hide Britain’s own war crimes in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Big power hypocrisy

Apart from this, many independent analysts here ask what moral rights the US, Britain and Canada have to preach human rights to Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankans are livid that Britain, which was responsible for planting the seeds of ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka, would take a moral high ground to brand Sri Lanka as a rogue state. During a meeting in Colombo on the sidelines of the CHOGM, Rajapaksa and his advisers reminded British Prime Minister David Cameron of the Bloody Sunday horror in Northern Ireland in 1972, and the lack of transparency in the ongoing Chilcot inquiry, which is supposedly probing all aspects of Britain’s dirty war in Iraq. Rajapaksa told a post-CHOGM news conference that people in glass houses should not throw stones at others – an obvious reference to Britain, which is also accused of committing war crimes.

In a way, Cameron’s mission to Sri Lanka smacks of hypocrisy. While projecting Britain as a champion of human rights, Cameron stole the Commonwealth limelight to hide Britain’s own war crimes in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. One wonders whether the Chilcot inquiry has gotten to the bottom of the September 2005 incident in Basra, Iraq? Will it tell us whether the two British Special Air Service officers, clad in Arab robes and travelling in an unmarked car containing explosives and detonators, were planning to set off bombs in Shia areas and blame it on the Sunnis?

Human rights, climate talks and poverty alleviation have less to do with altruism and more to do with realpolitik, because talking big about these vital issues, no matter how bad a big power’s own record is, adds to its soft power, which in turn helps to cover its shame.

Otherwise, how can one understand big powers’ lopsided world view in which water-boarding is human rights; denying a fair trial to Guantanamo Bay detainees is rule of law; killing Nabila Rehman’s grandmother in a drone attack is justice; supporting the coup in which Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted is advocating democracy; and condoning Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine is promoting decolonisation. This newspeak is political realism.

As for Rajapaksa, who, in a desperate bid to defeat moves to set up an international inquiry, is now seriously thinking of establishing a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a big dose of prudence in diplomacy is necessary. Instead of confronting big powers, he must engage them in a spirit of “friendship with all” – the foreign policy motto of S W R D Bandaranaike, the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which Rajapaksa now heads.

Ameen Izzadeen is the deputy editor of the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka and international editor at the Wijeya Newspaper Group, Sri Lanka.

Follow him on Twitter: @ameenizzadeen