Sri Lanka prepares for Geneva showdown
By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO- As Sri Lanka steadfastly refuses any external inquiry into human-rights abuses allegedly committed when the government pushed a military victory over Tamil rebels in its decades-long sectarian conflict, right groups say the global community is left with no option but to push for an international investigation. The South Asian island nation faces a critical US-backed resolution this week at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
This will be the third such resolution at the UNHRC since 2012 but the first that is widely expected to call for an international probe into abuses committed during the last stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in May 2009.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa views any
external intervention as undermining the sovereignty of the country.
"We have reached the point where it is too late to hope that Sri Lanka will actually investigate its own alleged human-rights violations," Polly Truscott, deputy Asia Pacific director at Amnesty International (AI) told IPS. "After years of empty promises by the government, it is now up to the international community to establish an independent war crimes investigation into the Sri Lankan conflict."
Other groups that have called for an international investigation include Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the International Commission of Jurists.
"We believe there is a strong chance that the UNHRC will institute an international inquiry at this session," Sheila Varadan, international legal advisor with the South Asia program at the International Commission of Jurists told IPS.
"It may not immediately affect the behavior of the Sri Lankan government, but it will send a strong message that the international community is not willing to give up on accountability."
The country's sectarian war, which began in the early 1980s, saw the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fight government forces for over two-and-a-half decades. The LTTE was demanding a separate state for minority Tamils in the north. The war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE, but not before more than 70,000 people had been killed.
Ahead of the UNHRC sessions, Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to the Lankan president, said countries critical of Sri Lanka preferred to turn a blind eye to the good work done by the government in the north.
Talking to a select group of correspondents at the president's Colombo residence, he said the government had spent over US$4.5 billion on development work in the north, building highways and large infrastructure projects. He said that more than 94% of mined areas had been cleared in less than five years.
"Where on earth would you get this kind of work?" Weeratunga asked, arguing that the government needed more time on delicate issues like power-sharing and reconciliation.
The government has begun working with the International Committee of the Red Cross on surveying the needs of missing people's families, ICRC officials in Colombo told IPS. Weeratunga said the government was awaiting the recommendations of a presidential commission on missing persons later this year.
Critics of the Rajapaksa administration say such action is too little too late, and merely cosmetic.
Truscott said: "It is difficult not to conclude that the commission on disappearances is little more than window dressing for the international community. Sri Lanka has a long history of setting up similar commissions at politically opportune moments, only to accomplish very little.
"It's likely just another delaying tactic on the government's part, trying to give the impression that it is doing the right thing, while actually just attempting to avoid genuine accountability."
Varadan spoke along similar lines. "National processes cannot be relied upon to produce any credible investigations. Independence of the judiciary has been significantly undermined. The only real option for fact-finding is international investigations," she said.
The government says such opinions are the creation of pressure groups and aggressive lobbying by international supporters of the LTTE.
Rajapaksa said this month that domestic pressures had influenced the anti-Sri Lanka stance taken by the UK and Canada. "It is because of the Tamil diaspora voters. They have to satisfy their voters," he said.
He said the government in neighboring India, which is facing a general election, could also be swayed to support the resolution due to pressure from its southern state Tamil Nadu.
There is also fear that due to an impending trip by US President Barack Obama in April, Sri Lanka could lose the support of another traditional backer, Japan.
Weeratunga said some of those who were aggressively criticizing Sri Lanka could not even locate the island on a map. "If they move a resolution on a country which they do not know, that is unfair," he said.
Sri Lanka is assured of at least some heavyweight support at the UNHRC - that of China and Russia - and government diplomats tell IPS that a large bloc of African and Latin American countries are also likely to come out in support.