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Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

by Anuradha Chenoy, 6 February 2013

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The New Indian Express - 6 February 2013

by Anuradha Mitra Chenoy

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will have its annual review in March. Many countries are likely to face the review of their internal rights situations. The United States has taken the decision to place a procedural resolution against Sri Lanka on the situation of Tamils, post the conflict. The country had after all faced 37 years of ethnic conflict and bloodshed. The end of the war was particularly gruesome since many civilians and surrendering militia were allegedly killed and women raped. Instead of using their victory to reassure and reconcile with the Tamil ethnic minorities, the Sri Lankan government pursues triumphalism and is increasingly intolerant towards any dissent. President Rajapaksa’s latest volte face is his statement that the Tamils will not get autonomy. Will India support the US resolution or will it give in to Sri Lankan pressure that the international community continue to be blind to its impunity to its forces; oppressions against their ethnic minorities and political dissenters?

The US-sponsored resolution is a follow-up on the resolution passed last year in the UNHRC, which had stated that Sri Lanka should implement the suggestion made by their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on moving towards power-sharing with the Tamils and for prosecution of soldiers guilty of misconduct. The Sri Lankan government however continues to fail on both counts.

Sri Lanka’s continued obduracy on the ethnic question continues to manifest itself in its political and governance structures and practices. The most recent being the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Despite the Supreme Court showing this action was illegal and went against the Sri Lankan Constitution Bandaranayake was impeached. Human rights activists argued that this was an assault on an independent judiciary and revealed the authoritarian nature of the Rajapaksa government. This impeachment has added to the resolve of the US and others in the 23 -member UNHRC.

Colombo has further exhibited its intolerance of any international scrutiny by debarring the three-member team nominated by the prestigious International Bar Association, headed by the very eminent Justice J S Verma, from entering Sri Lanka on February 3 by citing technical grounds. This team was to look into war crimes where Sri Lanka is accused of killing 40,000 civilians, something that Sri Lanka would like to wish away.

The Sri Lankan government’s international legitimacy is in tatters as it continues with majoritarian and militarised policies where human rights defenders, especially women dissenters, journalists and critics have been labelled as anti-national. This government expands its base primarily through a system of client-patron relations with a small elite and a large Cabinet of 97, where ministries are being doled out by the dozen. Sri Lanka had used the war to curb civil rights, but the end of the war has not shown any significant improvement in the rights situation as the regime is insisting on a forced integration as opposed to a system based on power sharing through provincial autonomy or some kind of federal set-up within the sovereign state of Sri Lanka.

In these circumstances, what will be India’s position? Last year India had played both sides by supporting the US position but also helping out Sri Lanka by having the resolution diluted. Rajapaksa’s latest U-turn on Tamil autonomy, his de-barring of the panel led by Justice Verma, his refusal to implement the LLRC, his militarisation of the Indian Ocean region, is surely being watched by India.

Of course, the Rajapaksa government will turn to its favourite balancing act. It will pose the China factor and initiate concessions for China so as to put pressure on India, especially on its realist geo-strategists who will argue that New Delhi has to support Colombo and its misdeeds because of Indian interests. On the other hand, there will also be huge amount of pressure from Tamil people, political parties and our own human rights activists that India take a principled position that adheres to the Geneva Convention and support a resolution that only reinforces what has been already stated in the UNHRC last year and by innumerable rights bodies.

Also, India might try and do its own balancing act — support the resolution and then dole out some assistance, military or other to the Sri Lankan government as well as some humanitarian assistance, to keep all sides happy. There are many issues involved. India must take clear positions on international laws, especially related to actions in internal conflicts and related to human rights. The Indian Constitution is a supporter of human rights. There is no reason why our foreign policy should not be so.

If we find that countries like the US have double standards in censoring some states for human rights violations while maintaining silence on others, we should say so openly, rather than adopt the same tactics ourselves. Moreover, our fear of China and theories like Chinese gaining military bases around the Indian Ocean should be seen in a balanced perspective without enlarging threat perceptions. Indian Naval facilities are strong enough. Moreover our competition with China is better contained through negotiations rather than planned wars that set back these two major countries of the south.

In this context, we should also pay attention to Justice Verma’s earlier recommendations, supported by the Indian Society of International Law that argue that India also should sign the Additional Protocols I and II of the Geneva Convention on Non-International Conflicts. This will strengthen the normative positions we take in the increasingly collective international political system.

India will show itself to be a long-term friend of all the people of Sri Lanka if its supports the new resolution on Sri Lanka in the UNHRC. The Rajapaksa government is not doing a favour to its own people through such policies. India should put all kind of pressure that Sri Lanka take the path of peace, justice and real democracy, none of which can survive without the other.

Anuradha Mitra Chenoy is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

E-mail: amchenoy at mail.jnu.ac.in

P.S.

The above article from The New Indian Express is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.