The UNHRC Sri Lanka war crimes investigation may be welcome, but peace and reconciliation requires more
The recently passed UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka marks a high point in terms of the country’s road towards peace. The US backed UNHRC resolution paves the way for an international investigation into the war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan government (GOSL) during the final military battles of the war. According to the Office for the Commissioner for Human Rights, the resolution asks that Sri Lanka “conduct an independent investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law; and extended the mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.” An important step, yes, and in many ways a loss in terms of political capital for the GOSL, in both national and international terms.
Those campaigning on the ground for greater attention to be paid to the war crimes allegations can take this event as the first real headway towards justice and accountability, whilst members of the diaspora that have been pushing for the international community to make a ‘real stand’, will see such progress as nothing short of momentous. Indeed, this resolution separates itself from the two that have come before by being definitively stronger in terms of what it asks the GOSL to do. It has also forced many countries to truly show their hand regarding their willingness to push the GOSL on its human rights agenda. The votes, from 47 member countries were 25 in favour, 13 against and eight abstentions.
One of the abstentions comes from regional power player India, which is home to many Tamil persons, a noteworthy departure from their support of two previous ‘tamer’ decrees issued by the UNHRC. This, of course, reinforces the strength of the resolution in question. The drive for the GOSL to prove its accountability and transparency in terms of human rights is gathering more impetus. As Navi Pillay, Special UN Rapporteur for Human Rights, suggested when discussing the situation in North Korea, we can now challenge the international community and the GOSL to a true test of action.
A small problem remains in terms of historical response and also, the power blocs that the Sri Lankan government has managed to consolidate. In the past, the GOSL has always responded to international interventions with anti-imperialistic rhetoric and personal attacks on named officials, claiming that any policy making from outside the country was an extensive act of Western neo-colonialism. The Sri Lankan government also enjoys solid support from the Chinese government, and seemingly, some silent support from Manmohan Singh’s government. These last two points seriously complicate the ability of local civil society groups and the international community to strong-arm the GOSL into conducting a war crimes inquiry, at least in terms of the near future. What this situation does reinforce is that attention must be paid to those solutions and changes that can be made from below, from within Sri Lankan society itself.
A war crimes inquiry, thoroughly and independently conducted, may confirm much of the allegations that have been made against the Sri Lankan government and its Armed Forces. At the same time, the process that takes us towards the implementation of the inquiry, and its aftermath will create further cleavages in an already deeply conflicted and divided country. At present, tensions prevail not only in terms of ethnic divisions but also between the different religions that co-exist in Sri Lanka, with significant hostility having been demonstrated between Buddhist fundamental groups and Muslim and Christian communities. The sanctity of non-Buddhist religious practices has been subsumed to a fundamentalist nationalist ethic, so much so that there have been incidents where pork was thrown into a city mosque, or where a tabernacle in a Catholic church was desecrated. The GOSL has also undertaken an extensive militarization and Sinhalisation of the Northern part of the country, imposing a kind of cultural colonisation in these areas.
During the recent Commonwealth summit, the despair and difficulties still being experienced by minority communities in Sri Lanka was made especially evident, particularly during the visits that British Prime Minister David Cameron made to the North of the country. The situation of women in Sri Lanka’s post-war situation is also grim, with many war widows turning to prostitution in order to finance single parent households. The GOSL also recently branded all Tamil diaspora groups as belonging to ‘terrorist’ factions. Despite these tensions, in a recent speech to the National Unity Conference, President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed that no minorities exist in the Sri Lankan state, using the image of Sinhala King Dutugemunu to suggest that any racist claims levelled against the government are simply the voices of those who misunderstand or wish to undermine the Government-led post-war reconciliation project.
It is important to uncover what truly occurred in the last days of the war. Yet, an investigation that focuses so fully on the GOSL itself will alienate those who wish to point out, quite fairly, the role of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in perpetrating certain atrocities. More than this, a constant focus on top-down approaches such as policing action from the international community moves the conversation away from how local groups can work together to heal the divides and conflicts prevailing in Sri Lanka. An inquiry will largely answer only to legal, formalised planes of justice and institutional remedy. Any movement through transitional justice that has as its end goal in unitive reconciliation, must tackle both crimes made against humanity and also the deep wounds existing in, and being amplified in, the society concerned.
What is certainly missing in much of the political discourse surrounding the Sri Lankan problem is how and in what ways the country and its extremely divided communities can move towards reconciliation and healing. Indeed, what we have seen in the post-war years has only been further levels of inter-communal estrangement and aggression. There has been little sustained dialogue as to how healing will occur, or what needs to be in place in terms of formal apologies, witness statements or reparations, actions from religious leaders and so on, before the country can reconcile itself. Without a focus on radical reconciliation, Sri Lanka will not be able to progress from conflict to peace, rendering even a successful war crimes investigation, completely null and void.
Image from: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/world/asia/07lanka.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
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