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Lessons from Geneva

2014 Apr 03

By V Suryanarayan


Gross human violations that took place in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War have come into sharp focus once again. The UN Human Rights Council, on March 27, after taking note of the recommendations of the UN High Commissioner, highlighted the “need for an international inquiry mechanism”. The resolution was supported by 23 members, 12 voted against and 12, including India, abstained.

It should be pointed out that when human rights violations figured in the UN soon after the Fourth Eelam War, India, along with Russia and China, opposed the move and bailed out the Sri Lankan government. What is more, India went ahead and got a resolution passed which congratulated the Lankan government for defeating one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world. But as the Lankan government began to show its true colours, went back on assurances for credible internal investigation and implementation of devolution proposals, New Delhi had to revise its policy. There was also a domestic compulsion, namely the political parties in Tamil Nadu were insisting on punishing the guilty in Sri Lanka. Hence, in 2012 and 2013, India voted against Sri Lanka. In fact, behind the scenes, Indian diplomats were trying to get the resolution worded strongly. But the thrust of the resolution was to persuade Sri Lanka to have its own investigative mechanism and speed up the process of ethnic reconciliation.

The 2014 resolution represented a basic departure from the earlier ones. Mandate for international investigation means intrusion into the domestic affairs of a sovereign state. Amb. Dilip Sinha pointed out that by asking the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “investigate, assess and monitor the human rights situation” the resolution ignored the progress Sri Lanka has made like the holding of the Northern Provincial Council election and the successful rehabilitation of the internally displaced people. The Indian delegate highlighted that the resolution was “inconsistent and impractical” because it asks both Colombo and the OHCHR to simultaneously conduct investigation. Amb. Sinha concluded that it had been India’s firm conviction that an “intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and integrity is counter-productive”.

The Indian abstention represents a definite victory for Indian bureaucracy. They are of the view that Indian voting in the 2012 and 2013 meetings was an aberration and it needs to be corrected. They feel that if New Delhi supports an intrusive approach, at a future date, it can also be used against India itself. New Delhi has many skeletons in the cupboard—human rights violations in Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram and encounter killings in the Naxalite-hit areas. It should also be pointed out that in 2012 and 2013 the Tamil Nadu factor was very decisive. But the situation has changed today. The mandarins in South Block know that Indian abstention will be subjected to severe criticism in Tamil Nadu. After weighing the pros and cons the government agreed with the bureaucrats, because whatever may be the nature of voting the ruling Congress party will not be able to win a single seat in Tamil Nadu.

Colombo is determined to stonewall any effort to institute an international inquiry mechanism. Amb. Dayan Jayatilleka echoed the feelings of the majority Sinhalese when he wrote: “As Sri Lankans our rejection of an international inquiry must be unconditional. Such an inquiry is unfair, hypocritical and an affront to our self respect as a nation.” The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that got a resolution passed in the Northern Provincial Council for international investigation, naturally welcomed the UN resolution.

From an Indian point of view it will be relevant to compare and contrast Mahinda Rajapaksa’s earlier views on UN humanitarian intervention and his present policy. The Sinhalese generally refer to the period, 1987-89, as Bishana Samaya, Days of Terror. The Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) had unleashed unprecedented violence following the conclusion of the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The brutality of the JVP was more than matched by the savage reprisals of the Lankan armed forces. As Lionel Bopage, former JVP leader, has written, “For every one person killed by the JVP, the security forces killed ten”. Rajapaksa was a budding Sinhalese politician; he left the shores of Sri Lanka, camped in Geneva and demanded UN humanitarian intervention to save his people. Obviously, he would not like to be reminded of his earlier stance on UN humanitarian intervention.

While Rajapaksa’s support base among the majority Sinhalese is intact, evident from recent win in the council elections in the Western and Southern Provinces, there are dark clouds hovering in the horizon. As the resolution in the UN aptly pointed out, “there are continuing reports of violation of human rights, including sexual and gender violence, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and violation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, threats to judicial independence and rule of law as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society, lawyers and journalists. There are also attacks against religious minority groups, Hindus, Moslems and against Christians”.

A recent violent incident in Kilinochchi district in the Northern Province needs mention. The shooting was attributed to Gopi, a former Tiger guerrilla. A virtual man hunt followed. According to government spokesmen, it was an illustration of LTTE resurgence. The TNA maintained it was a government excuse to justify the continuing military presence in the Tamil areas. The TNA, under the leadership of Wigneswaran and Sampanthan, represents the saner elements in the Tamil society who are eager to find a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. If the TNA gets weakened and marginalised in the hands of the government, it is likely to be replaced by more extremist forces. And there are fringe groups in the Tamil diaspora who would like to resurrect the Tigers and finance the armed struggle.

It is necessary to recall that Sri Lankan Tamils were reluctant secessionists and the genesis and growth of Tamil militancy was a consequence of the many acts of discrimination perpetuated by Sinhalese-dominated governments. Sri Lanka’s future hinges on whether Sinhalese leaders will draw the right lessons from history. Those who do not learn will be compelled to relive history.

The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.

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