Whether Sri Lanka cooperates or not – The UNHCR inquiry

fonseka_mahinda_gotabhayaWhether Sri Lanka cooperates or not, the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) mandated investigation into alleged human rights violations here, with a probable focus on the closing stages of the long war, will go forward. The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration will no doubt get parliamentary approval later this week for its non-cooperation strategy.

While parties like the TNA, who have made no secret of the fact that they support the UNHRC initiative, inspired in large measure by the Tamil diaspora in North America and Western Europe, will get pilloried by government MPs in the usual fashion. These tub-thumpers are seemingly oblivious to the fact that the notorious KP, the LTTE’s chief arms procurer and Prabhakaran’s self-proclaimed successor, is cocooned in the North with every comfort for reasons that have not yet been explained to the people. Also, Vinayagamoorthy Muralidaran alias Karuna Amman who once upon a time led the LTTE in the East when unspeakable atrocities were committed now sits in Parliament and is no less than a vice-president of the SLFP!

The UNP has after a long hibernation, with its leadership act anything but resolved and Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe firmly glued to his seat, has in an unusually strong statement issued on Friday accused the government of responsibility for this situation of external scrutiny of the country’s internal affairs. But it has called upon the government to cooperate with UNHRC saying that the mandate of the investigation includes Tiger crimes and these, at least, should be presented to whoever will conduct the inquiry.

The JVP has set the cat among the pigeons, or as one newspaper headline had it yesterday “called the government’s bluff’’ in taking this matter to Parliament by submitting an amendment to the government resolution. This calls for, among other things, the conducting of a credible and impartial domestic inquiry into a long list of incidents, both recent and distant, such as the Rathupaswala shooting, the killing of a Katunayake FTZ worker, a Chilaw fisherman, several custodial deaths and attacks on journalists over the past several years.

The Marxist party that is doing much of the work that is really the UNP’s, wants the report on this investigation, if conducted, presented to Parliament within three months. These, no less than the government’s action to consult Parliament, are obviously moves on the political chessboard. Indications are that the situation is growing nuttier and fruitier by the day as it often happens in this democratic, socialist republic of ours. Unfortunately these events are not mere laughing matters.

We are all familiar with the ridiculous `zero casualties’ claim at the time the war ended and the 13+ promises airily made. But it is an iron-clad fact that President Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, deserves the nation’s unequivocal gratitude for liquidating the LTTE monster after nearly three decades of civil war that cost this country thousands of soldiers killed and maimed, children orphaned and the lives of countless other innocents brutally snuffed out by the mindless terror acknowledged even by the ranks of Tuscany.

We also owe much to General Sarath Fonseka who led the military and his troops, many of whom paid the ultimate price. No Lankan of whatever political persuasion can countenance external interference in our domestic affairs, especially at the behest of those Western powers behind the UNHRC putsch whose recent conduct in external theatres of war like Iraq and Afghanistan cannot bear examination.

Nevertheless the numbers were against us and now that the investigation will soon begin it is necessary to say that whatever circuses and sideshows that may be played out here or elsewhere, there are important obligations that lie on High Commissioner Navanetham Pillay in implementing the UNHRC resolution.

It is important that if the findings of whatever investigatory body that is appointed is acceptable to all reasonable people, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims here or members of the international community. Whatever conclusion that is reached should be based on due process and proven evidence and to ensure this, the Commissioner should conduct herself in an appropriate manner whatever the provocations of the past for some of which, like Mervyn Silva’s clowning when Ms. Pillay was here, the government is at least vicariously responsible. Among the principles that apply is that appointments to the investigatory body and officials assisting it should not be the sole prerogative of the present holder of office. The names of those conducting the inquiry should be made known in advance, before their appointment, so that members of the UNHRC and the Government of Sri Lanka can make their observations. Whether our government would choose to distance itself fully and keep totally mum even on such matters remains to be seen.

It is absolutely vital that the committee consists of independent personnel from outside the UN system, as the UN system and particularly UNHRC have been parties to this dispute, and the UN cannot be seen as an independent, impartial actor. The UN already has a viewpoint, as expressed in the Darussman Report and it is important that any new investigation should not be tainted by UN attitudes regarding that report. Already OHRC has been compelled to try to fend off what it called a “campaign of defamatory comments’’ (orchestrated by whom it has not been said) aimed at Sandra Beidas named as the senior coordinator appointed to run the probe.

Ms. Pillay should consider her own role in this matter very carefully. She has only a few more weeks and days in her current job and her successor has already been named. If not exactly a lame duck, she is somewhere close to it. Moreover, she herself has been a controversial figure in relation to Sri Lanka. So it is advisable that she leaves the decisions regarding the appointment of the committee to her successor. Also, it should be noted that what is being investigated is mainly the result of ethnic divisions. So it is proper to expect that the Commissioner, who belongs to one of these ethnic groups, and especially now that she is moving out of her current job, should not be party to the organization and appointment of the committee so that there are no suspicions regarding the credentials of the committee.

It is equally important that those appointed to the committee and officials connected to it do not belong to the various groups in Geneva, whether they are in the UN or outside. Two of those playing an active role in Geneva supporting the Tamil diaspora in its actions there are two former UN officials, both British nationals. One, a former speech writer and close confidante of Kofi Annan when he was Secretary General of the UN, is believed to be involved with the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva. The other is a former UN Resident Coordinator in south Africa during Annan’s time. These are all people with close contacts with UNHRC. Annan’s name too has been mentioned in connection with the inquiry and there are many good reasons why he should not be part of the process. A spokesman for Pillay’s office has said that contrary to “numerous speculative reports’’ in the Sri Lankan media OHCR is still in discussion with a number of possible senior experts to ascertain their availability and interest and no one has yet been officially appointed. Given that those selected will meet for the first time in July, the clock is ticking.