Geneva and after
Posted on March 4th, 2017
March 4, 2017, 7:08 pm
The advantages of a policy of non-confrontational foreign relations favored by the incumbent rulers against the bang-bang- bang approach of its predecessors was evident at the ongoing UN Human Rights Commission proceedings in Geneva where Sri Lanka did not face canon fire. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and his delegation left Geneva having seemingly won more time for the government to get its reconciliation act into proper order even as both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe went on record on Friday saying that foreign judges will not be appointed to tribunals that would be appointed to probe war crimes allegations.
Although Sri Lanka co-sponsored the 2015 resolution on this country at UNHRC soon after the regime change that year, it was abundantly clear to all that including foreign judges in any judicial mechanism that would be set up to probe war crimes would be sticky politically. This has become increasingly apparent with the passage of time. The president was quoted yesterday telling the executive committee of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party that he was firm in his resolve to reject the foreign judge proposal made at UNHRC. The prime minister said this was not politically feasible – a point of view that nobody in his proper senses would disagree with.
Buying time is one thing, but getting on with what needs to be done is an entirely different matter. Sirisena won the last presidential election with the substantial backing of the country’s Tamils. While they, like the rest of the people, are less than satisfied by the pace and quantum of delivery on expectations that led to the former president’s defeat, the primary concern of the vast majority are issues related to livelihood and the restoration of normalcy in Tamil majority areas. Other than perhaps those who have lost loved ones to war crimes at the hands of both the security forces and the LTTE who would desire primacy for impartial investigations, the majority will be more concerned about rice and pol sambol issues.
It is clear that investigation of LTTE war crimes would serve no purpose as there will be nobody to be held to account; it is another matter where government forces are concerned. While the UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad All Hussein’s report to UNHRC, which has won the acclamation of the TNA, was critical about the state of play here, it was not blatantly aggressive and also noted some positive developments. But many of the speeches made by previously hostile western nations tilted towards the need to give us more time. Zeid himself acknowledged that contending factors in the political equation did not make it easy for the Sri Lanka government to achieve some of its targets. An appeal signed by as many as 11 TNA MPs urged that granting more time to Sri Lanka to implement the 2015 resolution would embolden it “to commit human rights abuses against Tamils,” had clearly not found resonance in Geneva. After all, a letter Mr. Sampathan wrote President Sirisena last week acknowledged much positive progress in resolving issues faced by Tamils in the war-wracked areas.
The fact that the war is over has obviously meant that human rights abuses, not only in Tamil majority areas but countrywide, are today a fraction of what they were when the guns were booming. The white van culture is no longer existent. The cases that now come up are mostly police excesses that have existed for as long as memory holds and these are not directed against this or that community. The government’s claim that judicial independence has been restored, with both the new chief justice and his predecessor who was a Tamil, appointed on the basis of seniority, has won credibility both at home and abroad. The president’s recent revelation of two conversations he had with the chief justice in office at the time he was elected is a pointer to the state of affairs prevailing then. These events had been widely hinted at soon after the restoration of Mrs. Shirani Bandaranayake to the position she was summarily removed from. But this was the first time the story, which has not been denied, came ‘straight from the horses mouth’, so to speak.
There will always be a constituency that will favor, nay push for, the participation of foreign judges in any war crimes investigations. But public opinion is overwhelmingly of the view that the process must be purely domestic. Given the propaganda from overseas unleashed on the forces when the war was being fought, this view is inevitable. With the credibility of our own judiciary today far greater than what it was at the time the demand for foreign judges was originally made, and the goodwill the country enjoys today in the wider world, the odds are better than even that irresistible pressure would not be applied on us on this score by our foreign friends.
While the country at large overwhelmingly applauds the security forces for its heroic role in overcoming at great cost a deadly terrorist foe, it does not in any way countenance war crimes by or witch hunts against the security forces. No wars are fought in accordance with Queensberry rules; and we cannot claim that ours was otherwise. Both the victims and the wider world must feel that serious allegations that have been made must are impartially investigated and those responsible held to account. Our judiciary does not lack the ability to do that and turning to foreign judges, as the UN did with its Darusman ‘expert panel,’ can only mean unnecessary complications.
Meanwhile there is a lot the government can do for the war-affected people that remains undone. While UNHRC has noted some favorable movement in this area, slow progress and a lack of commitment on a war crimes court was expressed in Geneva. Whether this would be reflected in the resolution that would be finally adopted is not yet known. But it was reported yesterday that the first draft of the resolution gives us a two-year extension. That is all to the good; but even if the outcome is favorable, it is time now that we come to serious grips with outstanding matters.