Dr. Jehan Perera
The speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he was in Sri Lanka that referred to Sri Lanka along with Rwanda and Srebrenica has created political controversy. In remarks that deviated from the prepared text of his speech, the UNSG said “…something more terrible, serious happened in the past. In 1994 in Rwanda there was a massacre. More than one million people were massacred. The UN felt responsible for that…We said repeatedly ‘Never again, Never again’…It happened just one year after in Srebrenica… We did it again in Sri Lanka…” The opposition has made this into one of their key issues against the government. They have alleged that the references to Rwanda and Srebrenica are indicators that the UN system is pushing ahead with its agenda of labeling Sri Lanka as guilty of the international crime of genocide and punishing those who ensured the military victory over the LTTE.
Section in the Tamil polity and Diaspora also make the same argument. The Northern Provincial Council which is headed by Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, a former judge of the Supreme Court, passed a resolution calling for an international investigation into genocide in Sri Lanka. It accused successive Sri Lankan governments of committing acts of genocide against the Tamil people just before the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March last year. It asked the UN to set up an investigation into genocide in various forms alleged to have been perpetrated on the Tamil people from the time of Independence. The resolution also called upon the UN to set up an international process to ensure accountability for those crimes.
Even at the height of the war, Tamil people were able to live with reasonable safety in government held areas. It was in the war zones that were controlled by the LTTE that civilians died in large numbers as the military sought to wrest control of the territory from the LTTE and to defeat them in battle. Unless there is an intention to destroy an entire population, the claim of genocide cannot be sustained. However, the deliberate killing of civilians or those who are no longer involved in combat or have surrendered is a war crime. What has been noted by human rights groups and activists is the lack of remorse manifested within Sri Lanka of the large scale deaths of the civilian population and the preference to sweep them under the carpet and move ahead. The previous government’s rhetoric of “zero civilian casualties” epitomized this attitude.
There is much that is positive that is happening in Sri Lanka today. Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary for the office of democracy, human rights and Labour in the United States who visited Sri Lanka at the time of the genocide resolution by the Northern Provincial Council went out of his way to show support for the course of action being followed by the new government. He wrote an article to the Sri Lankan press stating that “All around the world, there are countries that are going through, in their own ways, what Sri Lankans went through here. Read the headlines from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Burma, and you will see why the international community wants Sri Lanka to succeed. Not just for the country’s sake, but for all our sakes: The world needs Sri Lanka to keep showing that a society divided by ethnicity and faith can find peace through democracy and dialogue.”
In addition, the Sri Lankan military continues to be taken on international peace keeping missions. The UN Secretary-General welcomed the commitment made by Sri Lanka, among other countries, to the UN Peacekeeping at the United Nations Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial in London last week. He said he was particularly encouraged by the pledges related to rapid deployment, including commitments by Sri Lanka to maintain units at a high level of readiness. It was reported recently that Sri Lankan troops are on peacekeeping missions in seven countries and that a battalion of officers and men from the Sri Lanka Army have been invited to join the United Nations Peacekeeping Force for operations in the northern areas of the West African nation of Mali. A military that is charged for genocide would not be invited to be UN peacekeepers.
There have also been steps taken by both the UN Secretary General’s office and the government to engage in damage control about the references to Rwanda, Srebrenica while he was in Sri Lanka. At the annual convention of the ruling party, the UNP, there was the passage of a resolution not to allow any foreign force to threaten the country’s independence, undermine or ridicule it or exert pressure on the country’s sovereignty. This was also echoed by President Maithripala Sirisena in his speech at the UNP convention as well as earlier at the SLFP convention. In addition, the UN clarified the remarks by saying that Mr Ban Ki-moon was only engaging in self-criticism of the UN in protecting vulnerable people and saying that the UN as a whole had failed to protect those who it was meant to protect. The UN’s official spokesperson also said that the UN Secretary General “was not making a direct comparison between those situations.”
Apart from the Office of Missing Persons that the government has legislated into law, there are three other specific mechanisms that the government has promised, which are the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Office of Reparations and the Judicial Accountability mechanism. It is reported that the government has proceeded far with these also. The real challenge will come at the next stage—that of implementation. When it comes to implementation there will be a need for campaigning to create empathy amongst the general population to deal with the hard issues of the past. Addressing the Annual Convention of the UNP last week, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe apologised for any mistakes the party may have made during its many years of rule. This acknowledgement and apology on behalf of the party is an important step on the road to accountability, the lack of which has been a hallmark of Sri Lankan politics for many decades.
In October 2015, the government co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva that called for promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights. The UN Secretary General’s references to the war in Sri Lanka in the same speech that he referred to the UN failures in Rwanda and Srebrenica are indicative that the UN system is keen to see that Sri Lanka fulfils the promises it has made to the international community. It is necessary that the government should fulfill the commitments it made in that resolution. These are for the release of civilian land held by the military, release of prisoners held without charge for years, demilitarization, removal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and establishing a truth seeking and accountability mechanism to investigate and prosecute violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law.
There is also awareness that those from the former government who denied that large numbers of civilians died in the war, and who even claimed initially that there were “zero civilians casualties” are waiting in the wings to take over the reins of governance if the opportunity presents itself. In which case, many of the gains achieved by the post-2015 government will be put into jeopardy. The comments of the UN Secretary General during his visit and his observations about the improvements he saw are indications that the international community will be prepared to give Sri Lanka the time and space to grapple with the politically difficult issues of truth and accountability with regard to the war, and devolution and sharing of power with regard to a lasting political solution. But it will also continue to insist that Sri Lanka accounts for the past, both to its own people and to the international community.
By Dr. Jehan Perera