As international pressure mounts on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to launch a credible process to investigate war crimes alleged to have taken place during the last stages of the war, the people – largely the Sinhalese who form 75 percent of the country’s population – rally round him.
Since the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, Rajapaksa has been winning almost every election by whipping up patriotic emotions that make people forget his failures and see him as a saviour.
It is their way of paying back for bringing peace to the country and restoring their freedom. In the process, the skyrocketing cost of living becomes a non-issue. So do corruption allegations, nepotism, authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and a decadent casino culture that goes against the Buddhist precepts.
Every international effort aimed at pressurising the Sri Lankan regime to probe war crime charges is interpreted by the Rajapaksa regime as an international conspiracy launched together with pro-LTTE elements in the Tamil Diaspora to defeat the government. And the people believe him.
Rajapaksa says the war the Sri Lankan troops fought was to protect lives – and as commander-in-chief, he rejects the war crime charges levelled against them by various human rights groups, the United Nations, the United States, Canada, Britain and the Channel 4 television. Their reports, which make Sri Lanka appear as though it is a rogue state in the eyes of the world community, cite eyewitness accounts, videoes and photographic evidence.
Weeks ahead of the crucial UN Human Rights Council sessions due in March, an Australian law policy group; International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP) issued a damning report against the Rajapaksa regime
The report, titled “Island of Impunity“, claimed that evidence suggests that Sri Lankan security forces systematically destroyed mass graves of civilians.
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This report only makes the Rajapaksa regime’s effort to defend its human rights record more difficult, as the US prepares to present a third resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva next month.
Sri Lanka’s military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya has rubbished the ICEP report as baseless and cast doubts about the accuracy of the document which quoted eyewitnesses as claiming that the military removed evidence of war crimes.
Government leaders are likely to dismiss the report as yet another western conspiracy. Their campaign to discredit the Channel 4 and its documentaries is itself worthy of a documentary. Recently Rajapaksa told a public gathering in the southern town of Kalutara that Western countries were conspiring to deny Sri Lanka the hard-won victory against the LTTE.
Then, in his address to the nation on Independence Day (on February 4), he said:
“It is necessary for the people in the North to be aware that certain foreign forces are attempting to use them as human shields. […] They interfered in these countries putting forward claims to protect human rights, establish democracy and the rule of law […] I see the attempts to level charges of war crimes against us in Geneva today as the triumph of those who are not in favour of peace”
Sri Lanka is an ethnically divided nation, even though the 2009 war victory restored the country’s territorial integrity. The aspirations of a majority of the Tamils who make up 14 percent of the population are different from those of the Sinhalese – and of the Muslims who constitute 10 percent of the population.
A United Nations report charges that 40,000 people died in the last stages of the war – and almost all of them were Tamils. Thousands have also gone missing – again almost all of them were Tamils. This is not to say that the Sinhalese and the Muslims did not suffer in the 30-year conflict. But the Tamils’ suffering goes deep and continues despite the government’s welfare and reconciliatory measures and moves to develop the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
The Tamils, on the other hand, seek justice. If that justice cannot be found in Sri Lanka, they want the international community to intervene. On January 27, the Northern Provincial Council – controlled by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which was once accused of being an LTTE proxy – passed a resolution, calling for an international probe into the war crimes alleged to have been committed during the last stages of the war.
Dodging an international probe
Much to the chagrin of Rajapaksa, the TNA leaders have met human rights envoys, including United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay and US ambassador at large from the Office of the Global Criminal Justice, Stephen J Rapp. The latter posted a controversial picture on his twitter account saying “St Anthany’s Ground – site of Jan 2009 killing of hundreds of families by army shelling.” The US embassy refused to withdraw the tweet when Sri Lanka protested.
The stories these envoys hear are different from what the government says. Nisha Biswal, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, told a Colombo news conference at the end of her two-day visit:
“We heard about individuals and organisations that continue to feel threatened and intimidated. When such a climate persists five years after the end of conflict, then I think there is some cause for those individuals to feel that an international process is needed.”
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Though Rajapaksa seems to put on a brave face, he feels the pressure and tries all his cards to prevent an international war crimes probe from taking shape. He sent his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s number one civil servant, to Washington in January to lobby the support of politicians close to the Barack Obama administration. In yet another move, Rajapaksa, despite his credentials as a champion of Palestinian rights, made a visit to Israel last month, the first by a Sri Lankan leader. One of the purposes of the visit, political analysts here say, was to urge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to use his influence with the Obama administration and defer any US resolution against Sri Lanka.
The irony of it is that the international war crimes probe is Rajapaksa’s own making. It has its genesis in a joint statement Rajapaksa and the visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued in the aftermath of the end of the war in 2009. Its last paragraph said:
“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.”
It was on the basis of the contents and spirit of this paragraph, the UN Secretary General appointed an expert panel to advise him on Sri Lanka’s human rights violations after he found there was no effort by Sri Lanka to initiate a credible domestic probe.
Underestimating the resolve of the big powers on the war crimes issue – as they themselves are accused of committing such crimes in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan – and highly overestimating its own diplomatic power, the Sri Lankan government committed blunder after blunder. It failed to strengthen its democratic institutions and win the confidence of the international community.
Sri Lanka has never been a rogue state. Its contributions to international law and international peacemaking are well known in the corridors of the UN. Still it is not too late to avert a rogue state label, but it needs courage to free democracy from all constraints.
Ameen Izzadeen is the deputy editor of the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka and International Editor of the Wijeya Newspaper Group, Sri Lanka. He also writes a weekly column for the Colombo-based Daily Mirror. He is also a lecturer on international relations and a journalism trainer. He holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Colombo and has contributed research articles to books and journals on socio-political issues.
Follow him Twitter: @ameenizzadeen