The eventual outcome at the ongoing sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva will be critical for Sri Lanka in terms of international implications and for its image as a progressive democracy but there is also likely to be a domestic political fallout as a result.
Colombo’s emissaries are currently engaged in frantic bouts of diplomacy in Geneva, hoping to dilute a United States sponsored resolution on alleged war crimes that was expected to be favorable to Sri Lanka but turned out to be quite contentious in the wake of pressure exerted by the European Union.
The latest reports suggest that Colombo has agreed to support a resolution where there will be a ‘Sri Lankan judicial mechanism that will include local, foreign and Commonwealth judges and lawyers’. In Colombo, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka will co-sponsor the resolution.
The impetus for the anti-Sri Lankan stance came from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Al Hussain, who in his remarks to the UNHRC urged the setting up of a ‘hybrid’ inquiry incorporating international judges into alleged war crimes during the final stages of the Eelam war.
Colombo reacted strongly to this suggestion. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe told Parliament that the government would agree only to a domestic probe. However, whether there would be any international participants – and what the implications of that would be – is presently being discussed.
Already, the likes of Wimal Weerawansa of the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna and Dinesh Gunewardena of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna have accused the government of ‘selling out’ to the Eelamist lobby by choosing to co-operate with the UNHRC and the United States resolution.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa added his voice to this earlier in the week when he called upon the government to reject the report submitted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). That was the strategy the Rajapaksa government adopted when it was in office.
Judging from this initial reaction to the call for a ‘hybrid’ inquiry, it is clear that the issue has strong domestic political connotations, more so in the aftermath of a general election where the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance took a beating after ten years in office under Rajapaksa.
Even during the general election campaign, Rajapaksa loyalists were not hesitant to pander to nationalist sentiments and this would be an opportunity to bash the United National Party led ‘national’ government that they would relish. The significance of this lies in its political value.
Any inquiry that would incorporate international prosecutors or judges would most likely need a constitutional amendment as current provisions in Sri Lanka’s Constitution does not provide for this. Any such amendment, in turn, would require a two thirds majority in the new Parliament.
While the so-called ‘national’ government has a two-thirds majority on paper, it is no secret that it also includes many persons who are Rajapaksa loyalists who have been pacified with ministerial or deputy ministerial position. Therefore, the government’s two-thirds majority is tenuous, at best.
If the matter comes to a vote in Parliament on an issue as emotive as protecting war heroes who risked their lives to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and end the Eelam war, there is every possibility that the government will not be able to muster the numbers for a two-thirds majority.
Also, any such move can provide the impetus for Rajapaksa to regroup with his close allies and stage yet another leadership bid, at least within the UPFA parliamentary group, if not within the UPFA itself. Any anti-western sentiment generated by an international inquiry will only help such a move.
That is one of the reasons why the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is seeking a domestic mechanism to probe any alleged human rights abuses during the last stages of the war. It is aware that it must please the local electorate first before it can placate the international community.
On the other hand, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been relatively muted in its call for an international inquiry although some within the Alliance such as Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran have been uncompromising in their call for such a probe. That too is with reason.
The leadership of the TNA feels that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is the best option for the Tamil community to redress their grievances and extract generous concessions while at the same time resolving the vexed question of war time atrocities. They do not wish to forego that chance.
With Rajapaksa now being called to testify at a public inquiry into the use of a state television network for his election campaign, his loyalists will be keen to portray him as hero rather than villain. The emerging resolution in Geneva may provide them with the chance to do just that.