Lanka rights vote stirs nationalist
passion By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - A new wave of nationalism
among the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka following
a United Nations vote last week could embolden the
government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to avoid
ensuring accountability for atrocities committed
against Tamil civilians in the final stages of the
civil war and continue ignoring the need for a
political solution to the country's decades-long
resolution, which was passed on Thursday at the
United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by a
vote of 24 to 15 with eight abstentions, aims at
jumpstarting the process of bringing to justice
those responsible for the systematic killing of
civilians in the final stages of the war that
ended in May, 2009, but could end up having the
Nationalist passions have
surged in the wake of the resolution. The run-up
to the vote in Geneva saw Buddhist monks and
groups protesting the selective ''victimization''
of Sri Lanka, with some seeing it as a diabolical
conspiracy. A statement issued by monks at the end
of a demonstration drew attention to ''evil forces
both local and international [that] have joined
hands to deprive Sri Lanka of the present
environment of peace." These forces, the statement
warned would take ''this blessed island back to an
era of darkness''.
In a significant shift
in position, India, which strongly supported the
Rajapaksa government's conduct of the war against
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) voted
for the resolution. The resolution calls on
Colombo to provide a comprehensive action plan
detailing steps the government proposes to
implement the recommendations made in the report
of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and
Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), and to address
''alleged violations of international law''.
New Delhi's vote in favor of the UNHRC
resolution has angered Sri Lanka's Sinhala
majority. ''They feel India has acted
antagonistically to Sri Lanka,'' Sumanasiri
Liyanage, professor of economics at Sri Lanka's
Peradeniya University, told Asia Times Online.
This could result in a fraying of
Colombo's ties with its northern neighbor,
prompting the Rajapaksa government to move closer
to China, reducing among other things India's
The Sri Lankan civil war was a
brutal one. A UN panel of experts concluded last
year that "a wide range of serious violations of
international humanitarian law and international
human rights law was committed both by the
Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of
which would amount to war crimes and crimes
There is considerable
evidence, including video footage of the final
days of the war, that provides chilling insight
into how the Sri Lankan armed forces bombarded
Tamil civilians in so-called no-fire zones,
prevented humanitarian assistance from reaching
civilians there and systematically executed
surrendering and captured LTTE fighters and their
relatives, even if they were mere children.
In the circumstances, the UNHRC resolution
is a mere rap on the Lankan government's knuckles.
Its text falls far short of demands by
human-rights groups and Tamil diaspora
organizations for an international probe and trial
of the Rajapaksa regime on war crimes charges. The
resolution calls on Colombo to implement
recommendations made by the LLRC. It ''encourages
the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights and relevant special procedures
mandate holders to provide … advice and technical
assistance on implementing'' the steps it has
Even this advice is only ''in
consultation with the concurrence of the
government of Sri Lanka". The intrusive content of
the resolution's text was diluted considerably.
In spite of this, many have opposed the
resolution on the grounds that it undermines Sri
The thrust of the
government's argument at Geneva was that it needed
''time and space'' to implement the LLRC
recommendations, ignoring that three years has
passed since the end of the war in which it had
not taken even baby steps toward meaningfully
reconciling with the Tamils.
opponents of the resolution have questioned the
moral right of the United States to sponsor it
given its own abysmal record in Afghanistan, Iraq
and dozens of other countries. Liyanage, for
instance, questioned the Americans' intentions,
arguing that it was not concern for Tamils that
drove Washington's move.
Supporters of the
resolution are under fire from Sinhala
nationalists and the government. Sri Lankan rights
activists and journalists who supported the
resolution have been dubbed by the
government-controlled media as "traitors" who have
"betrayed the motherland". Intimidation of critics
of the government - always high in Sri Lanka -
peaked last week when Minister for Public
Relations Mervyn Silva warned several activists
whom he named at a public rally that he would
break their limbs in public.
voted for the resolution are being castigated.
Protest demonstrations were staged outside the US
embassy in Colombo. Wimal Weerawansa, the minister
for housing and common amenities who is leader of
the National Freedom Front, has called for a
boycott of American brands such as Coca-Cola,
Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Google's e-mail service
Another target of Sri Lankan ire is
neighboring India. The pro-government English
daily, The Island, mocked India as a "loser" that
had "failed to carry Asia, or at least South Asia
with it". (Other Asian countries either voted
against or abstained on the resolution). "Sri
Lanka has won against India in Asia," it gloated.
Delhi's "yes vote" in the UNHRC is
perceived by many in Colombo as the outcome of
pressure from the US and of coalition compulsions,
ie India's ruling United Progressive Alliance was
forced to heed the demand of its Tamil allies to
support the resolution.
While there is
some truth in this perception, it ignores the key
concern that drove Delhi to vote the way it did -
mounting frustration in India with the Rajapaksa
government's reluctance to take steps to find a
political solution to the ethnic conflict.
"Delhi finally woke up to the fact that
its gentle prodding of Colombo for the past
several years to deliver on its promises for
devolution of power was not working. Hence, its
decision to vote in favor of the UNHRC
resolution," a retired Indian diplomat said.
Illustrative of the change in Indian mood
is the shift in the editorial position of The
Hindu, an influential Indian daily that has
readership in Sri Lanka too. Till recently an
apologist of the Rajapaksa government, it observed
in an editorial that Rajapaksa brought the Geneva
resolution on himself.
The question now is
how the Rajapaksa government will respond to the
message coming out of Geneva, one that the Hindu
describes as a "wake up call for Colombo".
The UNHRC resolution is not binding.
Rajapaksa could therefore be tempted to respond
with "bravado and defiance, a response that would
strike a chord, no doubt, with his Sinhala
nationalist supporters," the Indian diplomat said.
This response is not without risks.
"Open violation of the UNHRC resolution
(as non-binding as it is) will certainly bring the
country closer to an international mechanism on
war crimes and drag Sri Lanka into even muddier
international waters," the noted human rights
lawyer Kishali Pinto Jayawardene warned in an
opinion piece in The Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan
importantly, a continued reluctance to address
Tamil grievances and justice issues will only fuel
further the simmering ethnic conflict.
There is a possibility of the Sri Lankan
government introducing "some measures that would
formally satisfy the international community,"
Liyanage argues. "But its effects on national
integration in Sri Lanka may not be significant."
This would mean that the government will
make some cosmetic gestures towards
"reconciliation" with the Tamils.
might satisfy what Liyanage describes as "a
disinterested international community" but it is
unlikely to assuage the Tamils.
at Geneva is being described in Colombo as a
victory. "The cornered badger [Sri Lanka] bravely
fought the mastiffs of neo-imperialism … and went
down fighting," the Island editorial said, going
on to claim that "it certainly was a defeat as
good as a victory!"
It is time Colombo
read the message from Geneva correctly. As the
Hindu points out, the resolution "means that
gentle prodding and quiet diplomacy will not be
the main means the world will adopt towards the
Sri Lanka's Sinhala
nationalists might need to drop that
self-satisfied swagger in their gait.
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached email@example.com
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